Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

March 26, 2009

I had a quick Twitter debate this week with two associates regarding the Dagenham council ‘newspaper’ jobs and how I was outraged at the ridiculously high wages it was going to pay its ‘reporters’.

The 140 character limit of Twitter can make such debates tricky, and I don’t think I made my case clearly enough, so it’s a good job I have a blog, read by at least four people, where I can win such arguments (even if it’s in my own head).

As you may or may not be aware, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is launching The News, a “new fortnightly community newspaper”.

I can see nothing wrong with the council newsletters most local authorities put up, as they don’t pretend to be anything other than the council communicating its message (I’ve read so many press releases I’m starting to sound like a press officer here).

But this newspaper idea is very dangerous and will undoubtely be confusing for many readers.
A council spokesman said The News would be a newspaper concentrating “on community rather than hard news”. 
In other words it will still be a pro-council product which will carry only positive council stories, but it will be posing as a professional vehicle driven by journalists

If that’s not bad enough, The News will have a very damaging effect on exisiting local newspapers – if not put them out of business entirely.
Not only will the council pull some of its own advertising away from the local press (even without statutory advertising this could be several tens of thousands of pounds), but according to the Press Gazette, the paper will seek to be “self-financing by competing for advertising from the commercial market”. In other words it will actively look to steal advertisers from the Dagenham Post.

I saw an excellent comment on one story about this. The commenter made the analogy of you owning a sweetshop, and then the council opening a sweetshop next door using tax payers money to get started. The council sweetshop can continue to be subsidised by taxpayers money as long as it needs to, so it will have none of the risks of your sweetshop and can sell its sweets cheaper.
Your only hope of survival is that your strawberry bon-bons might taste a bit nicer as they wont have been pumped full of artificial chemicals. But will enough people notice that your lemon sherberts are better for you when they cost so much more?

Councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities. But this move is doing the exact opposite.
Not only will it potentially kill off an exisiting business, it will also seriously damage local democracy in the process because without the Dagenham Post, who is going to hold the politicians and bureacrats to account?
It certainly wont be The News.

Back to my original point – the salaries The News will be paying its staff.
It’s journalists will be paid between £29,223 to £31,353, its sub editor £30,591 – £33,081 and its deputy editor £33,081 – £35,841.

To put this into context – a trainee journalist on a regional paper can currently expect to earn £14,500 – £16,000. A newly qualified senior about £18,500 – £19,000.
I’m the editor of a weekly paper, and I’d be on parity (give or take a grand) with one of these council ‘journalists’.

So my question is, how can the council justify paying so much above the going market rate?

The obvious argument that most people (well, most journalists) will make is that actually the council is paying a fair wage and its newspapers who are the Scrooges.
And they’d be right. The knowledge and amount of work put in by the modern journalist is woefully rewarded. We’re being ripped off, we all know that.

But that argument can only be taken so far. My point is that these council journalists – who are actually going to be doing less indepth, less challenging jobs than the rest of us – will be rewarded far too richly with taxpayers money for essentially betraying their trade.

To steal an awful councilese phrase, the taxpayer is clearly not going to be getting ‘Best Value’ (and I wonder whether The News will be littered with such awful language).

The council could easily fill those jobs by paying ten grand a head less.
I guess one the reason they’re paying so much is that they are hoping to attract some quality journalists, and they know that such reporters will see through their dirty little agitprop rag but will be tempted by the filthy lucre.

I won’t resent anyone who takes up one of these posts as it’s hard to live on a reporter’s wage, but I won’t be able to respect them.

Advertisements

Two things MPs can do for journalism

March 19, 2009

I’ve just read Dan Mason’s blog regarding MPs debating the future of the regional press. He suggests three things that they can do to start. http://www.danmason.co.uk/?p=664

Some interesting ideas, and it’s inspired me to come up with a couple of my own.

1. Talk to actual journalists. My biggest fear is that the MPs will simply listen to the owners rather than those at the coalface.

During these dark times, journalists seem to be further away than ever from their employers and many believe the owners are the ones responsible for the dire state of the industry in the first place.

I do appreciate how important it is for papers to make money, but the need to keep shareholders happy with unsustainable margins has become much, much more important than the journalism itself.

Just look at one of the greatest issues being raised by the owners at the moment – the relaxation of rules on how much media they can own. They want bigger empires so they can make more money.

Journalists biggest desires is much simpler – they want enough resources to be able to do their jobs properly.

So if the MPs debate is about protecting journalism, talk to the journalists, not the businessmen.

2. Help journalists set up not-for-profit companies.

The changes to the way council housing stock was handled during the 90s, while not perfect, had an incredible effect on the lives of council tenants. Housing associations were given grants from the Government to get started, and most are now self-sustaining and making money. But this is done without profits being the main goal.

So why not a similar business model for newspapers?
The Government could give grants (or loans) to allow journalists to either set up their own not-for-profit papers, or to buy existing papers and turn them into not-for-profits.

Answerable to a trust of local, independent (non-political) individuals, such papers would need to make a certain amount each year to keep going, but the push for greater or unrealistic profits would not affect the quality of journalism.

Indeed, any profits could be reinvested in technology or more staff, and perhaps even in years of greater than expected profit, staff could be given bonuses (perhaps like the John Lewis partner system).

Oh well, one can but dream.


Two tier regulation

March 12, 2009

It’s been another turbulent week in the unhappy world of journalism with more job cuts, pay freezes, forced unpaid holidays, strikes and Roy Greenslade suggesting most “freesheets” “have little worthwhile editorial content”.

But for me the most important story has been the ongoing media select committee hearings in the House of Commons.

Evidence has been given by Gerry McCann, Robert Murat and Max Moseley about how the press – largely the national, tabloid press – have stepped way over the line.

Now, I have no sympathy for Moseley, but the treatment of the McCanns and Murat  was pretty horrendous.

There is an argument that as the McCanns courted the media, they deserved what they get. I really can’t subscribe to this point of view. Nobody deserves to have lies printed about them so regularly, especially not people who have been through such a harrowing time as they have.

Now it’s naive to suggest that journalists should be impartial and balanced at all times, but we really should insist that accuracy is non-negotiable.
Of course we’ll get things wrong and while not inexcusable, we will also be misled at times. But when stories get exaggerated, twisted and even completely fabricated just to sell papers, then the whole industry is brought into disrepute.

The purpose of the select committee is to look at regulation of the press. I used to favour self-regulation, but I just don’t think it’s working properly.

The worst offenders – the national tabloids – can easily afford the fines handed out to them. In fact calculations are often made on whether they’ll be able to make up for a libel fine with the extra sales they’ll put on.

There’s something extremely rotten about that, as is the fact that most nats set aside a budget for libel payouts. In effect they know in advance how much per year they’re willing to pay out for not telling the truth. Deliberatly printing something you know to be untrue should be the biggest sin in journalism. Sadly it seems to be actively encouraged at some papers.

Take Jade Goody at the moment – it doesn’t matter what it’s about, every tabloid paper wants a certain number of Jade stories a week. That sort of approach can only breed dodgy articles.

Self-regulation works a bit better for the regional press, if only because they simply can’t afford to take risks in these days with the rise of no-win, no-fee and the ridiculous rules on paying court costs.
It still makes little sense to me that the penalities for the Sun or Mirror could ever be on a par with those faced by the Battle Observer (circ 3,000). It’s like Chelsea being handed a £100,000 fine. We scoff at it as it has no impact. But if the likes of Luton Town are ordered to pay the same fee, it could bankrupt them.

I am worried about just how much press freedom would be curtailed by outside regulation, particularly if from the Government, but carrying on as we are simply isn’t an option.

So why not make it a two tier system?

Keep self-regulation in some form for the regionals – most are already behaving responsibly – but introduce a tougher watchdog for the national papers.
They have more resources, more money and a bigger audience. They should be setting the example, not lowering the trust in journalism.