death by a thousand (paper) cuts

Taimour Lay reports on the crisis in the print-media from a journalist’s perspective 

Most of you reading this article won’t be regular buyers of a newspaper. You might not have the time or the inclination. You might be rightly hacked off with the tabloids or fed up with the ideological biases of the broadsheets. You might think most papers most of the time won’t cover what you want in the way you want it. That’s probably why you picked up The Commune (plus, like Metro, we’re free.) Or you’re reading all you need online, including this paragraph…

In a spin: newspaper circulation is falling rapidly

For those of us who work in newspapers, it’s obvious we’re part of an industry in crisis. And it’s not just a slump, it’s an existential panic, a growing realisation that we’re the last generation who will have worked in print. A whole language and culture of work will go – the backbench, downtable, going off stone, the four-star, the slip, the runner, top and tailing – it will all be history, along with the final edition.

And none of us can blame you. I don’t even buy a newspaper anymore, so why I should expect anyone else to? This sense of being on a sinking ship affects how we fight (or don’t fight) job cuts and bad working practices in the industry. Without the hope we can survive long-term, people take the redundancies and the restructurings because the alternative – closure – isn’t just a fanciful management threat. Day to day over the last few years, whether you work in writing or production, we have all had our workloads intensified, in many cases doubled, alongside real-terms pay cuts and the ongoing casualisation of staff.

Changes in technology and social habits threaten workers in all sorts of industries, of course. But when the factory or the pit or the office closes, a worker can still usually see how it might have been different: the mistakes made by management, the profits wasted, the deliberate running-down of assets. In the 1980s, newspapers underwent major restructuring alongside the crushing of the unions, but the industry’s strength and relevance was never in doubt.

Now we feel more powerless: there’s no way print can survive because the Internet has proved, at least in this economy in this part of the world, transformative. We are in a dying industry and maybe we ‘deserve’ to go. When a manager says ‘our sales are down 30% on last year and only 66,000 people in the UK bought the edition yesterday’, what do you reply? Well, you might say that people would pay for a good paper that hadn’t been savaged by editorial cuts. But the Guardian’s experience suggests that isn’t necessarily the case. The future of paying for news will, if anything, be digital.

Could the online paper do all the things the printed word does now? Perhaps. But we still work for newspapers because we still love them: how they look off the presses, how we bring them together to deadline every night against the odds, in small teams where cooperation and solidarity and a collective ethic all make for a better paper, the sight of your team’s words in the newsagent the next morning, the sense that if you’re at places like the Independent or the Guardian you still feel proud of an institution (however flawed) that does some good, because investigative journalism and honest reportage are worthwhile and necessary.

And at other papers which have been eroded and corroded by cynical owners – the Mirror, the Express, News International’s titles – papers we often hate – the public seems to forget that real people are losing their jobs, that workers would love to be at better papers but the practices and aims of the trade have long been subverted.

When the latest round of job cuts hit at the end of 2011, newsrooms reacted in a kind of empty ritual of letters to management and the threat of strikes. There were even moments in ‘chapel’ (union) meetings where I felt like we were really going to fight back.

Don’t get me wrong: it helps to be unionised. Where the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has recognition, pay and conditions are better. There is more consultation. And journalists tend to communicate and cooperate (and strike) more. But neither the NUJ nor workers as a collective currently have the belief that we can stop the sackings. Demands remain limited: we try to increase the redundancy pay, for example. And strike action doesn’t mean shutting the paper down for the day – in December where I work, it was merely a 30-minute walk-out.

Newspapers no longer make money and therefore the economic fundamentals dictate that the drift to closure continues. And it won’t help to have a billionaire owner ‘subsiding’ you. My ‘boss’ is worth $3bn but he’s cutting as hard as the rest. It won’t even help if your paper actually makes money. ‘Free’ papers like Metro are posting profits in the millions by using the ‘editorial’ as cover for mass advertising to commuters. That hasn’t stopped a squeeze as shareholders seek a higher margin.

What’s the alternative? Trust ownership, like at the Guardian? Community newspapers on an entirely different model? An acceptance that online journalism is the future, with production and print jobs gone as a result? Would you mourn that loss? Maybe not, but we still feel the right to be sad and angry about it. Journalists identify with their work as a trade and a whole set of valuable social relations and skills are being cast aside. Our industry is dying in slow motion in a way that the workers who fought Rupert Murdoch at Wapping would never have been able to predict.


One thought on “death by a thousand (paper) cuts

  1. T’interweb will not kill ALL papers, and certainly not in the short term, but news gathering and dissemination does lend itself extraordinarily well to the online world, with search functions, updates, the ability to ‘share’ and links to other stories.
    The change will obviously have huge implications for (current) journalists but, arguably, the impact may be greater on a) local democracy and accountability where local papers are so important, and b) on how societies more widely (the UK is a perfect example) form their shared opinions and desires (e.g. it was “the Sun wot won it” – could leading the herd in this way happen without the printed version?)


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