Newspapers: The Herald Budget Cuts

You have to ask what was so attractive about The Herald group of newspapers – The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times – to its current owners, when they first thought about buying it.

Maybe it’s because, by comparison, costs can be cut pretty much with the stroke of a pen, while it takes longer for readers and advertisers to cotton on to the fact they might be receiving an inferior product as a result.

And that, during that period of dislocation, when sales and advertising revenue are declining more slowly than costs, there’s rich profits to be picked.

Anyway, the announcement earlier this week that between two and three million pounds is to be slashed from the papers’ budget is being inevitably viewed, in some quarters, as a deliberate ploy to degrade a national institution, because regional outposts are probably more profitable than major media players.

There must be a magic formula out there – like slides on a graphic equaliser – comprising an optimum mix of staff numbers, editorial quality, sales, and advertising revenue to achieve maximum profit. If so, then perhaps what the papers are in the midst of is the uncomfortable transition towards that ideal combination, with each element – costs, quality, sales and ad revenue – being allowed to decline, quite deliberately. That’s costs deliberately reduced, while accepting a decline in quality, sales and ad revenue is probably inevitable.

Of course, when it comes to staff, it is not just a question of numbers, it is also about experience; a dozen young graduates, each earning less than twenty thousand a year, is an entirely different ‘kettle of fish’ to twenty veteran hacks, who’ve been ‘around the block’ a bit (albeit on much higher salaries).

That’s not to say a bunch of young, relatively inexperienced journalists aren’t going to be able to deliver a paper every bit as high quality as the same number of old hands. Maybe even better, if they are hungry, talented and imaginative enough. But it usually doesn’t happen that way. For one thing, old hands are likely to be more insistent on finding stories on their own initiative, than simply re-word agency copy.

Staff have been asked to come up with money-saving ideas, whether that is to merge, in terms of production, The Herald and the Sunday Herald into a ‘seven-day operation’, or to scrap the recently-launched Herald sports supplement or turn the Sunday Herald more into a news magazine. Or whatever. They have a few days only.

One thing is for sure: these proposed budget cuts have brought into sharp relief discussions about the future of newspapers that have been swirling for ages. Should, for instance, newspapers move towards a clear mix of big-hitting names, offering writing and analysis of a quality you couldn’t find anywhere else, with everything else unashamedly reported in digest, agency-copy form, because so much news can be found elsewhere?

The problem is the notable absence of one key voice: that of the owners. Their contribution to the debate has been to signal budget cuts, and that alone. And that is not only likely to worry and demoralise staff, it is hardly going to encourage them to come up with bright ideas, to tackle the very real issues facing newspapers in the current, fast-changing, media climate.

Mike Wilson