By Sally Casey
THESE are worrying times for the newspaper industry. In the USA last year, 16,000 journalists were made redundant. Closer to home, they estimate that 50% of local papers will close in the next five years.
Some believe that Thurrock Council’s proposal to publish a fortnightly newspaper will hasten that process in Thurrock.
Last year, Archant ceased publishing the Thurrock Recorder. That leaves the Yellow Advertiser, the Essex Enquirer and the major player in the borough, the Thurrock Gazette.
In an interview with Newspaper website HoldthefrontPage, Thurrock Gazette editor Steve Lewis said he was “greatly concerned” by the council’s proposals.
Said Steve: “If it goes ahead in its present format it will undoubtedly cause us considerable financial problems as quite a large percentage of our advertising is council advertising.
“We are looking at ways of working with the council on some sort of compromise. In my view there are better ways for the council to publicise their services than what they are proposing at the moment.”
But to what extent is the Thurrock Gazette part of the Gannet Company, an architect of its own downfall?
Former Editor Neil Speight certainly thinks so:
He said: “It should be pointed out that two other newspapers manage to exist in Thurrock without any major advertising from Thurrock Council, as does the ‘new media’ website Yourthurrock.com.
As a former editor of the Gazette I am well aware of the figures involved and the cause and effect that has brought this move around.
The Gazette slashed its circulation in Thurrock recently as a cost-cutting measure, despite the fact that it makes huge profits and runs at a massive profit to turnover ratio.
Why should it be surprising that the Council therefore seeks an alternative medium that better suits its requirement of getting its messages, much statutory requirement, to its residents.
The driving force behind this move is not censorship of media but a simple cost management issue. As a taxpayer in the borough, I’m quite pleased they are becoming more prudent about their budgets and not simply just signing off advertising at grossly inflated prices to that paid by other, more media savvy private sector operators.
The introduction of council newspapers is a concern but they have by and large been introduced up and down the country because the mainstream UK publishers have not been managing their markets properly. We have seen slash and burn in the industry lately as a huge panic measure. No doubt the same accountants who decided it was a good idea to cut costs through staffing levels and distribution are now wringing their hands because their revenues have dropped.
The Thurrock Gazette remains an excellent newspaper and Steve is doing a good job as he cuts his teeth with his first editorship but he is getting an early lesson about what it’s like trying to manage in corporations where share price and greed overrule common sense and pragmatism.
I have seen a huge decline in coverage of council issues in favour of ‘people stories.’ Had we not, as an industry, stopped paying attention to local authorities and given them the importance they deserve by actually sending reporters to meetings where key community issues arise and are debated, maybe this issue would never have arisen in the first place.
We’ve been happy to sit back and take the press releases rather than doing the work – it’s too late now to moan as local councils wake up to the idea that they might as well go the whole hog.”
It is now nine days since a new sports item has been put on the Thurrock Gazette’s website. Recently, there was a gap of 19 days. It has led to comments from the public. It has led to phone calls from advertisers!
It used to be that the odd person from Chafford Hundred would complain about not getting the paper, now people all over the borough tell us that they no longer get a paper.
Event after event after event has a press call with no Gazette journalist present. Changed days.
The comments from former Editor Neil Speight are highly significant.
YourThurrock’s Michael Casey used to work with Neil at the Gazette and in 25 years of employment he was one of the best bosses he has ever worked with. His editorial desk was like watching the platespinner of Thurrock as he would balance on the phone to Council Leaders, typesetting the paper, faxing an away football team to ensure a journo got his seat in the press box and then apologising to one of the WI’s for not getting their press release in the paper. He was a force of nature.
But he kept that paper alive. He worked 80 hours per week, he knew everyone and ensured that the borough had a great paper.
Just look at the transformation of the Essex Enquirer under Mr Speight’s stewardship. In an ideal world and once the recession has gone, a rival newsgroup could do worse than invest in a new Thurrock paper with Mr Speight at its head and a sister website running video which would embrace the 21st century.
Many say, that the Council cannot be blamed and are simply considering cutting out the middle man. In the teeth of a recession, who can blame them?