SubScribe: Another sad week at The Times Google+

Thursday 13 June 2013

Another sad week at The Times

The fear comes first. Then the relief. Then finally, exhaustion and resignation.

And that's for the survivors.

For the victims the fear is followed by shock, self-doubt, anger, nausea, tears.

My heart goes out to former colleagues on The Times as they find themselves mired in yet another round of job cuts - the third in three years, not counting adhoc voluntaries and early retirements along the way.

The latest round seems to have followed a pattern set in 2010 when James Harding summoned staff to a shabbily carpeted 'presentation suite' up several flights of metal fire-escape stairs in Pennington Street. With managing editor Anoushka Healy at his side, Harding announced that 50 jobs were to go to stem 'unsustainable' losses, and that staff had a few weeks to apply to join the 'voluntary leavers' scheme. In the end about 60 left, including 20 who were given no choice in the matter.

The scene was re-enacted in 2011, but this time in the smarter environment of the 13th floor of 3 Thomas More Square. The surroundings might have looked better than the previous year, but the leading actors looked decidedly worse. The suave Harding was close to tears; the glamorous Healy appeared exhausted. Again staff were told that losses could not continue. This time 100 jobs would be going, with casual sub-editors at the top of the list. The subbing operations would have to be reorganised to cope with the fallout and there would be a three-month consultation period on how this would be achieved. Three months later to the day the plan put forward for 'consultation' was enacted and the victims were out of the door, many of whom had no wish to leave.

A few floors down, John Witherow had delivered a similar message to his team on The Sunday Times. Twenty jobs would go, but there was no invitation for people to put up their hands; these would all be compulsory redundancies. Interesting, given that at least some personal contracts stipulated 'there will be no compulsory redundancy'.

And so here we are again. On Monday Witherow, now The Times's temporary acting editor, called staff to the 13th floor and, accompanied by new managing editor Craig Tregurtha, spoke of unsustainable losses. Twenty journalists would go, all, it is said,  handpicked by the editor himself. The pill was, however, sweetened by the news that there would be no merging of the two titles.

It seems that this time the execution order has gone out on some of the most long-serving and highly paid journalists: columnists, leader writers, feature writers, award-winning specialists. Some of the names mentioned - true stars in their fields - beggar belief.

In a particularly callous sideshow, five sports writers were hauled in front of the firing squad to be told that one of them would be shot 48 hours later. The graduate trainees, the lowest paid of all and thus a huge saving to the company, were subjected to the same treatment

Times are hard for everyone and there are plenty of people in all industries who have had to reapply for their jobs in competition with the chap at the next desk - as happened today at the University of Liverpool. I know several people who have gone through this procedure two or three times in the past few years.

So those who still have a berth at The Times should be grateful? Any job is better than no job when you have a family to feed, children to educate. Gone are the days of the redundancy window when a good operator  could pick up a five-figure payoff on Friday and start work with a rival on Monday. Yes, those days really did exist.

Now it is heads down and get on with the extra workload, with ever fewer people to produce a quality paper across ever-expanding platforms. And as that workload increases, so does sickness, which puts yet another burden on those who remain.

All of that would be enough to cope with, but the constant reorganisations add to the stress. Ask those working in education or the health service. Jobs are redefined, titles changed.

The impending changes at The Times will once again affect the subs. The backbench is to be revamped - well perhaps a better word would be abolished ; newsdesks are to take greater responsibility for the structure and positioning of stories and the quality of the copy. So designers will draw pages, news editors will fill the holes - and subs will be allowed 'to concentrate' on headline writing. Which probably translates as 'shovel it through as fast as possible' for print, web, tablet, smartphone, android and whatever new invention Apple comes up with next week. (Well at least until new cross-platform software is introduced in the autumn after which we can expect to hear of a further purge).

John Witherow Photograph: Press Gazette

When the Independent was launched in 1986 there was a belief that subs were unnecessary. That attitude soon changed. When Will Lewis reworked the Telegraph he, too, wanted to get rid of subs. Roy Greenslade has written that they are not needed any more. David Montgomery is of the same view and he is putting that into effect this very week in Grimsby, where 'journalist' and 'production' roles are to be combined.

The move was inevitable, given his recent pronouncements, but when did subs stop being journalists? And why do executives everywhere now refer to them as the production department? The production department was the place where the type was made and put into pages, whether in hot metal or bits of sticky paper, and later the area from which  pages were checked and sent electronically to the printers.

Now the phrase refers to the subs. They are no longer thinking, talented journalists, masters of language, mistresses of design,  but 'producers', conveyor-belt handlers of copy, fit only to write a Google-friendly heading and to do the bidding of whoever happens to be sitting on the newsdesk. Never mind how experienced the sub or how green the news editor.

Traditionally, the news editor would commission a story and when the reporter had finished writing, the copy  would go to a copytaster and from there to the chief sub, backbench or night editor. All of these would have an opinion on whether the story worked and a judgment would be made, on the basis of reading the copy, on where to place it.  There would be consultation and there would be more than one point of view in the debate.

Now there will be one agenda. The newsdesk that starts the ball rolling will also decide where stories go, approve the pictures and headlines and see off the finished pages. Just as the person tasked with reorganising the subbing operation  in 2011 was also responsible for the 'consultation' exercise, the rejection of all alternatives and the final implementation of his own plan.

Good luck to any sub, however senior, who dares to put a head above the parapet to raise a question - let alone ask why Prince William's dash of Indian blood is regarded as a suitable splash or, indeed, why a naked woman is the best way to illustrate the business front. As the former night editor David Ruddock was fond of saying: 'Newspapers are not a democracy.'

Just to emphasise the disdain with which the subs are regarded, all titles have been withdrawn and downgraded.

How will quality control be maintained? The news editors will polish copy so that it is sent through 'clean'. Isn't that what's supposed to be happening now? Well yes, but they can't keep up. So with the best will in the world, how will half a dozen folk on the newsdesk do a better job than the team of experts being discarded - especially with their additional responsibilities for pages?

No problem. The reporters are going to be told to learn the style book. Well that's all right then. It's good to know that the subs will be spared having to change 'over' into 'more than'. It might also be an idea to give some reporters spelling lessons - and for others to be taught to count.

Is Witherow following a personal philosophy with this regime? Maybe he has a distrust of subs, perhaps someone distorted his copy or cut it more than he'd have liked when he was a reporter. For while these changes coincide with the job cuts, they do not seem to spring from economies that have hit writers hardest. Maybe it's instructive to look at his explanation for the retreat on merging the titles: 'It is important as much for commercial reasons as editorial that we keep the characters of the papers separate and this requires different staff in several areas.'

In several areas. Not in all areas. Why not end the sentence at the word 'separate'? Or are the subs about to be turned into a seven-day, seven-night typing pool?

So these are sad days for The Times. It is picking up the bill for the phone-hacking scandal;  the scandal that closed the News of the World in 2011 and cost 180 people their jobs. Funnily enough, that is the number of people who have lost their jobs at The Times since 2010. Some of the NoW staff are meanwhile back working for News International on The Sun.

Here are some official figures to chew over:

In 2008-09 The Times lost £87.7 million
In 2009-10 The Times lost £45 million
In 2010-11 The Times lost £11.8 million
In 2011-12 The Times lost £28.7 million - of which £12.7 million was down to the redundancy programme.

Yes the figures are gloomy, and no, the paper can no longer look to Fox and BSkyB to bail it out with the imminent demerger of the business. But it didn't have Fox or Sky to bankroll it when Murdoch first bought the paper. It has always lost money and for decades has depended on The Sunday Times and The Sun.

So why the harsh approach now?

News Corp shares were worth just under $18 at the height of the phone-hacking/BSkyB deal horrors of July 2011. Under pressure from shareholders, the company agreed to split into two businesses - entertainment and publishing. Today, after a month of decline, the shares stand at around $30. It's not hard to guess which directions the new Fox and News Corp stock will take when trading starts on Wednesday.

Twenty job cuts on one paper are unlikely to do much to buoy up the publishing arm's share price. But twenty here, a dozen there, a few more in Australia might help a bit. Times journalists who asked for redundancy figures in previous rounds are apparently being told that if they would like to go there would be a package there for them.

So, too, are staff on the Wall Street Journal. One writer reports that he was telephoned out of the blue by his bureau chief and asked if he was interested in a 'buyout', even though there was no general redundancy offer open to all staff. The Wall Street Journal is run by the former Times editor and News Corp chief-elect Robert Thomson, who has promised 'relentless cost-cutting'. And at his side is one Anoushka Healy.

But maybe the changes in Wapping may have nothing to do with the separation of the Murdoch empire - nor even the separation of Murdoch and his wife - and everything to do with the future of The Times itself.

You can buy a copy of the paper today for £1. How long before that quid buys the whole business?

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. John Witherow will be enjoying this.
    Bully. Bastard.
    Such a nasty piece of work.

    (Note to lawyer: Witherow won't take objection to any of these descriptions. He'll take them as a compliment. He's proud to be a bullying bastard.)