Closing offices threatens those who are the future of journalism

THE feeling of bewilderment I can still remember vividly.

A harassed looking reporter had come down to reception at Thomson House to greet me on my first day of work experience at the South Wales Echo, circa 1995. Up the steps we went, through the double doors, turned right, walked past the library hutch and then….

Given it was still only 8.30am I was expecting to see office life unfolding as I’d always imagined it would at what, to a recent university graduate, was still something of an ungodly hour. You know, a few early arrivals hanging up coats, computer screens still largely black, blinds flapping at an ajar window, kettle boiling. In short, the sights and sounds of a workplace wearily cranking into gear.

Poor naive fool. I can only equate crossing the threshold into the newsroom to walking off an aeroplane on arrival at a tropical destination, the blast of heat symbolising the level of activity across crammed desks buckling under the weight of stored newspaper copies and stained tea cups.

What a buzz. You had designers shouting for ‘a string of nibs for page 12’ mixed with journalists frantically trying to gather information by telephone to meet the 9.30am ‘off-slate’ deadline. Everywhere you looked there were correspondents punching away at keyboards with facial expressions that suggested they were actually trying to decode an explosive device about to blow up half of Cardiff (now that would have been a story!)

Immediately I felt like the sap on an army training exercise who oversleeps, misses breakfast and turns up on parade bumbling and dishevelled.

And yet without having even sat down, without having even exchanged awkward introductions with preoccupied hacks or desk bods already on their third coffee of the day, I had learned something.

This was how a newsroom functioned. This truly was work experience.

Work experience remains vital

A quarter of a century later and the Trinity Mirror title that gave me such a precious schooling in the realities of coalface journalism is now under the umbrella of a company – Reach plc – proposing to close dozens of newsrooms across the country, even after the Covid crisis is over, and to require just 25% of its workforce to be based in an office.

Reach will divide its human resources three ways; those who will work permanently from home (primarily production staff), those who will divide their time roughly 50-50 between home and the office (journalists predominantly) and a few hardy souls (telesales for example) who will still need to commute every day.

The company points to a staff survey which reveals many are perfectly happy with the arrangement, and the few ex-colleagues I have spoken with seem to be on board too.

Reach is keeping open office ‘hubs’ in most of the larger cities where it has a presence. The Media Wales HQ at Six Park Street in central Cardiff – Media Wales now occupies just one of the building’s six floors – is being kept open.

But while investment will be needed to facilitate a formalised remote working environment, the opportunity to slash the costs associated with high street site occupancy is the overwhelming attraction for the UK’s largest publisher.

It has not been difficult to see this coming. In terms of working from home the pandemic forced upon us a situation that in ordinary times was looked upon by many company strategists as unnecessarily radical. So now we know it works, those once skeptical have asked, why go back?

Media wales in central Cardiff

The economic case is as robust as it could possibly be. As far back as August last year a third of media organisations in one study were predicting revenue hits of more than 35%. By the time a post-Covid world genuinely becomes a reality, who knows by how much such projections may have worsened?

In an industry as much bedevilled by uncertainty as any, where Reach have led, others will surely follow.

Yet with all upheavals come winners and losers. While bean-counters high-five, journalism must protect its future – or die.

Like any industry it is nothing without a conveyor belt providing people able to do a wide cross-section of jobs, and do them brilliantly.

At University of South Wales, journalists of the future benefit from the expertise of practitioners and academics who can give them a grounding in core fundamentals through a variety of tailored courses and modules.

But if would-be employers demand students be ‘industry-ready’ by the time they graduate – and USW bases its approach on that very assumption – then there must be a recognition that industry itself has to continue to play its part.

The University of South Wales atrium in central Cardiff, where the journalism courses are based

Work placement modules are critical to our students, not just in honing skills and opening eyes to real world challenges but also to building confidence, developing contacts, instilling the highest standards and nurturing collegiate etiquette that can only come with being in people’s physical presence.

Remove the opportunity to spend time in an office, engaging face-to-face with journalists and members of the public, interacting with those in whose footsteps you wish to follow by sitting next to them and seeing at first hand how the job is done, and you strike a hammer blow for the personal and professional instruction youngsters absolutely must be given.

Striving for the best degree possible remains a fundamental staging post on the road to becoming a journalist, but in a fiercely competitive world meaningful work experience on a cv is as much a game-changer in an interview as ever it was. It’s a message, too, that is relentlessly conveyed to each and every USW cohort.

Already, in the last extraordinary year, finding high quality placements in the world of work for our students has become a significantly tougher task, with potential providers, treading water in a world of Zoom meetings, either reluctant or unable to offer anything they – or we – regard as suitably meaningful.

Are we therefore looking at a future that sees students shadowing journalists virtually, or even spending a day sitting alongside them in their converted lofts as they scour social media and dip into Google Hangouts? Is such a scenario even feasible or worthwhile? Do we even need to prepare the journalists of the future for environments that will cease to exist?

As things stand, such questions are almost imponderable.

Work experience, by definition, is something that is supposed to prepare you for the world of work. The South Wales Echo did just that for me 26 years ago.

If the confidence, the social skills, the industry insight, the contacts and the best practice I could only have picked up at Thomson House are one day no longer available, no longer even deemed necessary, then we’ll be entitled to ask: what has the world of journalism become?

End

2 Comments

  1. Hi Del.
    Thoroughly enjoyed your thought-provoking piece on home-working, the closure of offices and the decline of grassroots journalism.
    This is a piece on a similar theme I put together a little while ago simply for my own entertainment.
    It makes many of the points you did, although probably not as well.
    Regards – Mike Prosser.

    A PICTURE of the old Cynon Valley Leader office in Aberdare’s Commercial Street recently attracted a lot of comments on Facebook.
    Sadly, most of them focussed on how poor the paper’s coverage of local news is now compared to what it once was.
    Since the office closed, we no longer see, for instance, detailed coverage of local courts, councils or of issues and events that matter little at national level but are often important in the local context.
    The days when newlyweds or couples celebrating a golden wedding could expect to see their picture in the paper have gone.
    The fact that someone down the road is emigrating or looking for planning consent to build an extension no longer rates a mention, and don’t bother looking for coverage of your local football or rugby team.
    As a young reporter back in the Sixties, I remember it being said that no-one was officially dead until their obituary had appeared in the Leader.
    And the fear of seeing their name in the paper following a court appearance was a deterrent which helped keep some on the right side of the law.
    That was a time when papers like the Leader were an indispensable part of local communities and widely read, with healthy circulation figures. They were part of the fabric of towns like ours.
    Readers may have sometimes called them “the local rag”, but they did so with affection and looked forward to the Leader arriving through the letterbox each week, with copies often being posted to family overseas.
    But recent years have not been kind to the newspaper industry. What we’ve seen happening in the Cynon Valley in terms of news coverage has been replicated all over the country.
    People’s reading habits have changed dramatically, largely because of the internet and 24/7 TV news. Companies are increasingly putting more resource into online news coverage and less into print with the aim of boosting income from internet advertising.
    And now, newspapers which for years have been suffering falling sales have suffered further losses because of the coronavirus pandemic, which will be the final straw for some of them.
    So marked is the decline that the Audit Bureau of Circulations has decided that newspapers will no longer have their sales figures automatically published because of publishers’ concerns over a “negative narrative of decline” in sales.
    It is no secret that newspapers have been hit hard in terms of sales and advertising revenue, and that in turn has led to editorial resources being severely pruned.
    But the internet and TV are doing little to quench the thirst for local news reporting. A grassroots news vacuum has been allowed to develop, and once deprived of their local newspaper, towns surrender a little of their soul.
    Reporters and photographers are fewer in number. With the closure of offices like the one in Aberdare, the umbilical cord linking newspapers with their readers has been cut.
    Papers that were once local are becoming more regional, with too many of the few stories they do carry not even of specific local interest.
    Some papers have simply ceased to exist at all, and others will follow. For some, coronavirus will be another nail in the coffin.
    Reach plc, owners of the Leader, have laid off many editorial staff.
    Despite what I’m sure are the best efforts of the current Leader staff, there is a limit to what they can achieve without a local base from which to work and without being able to mingle with the rest of us on a daily basis.
    If you’re based in Cardiff, how often do you venture into Aberdare or Mountain Ash?
    The consequence is that places like the Cynon Valley no longer receive the close attention they once did. Inevitably, sales figures have plunged.
    A local newsagent told me weekly sales of the Leader have plummeted from over 300 to around 40. Once loyal readers tell me their exasperation is such that they no longer buy it.
    Towns like Aberdare and Mountain Ash are much the poorer because of this decline in coverage.
    People are less aware of what is happening in their own communities and less well informed about events and issues they should be told about.
    A recent news item in the Leader was there only because an alert reporter followed up a post I had put on Facebook.
    It’s no secret the newspaper business has been in long-term decline.
    I remember halcyon days when the Western Mail, still parading as “the national newspaper of Wales”, sold over 100,000 copies daily. It’s a fraction of that now.
    The question for many titles is not if but when the presses stop rolling. But should that happen to the Leader, there’ll be a lot fewer readers to mourn its passing than would once have been the case.
    As a retired journalist who started my reporting career on the Leader at the age of 16, I make these observations more in sadness than anything else.
    As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried not to drone on about “the good old days”, but sometimes the temptation is hard to resist.
    If, in years to come, people look at archived copies of the Leader to check on what was happening in the Cynon Valley of the 2020s, I fear their conclusion will be “not much”. Journalism “the first draft of history”? Not here!
    Even my own children, much to my chagrin, are content to get their news on screen rather than in print.
    My fear is that once newspapers like the Leader can no longer be produced at a profit, the plug will be pulled.
    I’d love to see papers like the Leader bounce back, making a meaningful contribution to the life of local communities, providing the grassroots coverage they once did and with their reporters and photographers living and working in the towns they are intended to serve.
    But, sadly, events at a national and indeed international level have conspired against them, and that’s not going to happen.
    The commercial reality is that that ship has sailed, taking with it a cherished era in grassroots journalism that appears to have been consigned to history. “Spiked”, as we used to say in the trade!

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