In My Opinion: Pete Murray: Johnston Press and Atex

ONE of the largest single owners of regional newspapers in the UK, Johnston Press, has managed what no other proprietor has achieved for decades – to unite its workforce in dozens of titles across the country in mass opposition to a system of new technology which threatens to strip out a whole layer of production journalists and cause potentially irrepairable damage to the quality of the newspapers they publish.

When the National Union of Journalists took the unprecedented step of bombarding the company’s AGM last week – April 30 – with questions from the floor about job cuts, executive pay and the new software system, Atex, we added at least one uncomfortable hour to what is routinely a fairly tame gathering of the board and small shareholders at a plush Edinburgh hotel.

It was an eye-opener for many of us. Johnston Press’s chief executive, John Fry, denied rumours that he had plans to cut as many as one third of staff once the Atex system is installed, but it betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how newsrooms operate that in the same breath he described newspaper sub-editing as a “back-office function”.

The over-hasty introduction of Atex has already driven some Johnston Press journalists to exhaustion and near nervous breakdowns, with vastly increased workloads and stress falling on just those people whom John Fry derides as ‘back office functionaries’. As one rep from the north of England put it to me: “No-one in management is even pretending it’s about making the papers better, or our jobs better,” he says. “It’s just about taking out a tier of production. They’ve forfeited their right to our goodwill over this.”

The immediate issue for most of us is jobs, but not because we think the jobs of journalists are more valuable than any others, or because we oppose job cuts as a reflex action. It is because quality journalism is not possible without journalists – the reporters, photographers, writers, layout designers and subs who together produce the papers which people want to read.

Production mistakes will continue to happen unless Johnston Press wakes up to the folly of forcing through change at a pace which neither the staff nor this software can tolerate.

To judge by the way Johnston Press management intends to use this system, you are left thinking that they believe newspaper quality, accuracy and editorial judgement are expendable. In the National Union of Journalists, we know that journalists and readers both think otherwise.

We will not allow those principles or our members’ jobs to be sacrificed in this way to try to improve the company’s image with their bank manager.

Pete Murray is the president of the National Union of Journalists.