Sunday, September 09, 2012

Hold The Front Page

A small news item caught my attention this week; journalists working for Newsquest in Yorkshire are taking industrial action over the level of their pay.

Newsquest of course are the publishers of the Hendon Times Group of Newspapers amongst many other titles. As a company it is the product of a highly leveraged management buyout, in the 1990s, of the former Reed Group Newspapers financed by the well known US company KKR (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) who were well known prior to the recession for providing vast sums of cash to executives to often pay over the odds for established businesses most notoriously in the case of RJR Nabisco. There then followed a series of mergers, title swaps and aggressive acquisitions including the Westminster Press original owners of the Hendon Times series, that gave us roughly the Newsquest Group . 

Except in 1999 Newsquest was bought by the American Company Gannett media Group for the extraordinary inflated price in many peoples opinion of £922 million and additionally Gannett took on Newsquest's large debts. 

Further acquisitions continued including the well respected Richmond and Twickenham Times group of Newspapers bought from the Dimbleby family. Then along came the recession.

Newsquest like many other groups of local papers found their advertising revenue going through the floor and made dramatic job cuts, closed titles, changed papers from daily to weekly. It found it had a £65 million pound deficit on its staff pension scheme.

I was reflecting on this when I heard a slight flutter of my letter box and this weeks edition of the “Finchley and Hendon Times” drifted down on to my mat. I am indeed one of the apparently decreasing number of residents of Barnet that still receives this once august organ through my door albeit intermittently. Sadly the paper no longer arrives with a thud as its pagination has dramatically reduced in recent as advertisers desert it in droves for more effective forms of communication. Newsquest papers are not alone in racking up massive financial losses (although of course as a foreign owned private company they do not reveal detailed accounts), the once mighty “Hampstead and Highgate Express” now owned by Archant publishing have withdrawn from the industry wide Audit Bureau of Circulations and rumour has sells less than 3,000 copies a week and only attracts property advertising but they distribute free copies in St John’s Wood.  The Press Group (now privately owned by Sir Ray Tindle and his companies), which 40 years ago dominated local media and whose editor was often a household name in Barnet, is now an irrelevance received by fewer and fewer Barnet residents. When the Press Group journalists went on strike over pay some months ago I am not sure any of its readers noticed the difference. 

Sadly as the local papers profitability declined so did the quality of the “journalism”. Local Journalists came and went with such regularity that the Councillors had barely learnt their names before they quit, were sacked or simply made redundant. One began to get the feeling certain young ladies were hired for their assets which were not always above the neckline and others who barely had a GCSE in “media studies”.

Stories appeared on line with spelling mistakes and before any facts were checked. In one case involving me an incorrect story appeared reporting on a supposed incident third hand, long gone are the days when local journalists bother with any serious coverage of Council meetings. Most Councillors don’t return local journalists calls and even senior Councillors just leave it to the Council press office to explain an issue in words of one syllable in the vain hope that local journalists might just get the gist of an often complicated or potentially sensitive matter involving social services or childrens issues. Quite why the Hendon Times Group has felt the need to publish so many pictures of my 88 year old Mother I do not know, unless it is to encourage those individuals who aggressively swore at her in the street the other week or to make her more easily identifiable when she is on the bus to Sainsburys. (Note to editor if it is in order to intimidate me to stop further references to the Press Complaints Commission, it won’t work and if it is to intimate her, she did go through the Second World War………..

Occasionally an exited Barnet Council press officer will rush up excitedly and say “good news Councillor", “so and so is leaving from the local paper" only for them a few  weeks later to bemoan the fact that the replacement is even worse. 

Most hypocritically of all, editorials are published condemning the Council for cutting this or that in order to save the hard pressed taxpayers money and yet the “slash and burn” changes to pay and conditions undertaken by these journalists employers are far more severe than anything any public body has done. 

Increasingly householders have notices attached to the gate “no free papers, no pizza leaflets”, which just about sums up the state of our local papers
This week at St Brides, Fleet Street a memorial service takes place for Dennis Signey OBE, former Editor of the “Hendon Times“ ,distinguished sports journalist, huge figure in the community, friend and admirer of Lady Thatcher. Many in that congregation will be mourning the passing of decent, honest and truthful local journalism as well. 


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