Gareth Davies, until recently the Croydon Advertiser’s chief reporter, has today supplemented his Friday night Twitter outburst about the decline of the newspaper with a detailed essay which picks apart the decade-long disinvestment in local journalism, and journalists, by the title’s succession of owners. And he warns that the Advertiser is “probably beyond saving”.
Davies, who left the paper at the end of June, eight years after starting as a £14,500-a-year junior reporter, had begun his tweeting on Friday with a picture of a double-paged spread which had particularly earned his anger, comprising as it did of two clickbait “listicles”: “13 things you will know if you are a Southern rail passenger” and “9 things you didn’t know about Blockbuster”.
Davies’ public outburst attracted widespread attention, and even an invite from Kay Burley to appear on Sky News.
But it is instructive that, on one key allegation made by Davies, that reporters need to be certain that any article will deliver at least 1,000 views for the Advertiser‘s ad-heavy website, senior executives at Trinity Mirror first denied that such a rule exists (handily, Davies has a copy of the management’s own document which proves that it does), and then sought to justify the ruling.
In time-honoured management style, after that they started to try “rubbish” Davies, suggesting that he was not “up” for the pace of live blogging.
Trinity Mirror, the owners of the Daily and the Sunday Mirror, took over the Advertiser and other local titles last autumn. Writing on the independent Sub-Scribe journalism website run by former Times journalist Liz Gerard, Davies has today written an insider’s account of how a management restructure earlier this year, snazzily titled “Newsroom 3.1” and based on a digital-first strategy, quickly saw him make up his mind to leave the paper, even though he had no job to go to.
“On May 26 the new editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror South East, Ceri Gould, read out a short statement to staff at five papers – the Croydon Advertiser, Crawley News, East Grinstead Courier & Observer, Surrey Mirror and the Dorking Advertiser – announcing a restructure in preparation for the switch to Newsroom 3.1 … Everyone was told that their current job no longer existed and that if they wanted to continue to work for the company, they would have to apply for new roles. The announcement met with stunned silence…
“In a meeting later that day, reporters were told they would no longer have any role in putting together the newspapers they had worked for. Even the editor of the newly monikered ‘brand’ would only have an ‘input’ on pages one, three and five.
“Our sole focus would be on writing stories for the website and, as a result, we would have to go ‘cold turkey’ on the paper. A reporter, who has since left, asked whether we would still have the time to meet contacts. The newsroom, she was told, would become ‘much more like a daily paper’, meaning that reporters would be ‘tied to their desks’…
“I asked to leave because I believe Newsroom 3.1 is the beginning of the end of the Advertiser as a newspaper. I’ve seen the impact of similar changes at Newsquest papers in south London and want no part of it. I would have found it very difficult to have no input into something I had spent eight years of my life working on. Story quotas and judging reporters by web stats are barriers to producing good journalism, especially when imposed on understaffed and under-resourced papers. Taking voluntary redundancy allowed me to look after my young son but, even if that were not a factor, redundancy would have been my only choice.”
Davies provides a number of examples of how the mismanagement of his newspaper has seen it become ever more removed from the community it used to serve, and ever more removed from being a newspaper worth reading. The move of offices to Redhill, Davies says, has reduced the number of Croydon visitors to the newsroom to almost nil, while experienced journalists either went unreplaced or were succeeded by novices: when Ian Austen, who had been at the paper for more than 40 years, retired in 2015, he was replaced by two part-time trainees.
Davies also highlighted how the publishing strategy of using only material previously published on the website will see an end to the parish pump-style local notices which used to fill a column or two of the news pages: the announcements of church fetes, school fairs or car boot sales would never generate the required 1,000 web clicks, so would not feature online, and so won’t exist for a sub-editor in Trinity Mirror’s Chelmsford subbing hub to pull together as a column of news in brief.
Davies recounts how his redundancy meeting went: “I was assured that Newsroom 3.1 would provide opportunities for talented journalists, even those sceptical about its merits…
“At the end of the meeting I was told my request for redundancy would be accepted. The box explaining why read ‘personal reasons, disagrees with Newsroom 3.1, no appetite’.
“Three others in our group, including a news editor and a senior reporter with a combined experience of more than 20 years, also decided to leave. Only one had a job to go to. Three more journalists have left since then. That leaves six reporters, all trainees, to cover Croydon, Sussex and Surrey (rather than working for individual papers as they previously did), as well as far wider areas.”
It is abundantly clear that, as with most re-organisations at news groups over the past 15 years, at the heart of the changes at the Advertiser is cost-cutting and job cuts. Meanwhile Trinity Mirror’s share price rose yesterday on a “positive” annual report to The City.
At the Redhill-based Advertiser, things are so dire, Davies reports, that under a new shifts system, senior reporters are now earning less than the London Living Wage.
“Working in shifts with a reduced number of staff means that, once every six weeks or so, reporters will have to work 12 days in a row (including, for some, finishing at 10pm on a Friday ahead of an 8.30am weekend shift the next day). When reporters are on shift during the week and then at the weekend they will have worked 59.5 hours in seven days. The legal limit is an average of 48 hours over a period 17 weeks.
“One reporter has calculated that, under the new system, he will earn 50p less than the London Living Wage of £9.40 per hour.”
The whole gloomy picture is summarised by Davies when he says: “The Advertiser and the other papers in its newsgroup are far from the only newspapers trapped in this race to the bottom. Equally, Trinity Mirror is by no means the only publisher helping it along. It’s probably not even the worst offender.
“But what is happening at my former paper is indicative of a wider problem undermining local journalism – and by that I mean what it should be and not what it has become – to such an extent that it is probably beyond saving, at least in its traditional form.”
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