Upcoming event: meeting of the Oxford & District NUJ branch tonight

We’ll be munching on mince pies tonight at the NUJ branch meeting. The meeting, at Oxford Town Hall, will be held at the new earlier time of 6:30pm and there will be sandwiches (as well as mince pies) to make things easier for people coming straight from work.

There’s a lot to discuss tonight, not least the worsening situation at Newsquest. The company, part of American group Gannett, is using the current economic climate as an excuse to impose pay freezes and job cuts, despite the fact that profits are still very high.

Anna Wagstaff, secretary of the Oxford & District branch, wrote in the branch’s December newsletter: “The message the union wants to get across is that the newspaper industry is not like America’s car industry, which is in genuine trouble. They have been turning in healthy profits for years, and continue to do so. The latest cuts are no different to the cuts we have seen over recent years – aimed at bumping up shareholders’ returns in the short term, regardless of the damage being done to the quality and viability of the product.”

I believe that job cuts and pay freezes are part of Newsquest’s organisational culture, not simply a justified reaction to the current economic climate. When I worked for Newsquest Oxfordshire in 2004, the economy was looking healthy and house prices were soaring. (I should know; I wrote the property pages). Advertising revenues helped to bring in a healthy profit. But management had no intention of rewarding journalists for their role in creating this wealth; the NUJ chapel battled just to keep wage rises in line with inflation.

On a national level, if low pay and cutbacks were really just a reasonable response to money problems, you’d be forgiven for thinking that things had been bad for Newsquest for a long time: the transatlantic pay protest in May 2004, the managing director’s call for redundancies in February 2006 (“Our company [...] must reluctantly restructure the underlying cost base to protect the future strength of the business”), followed rapidly by job cuts in Scotland  and the south-east of England. The north of England did badly too; the Lancashire Evening Telegraph closed its offices while two Darlington titles merged and the Bradford Telegraph & Argus was forced to ditch its evening edition.

It’s true that Newsquest's parent company Gannett experienced a decline in profits in 2006, and that Gannett chief executive Craig Dubrow blamed Newsquest’s “soft ad demand” for this. But before you start feeling too sorry, remember that despite the decline, Newsquest's profits for 2006 were still £22.9 million.

Now Gannett is reporting falling profits again, and we’re supposed to swallow the line that the current round of cuts  is necessary because of the economy.

But, as Jeremy Dear comments, none of the major local newspaper groups currently cutting jobs have actually made a loss. They’re still making fat profits – just not as fat as management are used to. (Blogger Jim Hopkins recently laid hands on an internal report from Gannett and has posted some of the information it contains about profit margins on Gannett's US regional newspapers in the first three quarters of 2007: interesting reading.)

Craig Dubrow recently sent a memo to all Newsquest staff explaining that times are hard and cuts are necessary. The memo mentioned his courageous decision to take a 17% pay cut (on a salary of over a million dollars a year). Although Dubrow’s bonuses and other remuneration won’t be included in the cut, the Oxford & District NUJ branch were nearly moved to tears at this extraordinarily self-sacrificing gesture when we heard about it at the November meeting. We voted to post him one of our leftover sandwiches to keep him going through this time of hardship.

The message we sent with it read: “Some crumbs of comfort now you are on the breadline”. Surely with puns like that, we all deserve a pay rise?