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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Pressing problems

by New Worker correspondent

IT REMAINS to be seen what long-term impact the present lockdown has on the economy and jobs. Some sectors of the economy will probably recover fairly speedily with weaker businesses going to the wall. The hospitality trade will doubtless see pubs and restaurants bounce back once they have cleaned out their beer pipes and disposed of hastily abandoned food. It is unlikely that the ending of the present crisis will inspire a revival of the temperance movement. It will be interesting to see if the outrage at the boss of Wetherspoons sacking his staff actually translates into a boycott when the pubs reopen and the attraction of a cheap pint looms.

The outlook for the retail sector is more uncertain, many shops will never reopen as online retailers strengthen their grip. Another sector facing an equally uncertain future is the newspaper press.

For decades, newspapers of all political hues of both the ‘popular’ and self-styled ‘quality’ variety, national, regional and local, have seen drastic declines in circulation. Most of this is due to the internet, which not only speedily supplies at least the headlines for free it has also taken away much of the advertising revenue that subsidised all but the largest selling printed newspapers. The acres of job and car adverts that sustained many papers have vanished into cyberspace.

As a result staffing has plummeted with many reducing the numbers of journalists. Many local papers do not even have a dedicated editor or an office in the town they serve, editors supervise several papers, and journalists are reduced to cutting and pasting press releases, and subbing is now at regional centres with printing largely contracted out. Professional press photographers are a vanishing species as everyone and their dog now has a high quality camera in their phone. The owners are almost invariably multinationals interested in nothing but the bottom line, so they will not be too distressed about long-running titles not coming back to life if they are not profitable enough. For them, a local office is simply another asset to be disposed of if the price is right.

The present shut-down means that there is no sport to fill the back pages, no theatrical performances to advertise or write about. Print-runs have been cut and pagination reduced. Many publications have become online only, how many will return in printed form is questionable. Most shops from which to pick up a paper are closed so circulations are plummeting.

According to the trade publication Press Gazette, more than 2,000 staff in 500 publications across the UK’s national and regional press have temporarily lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of the more those put on paid leave so far are non-editorial workers as the demand for actual news has increased. ‘Enders Analysis’ thinks that 5,000 print journalists could lose their jobs without state subsidies however. Things will be even bleaker for the large number of freelancers without a formal employer or regular contract.

At Reach, which publishes the Express and Mirror titles, 940 of its 4,658 staff have been furloughed whilst staff who remain are having their wages cut by 10 per cent, rising to 20 per cent for senior managers and senior editorial staff as well as the board, not that the latter would notice. At the time of writing this has not affected Rupert Murdoch’s workers at News UK, most of whom are working from home, but they have been asked to volunteer for unpaid leave or to reduce their working hours and instructed to take a third of their remaining annual leave, plus two days, before the end of June this year.

London’s Evening Standard has seen higher cuts after a fall in circulation from 800,000 to 500,000, resulting in staff either being furloughed or facing 20 per cent salary cuts. Similar tales come from the Telegraph and Guardian groups.

Workers at regional and local chains Archant and JPI Media have put furloughed about 10 per cent of their staff, the only journalists affected are those covering sport. The South London Press has furloughed half of its dozen staff and taken a leaf out of the New Worker’s book by setting up a fighting fund to compensate for the lack of advertising.

Speaking for the Scottish Newspaper Society, John McLellan said: “Historic titles which have been a bedrock of their communities, some for over 200 years, are facing collapse by the end of the month unless the Scottish Government steps in to help. This is not scaremongering but the reality facing Scotland’s local press and hundreds of jobs are at risk.” He deplored the fact that the Scottish National Party (SNP) Government has not given a rates holiday to news organisations and has been spending all its money on Google and Facebook rather than the local press.

A similar situation is occurring in the magazine field. Their trade body, the Professional Publishers’ Association, expects advertising revenues to drop by an average of 60 per cent in the next quarter, ranging between 20–95 per cent per publisher. Across the next year, a drop of 40 per cent year-on-year is expected.

Although the loss of some right-wing publications from the newsagents would be no great loss, their websites would live on. The passing of local papers, on the other hand, would be a serious matter because they are needed to keep an eye on councillors who hand out contracts to their mates at the lodge or secure jobs for their half-witted relatives. There has been an increase in online subscriptions to the ‘quality’ press such as the Financial Times, so they will be around for a long time.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has set up a charitable fund for freelancers for the next two months. General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Some companies are playing fast and loose with their obligations to consult with the NUJ over the impact to staff and editorial content. A cynical ‘never waste a crisis’ approach cannot be allowed to further compromise already stretched standards and resources.”

Instead it has launched a News Recovery Plan for the industry, which includes a series of short-term proposals and long-term recommendations. They are demanding a windfall tax of six per cent on the tech giants such as Google and Facebook, which would involve tripling the Digital Services Tax, and tax credits and interest-free loans to support journalist jobs for frontline reporters covering the COVID-19 crisis. The NUJ also wants free vouchers for online or print subscriptions for 18- and 19-year-olds, and tax credits given for households with subscriptions. Presumably that means they want the taxpayer to encourage reading the Sun.

Demonstrating a touching but unjustified faith in the integrity of the BBC, the union demands “independent sustainable funding of public service broadcasting that protects its universality and prevents government interference”. It also wants “a nationwide media literacy strategy to tackle disinformation and fake news and, importantly, reform of media ownership rules, with a strengthened public interest test”.