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The Strike to Save Local News

Taj Ali

Despite paying out millions to shareholders, National World is imposing a derisory real-terms pay cut on hundreds of local journalists. But journalists are fighting back — for themselves, their readers and the very future of their profession.

A picket of journalists at the Sheffield Star on strike over pay. (Credit: NUJ)

Local journalism is on life support. Once the eyes and ears of readers in towns and cities across the UK, it has been devastated by swingeing cuts. Today, there are fewer local newspapers than at any time since the eighteenth century. More than 320 local titles closed between 2009 and 2019 — a trend that has only accelerated since the pandemic. The disappearance of local news has ripped a hole in the heart of our communities. What remains is an industry characterised by growing precarity and poor pay. As newsrooms shrink or disappear entirely, journalists face mass redundancies and those that remain contend with shoestring budgets and ever-increasing workloads. 

Whether it’s holding authorities accountable or keeping communities connected, local journalists play a critical role in our society. But the ever-shifting media landscape has made life in and outside the newsroom increasingly difficult. National World, formerly known as JPI Media and Johnston Press before that, operates over 100 news outlets, including The Scotsman, The Yorkshire Post, Belfast News Letter, Sunderland Echo, Lancashire Post, Sheffield Star, Northampton Chronicle and The News in Portsmouth. 

In June, the publisher announced a restructuring that placed more than 50 journalists at risk of redundancy, with more than 25 leaving voluntarily or compulsorily. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) condemned the company’s handling of the process. This shock announcement came in the middle of pay negotiations, which remain unresolved at the time of writing.  

With no breakthrough in negotiations, National World imposed a below-inflation 4.5 percent pay rise on journalists, which the union described as derisory. It had come weeks after the company’s annual shareholder meeting, where it emerged that £1.36 million would be paid out to shareholders the following month. On top of that, the company had made significant new acquisitions and claimed it would make more. 

Like fellow NUJ members at the BBC and Reach PLC, National World journalists are fighting back — for themselves, their readers and the very future of the profession. Today, over 300 journalists are taking part in historic strike action over pay — the first-ever company-wide strike. Journalists are demanding pay rises, boosts to minimum salaries and action to address pay disparities at the company. 

Kim works as a digital production journalist at National World. She says the profession has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. ‘I remember the excitement of the newsroom. People running around. The printing press there. I’d enjoy getting ready and going into our Leeds office, talking to colleagues, helping each other out.’ 

Today, journalists entering the profession face a very different industry. The Leeds office is no more, and workers are expected to work from home as part of cost-cutting measures. ‘It’s quite lonely,’ says Kim. ‘There’s no human interaction. It’s just not the same. You don’t get into journalism to sit at home by yourself. You’re writing about people. You have to be quite a social person to be a journalist, but it can be quite isolating.’ 

For Kim, it is her union, the NUJ, that helps her manage stress and deal with work-related issues. ‘You can get things off your chest. It’s a safe space.’ Getting on the picket line today for her was a no-brainer. ‘Journalists are getting second jobs because they can’t afford to pay their rent or mortgage. When you think of journalism, you think of it as a career choice. You don’t think I’m going to be a journalist, but I’m also going to work at Tesco because I can’t afford to pay my bills.’ 

Darren has worked at National World as an early career journalist on a regional city title. Despite two years of freelance experience before joining the company and over a year in the current job, he earns just £22,500. This includes the 4.5 percent pay rise imposed earlier this year. ‘The pay is very poor. I know reporters who’ve been journalists for 15 or 20 years. They’ve got children. Their pay hasn’t increased much in that time.’ 

Darren complains about the company’s lack of transparency on pay. ‘They’ll do everything not to speak to you about pay. They’ll pass you up to a line manager or say it’s a HR issue. It genuinely took me weeks to find out about pay grades.’ 

Most titles are barebones, with minimal staffing and small budgets. Darren regularly finds himself working into his evenings and weekends. He’s often asked to start early for no extra pay. Just a few months into the job, he was expected to run the news outlet due to staff shortages. ‘I was literally the lowest of the low you can be as a trainee journalist, and I was covering the job of an editor with one other reporter. I asked my boss’s boss if I could get a raise or a bonus for stepping up. I got a £40 Amazon gift card in the end.’ 

John has worked at National World for over two years and in the industry for around a decade. For him, this strike is about more than just pay. ‘There have been a number of redundancies across the company, particularly of senior staff, and serious questions about the suitability of the executive to provide strategic direction. The owner is getting more involved with the editorial direction of certain websites in the group, and I know a lot of journalists are concerned about this. I’ve never worked at a company where the relationship between the staff and senior management is so bad.’ 

In July, NUJ members delivered a vote of no confidence in the National World board and the company chairman, David Montgomery. ‘Many staff are using the industrial action to send a message to the company that they’re not happy with how it’s being run,’ explains John. 

John’s starting salary around a decade ago was £16,000. ‘You had to supplement it with extra work,’ he tells Tribune. ‘While salaries have risen to the early 20s, the cost-of-living crisis has made starting out as a journalist even harder — and has only exacerbated class inequality in the industry. I know pay has forced many people out of the industry. Of my journalism training course, less than half are still in the profession.’ 

The other issue with journalism pay structures, says John, is that they are still based on passing a series of antiquated exams. ‘You can’t just give a good reporter a pay rise, as you would in many other jobs. They have to pass a set of fairly arbitrary exams.’ 

This is the predicament that Darren faces — pay rises are dependent on balancing learning and development on top of an already stressful, high-pressure job. He is required to complete an NCTJ journalism qualification in order to move up the pay scale. ‘I’m enrolled in it at the moment, but I genuinely have no time to do it.’ 

Fighting for the Future of Local Journalism

This isn’t a case of cash-starved newspapers struggling to keep themselves afloat in an ever-changing media landscape. ‘National World is a profitable company,’ John says. ‘It doesn’t have any legacy costs and has made several acquisitions this year while touting a possible purchase of The Telegraph and Reach PLC. It paid out almost £1.4 million to shareholders in July. It’s laughable that it doesn’t put more value on its hard-working staff during a cost-of-living crisis.’ Darren concurs. ‘The shareholders are getting bonuses in the hundreds of thousands, and we’re getting nothing.’ 

Half-year results published in July revealed healthy cash reserves of £22 million. Despite this, National World claims these strikes could harm local titles. For John, the demand for fair pay matters for the future of the industry. ‘You need good, experienced journalists for your company to be profitable and self-sufficient going forward.’ 

John believes the push towards click-bait and SEO trends is counterproductive, particularly as Google changes its algorithm to prioritise more experienced news sources. This requires journalists with knowledge of their beat. And retaining journalists with experience requires decent pay. 

‘To make websites sustainable in the long-term, some form of paywall and exclusive content is required, so you need to produce articles that people are willing to pay for. At National World PLC, there have been huge numbers of redundancies recently, particularly of well-paid senior staff, along with a number of office closures — all of which will save money.’  

Darren believes National World is cracking down hard on the NUJ, attempting to find out who NUJ members are. He is particularly worried about his prospects at the company. In one email, explains Darren, the company asked all journalists if they intended to strike. ‘If you don’t get back in touch, they assume you’re on strike. The language has been very strong. They’ve essentially said that by striking, you are really affecting the company and the future employee prospects of your colleagues. It’s very divisive. As an early career journalist, it does make you feel quite scared.’ 

The strike by National World journalists is not just a demand for fair pay — it’s a plea for the preservation of quality journalism, one that serves the public interest, holds power to account, and keeps our communities connected. ‘Local journalism creates change,’ says Kim. ‘We celebrate local people and local communities. I don’t want to lose that, but that’s the way it’s going. People will find jobs elsewhere that pay better. All the experienced journalists will retire, and no one new will join. That would be absolutely devastating.’  

‘This will be the first time myself and many of my colleagues will go on strike,’ says John, ‘but we believe it can cause change – we’ve seen this happen across the industry over the last year.’ 

Dealing with the 24-hour news cycle can be difficult, and Kim finds the job stressful and exhausting at times. But she loves what she does and is committed to staying in the profession. ‘It’s hard to love what you do when you can’t pay your bills and get no appreciation. Paying your staff well is a way of saying thank you for working so hard.’ 

Kim is standing on the picket line with colleagues she hasn’t seen in years. This is a profession united in its determination to secure better. ‘You can’t make a business work without its workers. There’s not one person I work with who doesn’t love the job. They’re striking because they want to stay in the job but can’t afford to do it anymore. We want to stay, but we want to be appreciated.’