Twenty-first century local news – professional career or latter-day sweatshop?

Since late 2014, journalists working locally for one of the bigger UK local-news companies have to file copy using the new ‘Knowledge’ software system, which means reporters are supposed to attach images, write captions and write a heading, at the same time as thinking up and writing the story itself.

Many don’t take the headline or caption seriously (they’re under pressure to write so many stories a day, let alone find the time to source good pics and dream up compelling headlines). This was originally the job of the sub-editor, so the temptation is to put disjointed words in the space for headings and captions leaving the sub-editor to finish off.

This “draft” approach to local journalism has become easier with the rise of the “central subbing hub”, where in local-news offices up and down the country large numbers of editing/sub-editing roles have moved away from the local region to a centralised office elsewhere. If your editor or sub-editor is not a person you even know, then he or she is just another faceless operative that you need not worry about …

“News” stories are checked locally by news editors and assistant news editors for sense, errors, etc. However they cannot be sub-edited locally; this work has to be carried out in the central subbing hub. In one example, a large office in Newport, Wales, this editing tends to be a 24/7 operation carried out by journalism students either still doing their one-year post-graduate journalism course, or recent graduates from the course. These beginner “editors” are given eight weeks of training before being let loose on the copy and told to write headlines and captions for each story.

For the company, the apparent justification is that these young journalism students can be paid as little as £14,000 pa, and with little or no job security can be sacked easily. Other advantages might of course include more centralised control of media opinion by a large company (which may be necessary when the parent company’s CEO is paid millions of dollars a year in salary compared to the skinflint wages paid to young UK reporters). And I thought Scrooge was a Victorian story!

A downslide (sic.) of this approach to local news is that the central “subbers” are not put to work on one newspaper alone, but could be subbing copy from Gwent, Wiltshire, Gloucester or Oxon papers in any one shift. With little or no local knowledge to add to their startup journalism skills, the potential for errors is very high. In my own career, I know of one (highly respected) Canadian journalist who had to be gently reminded that the Isle of Wight is a different place to the Isle of Man.

Another little-considered consequence is the death of career progression in local news. At one time a reporter could have hoped to move on to an editing job locally as his/her career progressed, thus maintaining local contacts as well as a stable family life. This, alas, is no longer the case. With the present rigid structure, young reporters recognise that there is no hope of career progression locally; the consequence of greater seniority is likely to be redundancy. The ambitious therefore keep their heads down, try to avoid controversy and hope to avoid management attention until they can gain a better-paid job in the national media.

Unfortunately, that once well-trod career path is now becoming overgrown as the national news industry shrinks – with some managers still chasing the idea that the internet and social media are the future. Whereas senior people in the industry had already noted by 2005 that income from print advertising was still the real sustainer of a newspaper’s bottom line.

Some companies are also, albeit often through igorance, steadily destroying the customer-base. In at least one case, the local newspaper has quietly shifted from being an evening publication (a position held for many years) to a morning one. Which means the “news” as such is no longer from the same day, but from the day before. When buying the paper at 6 pm means you’re reading yesterday’s news on the bus or train home, rather than today’s, why should you even bother? I think one of the real reasons for the rise of online news is the abandonment by the traditional media industry of some of its core news values. In such a way are reputations, and customer-bases, lost.

But still, back to our ‘Knowledge’ platform. My understanding is that it comes from the Far East, and shows on-screen the pages already laid out and preloaded with advertising, which I presume is also done centrally. I’m just wondering if that central page make-up and filling with advertising is carried out in Wales, or in the Far East also.

If the latter, then not only is the software outsourced to the Far East, but also the agency business of supplying the advertising and the design business of page make-up. Maybe these valuable people skills are being lost to further afield than we realise .. ?

© Philip Hunt, 2015.