That’s the Doomsday conclusion suggested in a motion passed by NUJ chapel members last week, which described the management’s scheme to cull one-third of the titles’ jobs as demonstrating “that there is no sustainable plan for these titles”.
The union’s complaint was distributed in an email from Father of Chapel Richard Palmer, sent on Thursday evening following a meeting at which executives outlined further details behind their efforts to cut £14 million costs through losing another 200 jobs. It is worthwhile noting that Express newspapers announced an operating profit of £37 million in 2013.
The NUJ motion stated:
This chapel has consistently urged management to set aside its plans for a cull of staff and resources and instead commit to an investment in digital content and convergence that could give these titles a genuine future.
It is therefore disappointing that the additional detail shared by management this week demonstrates that there is no sustainable plan for these titles. The scale of the intended cuts will render our ability to produce quality journalism of the breadth and depth vital in any national titles dead in the water.
The management had previously promised that regionalised sports editions would be “ring-fenced”, so this development represents a twist of the knife that has already made some very deep cuts. The chapel motion described the decision as short-sighted: “Distinctive areas of the papers that have driven sales, circulation, and online traffic are being jettisoned without real thought or care for the consequences,” it said.
If there is no real commitment to the future of these titles, if there is no interest beyond managing their decline using measures that will only hasten their demise, then it is time for the company to actively seek new buyers prepared to turn these papers around.
The NUJ chapel also condemned “the plan revealed by management this week to outsource the content of Daily Express City pages to an external provider, producing arms-length camera-ready pages … What was once a vibrant, respected department, producing content valued by readers, is being reduced to a single person reporting to the news desk”.
Yet this outsourcing of entire sections of the paper has already been tried, on sport. And with such limited success that it has hardly been progressed at all.
The scheme was first aired around five years ago, with sports coverage being outsourced to PA Sport at Broughton in Yorkshire (“If half of our pages were going to be filled with PA copy,” one insider suggested, “then they might as well layout the pages as well.”).
At one point, it was thought the whole Express and Star sports operation may be transferred there, but eventually the practicalities of running a sports desk from offices 150 miles from the news desk and the rest of the editorial operation put paid to the “cost-effective” notion. Plans for a 24-hour operation were also discussed, and quietly dropped, as was the scheme to combine all four London sports desks under the group head of sport, Howard Wheatcroft.
At the moment, only the Sunday Express sports desk has moved its entire operation to Broughton, plus three or four production staff from the other titles.
The departures from the sports desks thus far in this latest – last? – round of job cuts have all been voluntary, but some significantly experienced sports journalists have worked their last shift or filed their last reports for the Express or Star.
Desk man William Kings is, as far as I can fathom, the only Star sports journalist to leave. But there may be a reason for that. “It’s difficult to see how the Star could be produced if the staff is cut much more,” a sports desk colleague said. “There is now rarely a second edition after 10pm because there is not enough staff to cope.
“I come in each shift to a volley of emails inviting me to the leaving do of picture editors and news people I don't know.”
North-west-based football and athletics reporter Kevin Francis left the Star about a month ago, but still contributes regular match reports. Steve Bale, the Express’s rugby correspondent for the last 18 years, has left (though he has quickly snapped up work at the Sunday Times), while Bob McKenzie, the paper’s motor racing writer since 2000, has taken the chequered flag on his time with the paper.
Laurie Mumford, one of that endangered species, the sports sub, has left while Colin Bateman, the paper’s former cricket corr who late in his career enjoyed a niche as an Olympic and winter sports reporter, has retired from journalism altogether.
And the Express’s deputy sports editor, John Burton, is taking early retirement in the new year.
After which, it would be a surprise if there’s any one left to turn out the office lights, never mind get out the sports pages.