JP strike action: An aversion to change or a fight to save quality?

You can tell its a recession.

Strike action across the country suddenly seems to be as common as an opposition goal at Turf Moor, with BA cabin crew and rail workers vying for the title of Britain’s least popular.

But while the last 20 years has seen countless action taken by the likes of teachers, train drivers and postmen, there has not been a national strike among regional journalists.

It is exactly that prospect that now looms large over the management of Johnston Press. Recent months has seen an ever-increasing unease at the actions of chief executive John Fry and his Board with the main gripes centering around the new ATEX publishing system and staff cutbacks.

The company had seemed to have ridden any waves of discontent over the introduction of ATEX – which sees reporters writing directly to the page thus, in theory, negating the need for sub editors.

In December plans were announced to merge centralised sub hubs in Peterborough, Milton Keynes and Northampton into one area in Peterborough, putting 40 sub editor jobs at risk. At the time JP bosses said they hoped to redeploy all the affected staff in the Midlands division.

A statement from the company said: “We are discussing options with affected sub-editors including redeployment and transfer. There are currently sufficient redeployment opportunities in the division for all the affected sub-editing staff.”

In November a similar move to amalgamate subs from papers including the Mansfield Chad, Hucknall Despatch, Buxton Advertiser and Matlock Mercury to a centralised hub in Chesterfield, home of the Derbyshire Times, came with the promise that there would be no redundancies. Other hubs had previously been formed in Sunderland, the south Midlands, Lancashire, Doncaster and Northern Ireland.

But in recent weeks, perhaps due to the fact many of these promises have been broken or to threats of further cuts, staff have become increasingly resistant to the change.

At the beginning of March journalists at the Blackpool Gazette and Herald voted to take strike action over the introduction of ATEX. North of England NUJ organiser Chris Morley said staff were not convinced there wouldn’t be any redundancies.

He added: “We have seen what has happened elsewhere when Johnston Press attempted to implement its content management system without proper staff consultation. Rushed implementation has led to extra stress and additional workloads.”

Reporters also refused to participate in training on the new system, while members of 13 other NUJ Chapels in the midlands and north of England also threatened strike action.

On March 11 HoldtheFrontPage reported that subs at JP’s Scarborough office were being asked to relocate to a centralised hub 90 miles away in Sheffield.

By the middle of the month staff at the Sheffield Star and Scarborough Evening News were being balloted over action, while the Blackpool journalists were already working to rule.

And by the end of the month the Union had announced there will be a national ballot on the matter. It called ATEX the catalyst for action, but said the underlying problem was low staff numbers and poor pay.

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear said: “We are currently consulting with all our chapels across Johnston Press about which ones will take part. We are pretty confident almost all of them will.

“That would therefore mean hundreds of our members ranging from bigger places with around 120 members to smaller ones with 20 or 30. It will be a couple of weeks before the consultation starts.

“People are having to take on extra work or hours and with the system not doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s our feeling that many jobs are being cut with compromises on quality and compromises on the health and well being of staff.”

From Monday, the Blackpool journalists are to start  an indefinite period of work to rule, while those at Scarborough and Sheffield voted for strike action on Thursday.

And so you have it. Another group of disgruntled workers set to strike over pay and staffing. Draw your own parallels with BA and Network Rail.

But the situation at JP begs a vital question? Are staff merely upset at redundancies being announced in a recession or with a content system that aims to radically change the way newsrooms operate?

And if it’s the latter, does their anger come simply from the application of a progressive system that will mean staff numbers have to fall, or out of a genuine feeling that ATEX will ruin the quality of the company’s newspapers.

The Blog spoke to reporters in the company’s Midlands operation, where ATEX has been running since before Christmas.

There the system is described as clunky, slow and time-consuming. Most worryingly of all sources say by removing the traditional safety net of the sub editor and by relying on a ‘right first time’ mantra it increases the risks of literals and legal errors making it into the papers.

They added that the system has been plagued by pictures going missing and blowing up to fill boxes, repeated crashes and incorrect fonts being called into set shapes.

Indeed the situation has become so bad that three editors in the region has suffered long periods of illness since ATEX was introduced, while one sports editor was signed off with long-term stress.

All of this comes on top of basic concerns that a layout before text method creates featureless, dull papers in which stories and pictures are forced into unsuitable shapes, headlines are written by ‘amateurs’, editors are left guessing where to place tales before they know their full scope and junior reporters carry out final checks.

So can JP staff really be talking about the same system their management praised to the rafters?

An internal announcement to staff last September said: “The system will allow words, pictures, video and audio to be handled in one place and will improve newsgathering and content loading workflows.

“This investment in new editorial technology provides an excellent opportunity to improve the way content is gathered as well as meeting the needs of our readers and viewers. It will also remove a number of existing editorial workflow bottlenecks.”

And JP group IT director Roger Davies said: “We recognised that in order to improve the user experience and to ensure we can place the right story on the right platform, we needed an integrated system that was flexible enough to meet the needs of our individual divisions but also robust enough to support the work load of all our separate divisions in one enterprise solution.”

Bottlenecks, presumably, being sub editors.

As recently as last month Mr Fry told The Times that: “We’ll clearly need fewer sub-editors in the future,” while at the end of last year he explained his strategy to the same paper: “If you want 500 words, how about the reporter writing 500 words, rather than writing 1,000, and giving it to a second person to cut it?”

And his mantra clearly has some support. On an otherwise hostile HoldtheFrontPage comments section, a poster called ‘realist’ writes: ‘I’ve been around the block a few times and the hot metal pages on my first paper were nothing to write home about, my first attempts at casting off and then at full page make-up using Quark would make me blush now – every time there is a new system it takes some getting used to, but the show goes on.

‘The central theme from the defenders of the sub’s black art is that reporters are rubbish and can’t be trusted – they need someone in a grey cardigan picking over every word, or we will live to regret it. Rubbish. Reporters – with some honourable exceptions – need to get more professional, so that the next stage in the process is about monitoring and double-checking rather than doing re-writes from scratch.

‘Reporters who can’t marshall basic facts in a clear and concise way and communicate using decent English shouldn’t be in a job, it’s as simple as that. Subs have caused as many legals and other nasties – cock-ups in captions, anyone? – as reporters ever have, and in any case most smaller weeklies haven’t had dedicated subs for years.’

Whatever your view one thing seems certain: neither side seems prepared to budge. If national strike action does go ahead this could be a case of the proverbial unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

Interestingly a Google search for ATEX takes you to the Health and Safety Executive’s website, where you are told that ‘ATEX is the name commonly given to the framework for controlling explosive atmospheres’.

Persumably not the same system, but it seems its namesake is having entirely the opposite effect in the world of journalism.

State of Play: Whatever the outcome it seems unlikely to be good for the industry.

With thanks to HoldtheFrontPage and Press Gazette for much of the background information

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