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Friday, August 17, 2007

Cut costs, sack hacks

By Revel Barker
Our American cousins are currently going through the sort of cost-cutting experience that we endured a quarter of a century ago, and they, more noisily than we did – but with no more apparent effect – are kicking up about it.

Cost-cutting in bean-counting-speak means job-cutting, mainly of older and more experienced (and therefore usually more expensive) staff; if you want to increase profits you look at where the money is haemorrhaging and the easy answer is to identify editorial as the culprit. The green-eyed accountant looks at the high wages, the lavish expenses, the cost of air fares to places that he couldn’t afford even on a once in a lifetime holiday, the level of entertaining… and the number of journalists who seem to spend most of their shifts either sitting around idly or – worse – decamping to the pub.

If that’s your yardstick, cutting costs is simple.

Editorial spend rarely relates directly to profit. If circulation increases, the circulation department gets the credit; if advertising income goes up, the space salesmen get the plaudits. If either of these revenue streams reduces, they all blame a poor ‘editorial product’.

We can’t argue that we were overmanned. We had writers who never wrote a word, because they were bone idle, and subs who were never asked to sub a story because they weren’t up to the task.

It was a problem by no means restricted to editorial, though. If all the inkies rostered for a shift had actually turned up on any one night, there wouldn’t have been standing room for them, which is why some comps were officially working a 26-week year (at least one of them did only 22 weeks, because it took in holiday time).

But all eyes turned naturally towards editorial where the inkies protested to management that there was something called ‘evening dress allowance’, which they believed meant a special payment for working after dark.

The first pronouncement of Clive Thornton when he arrived as chairman was that the Daily Mirror had more journalists in Holborn than the Sun employed world-wide. In fact the paper had more journalists in Manchester than the Sun had worldwide, and there were so many subs in Withy Grove on some nights that if one of them went to the lavatory he would return to find that somebody had nicked his chair.

But in those days the Sun and the Mirror were – this was our excuse – different papers. One had a deadline around lunchtime each day and the other had editions running through most of the night; at the weekend or on night matches there were different editions for almost every first division football club area (not altogether a brilliant scheme, if readers in Liverpool couldn’t get a full account of what was happening in Manchester, or Leeds didn’t know what was happening in Sunderland, before meeting them at Wembley).

I remember one night when the Sunday Mirror did 35 different changes, which may not have been a record.

So Thornton asked for, and got, non-automatic replacement and Maxwell demanded the same deal.

Montgomery had a totally different idea; he seemed to enjoy sacking people anyway, believing that two 20-year-olds on ₤20grand each were obviously twice as useful as one guy of 40+ on 40grand-plus.

But there’s a reason for paying old farts more than tyros. And perhaps there’s no better proof than the Daily Mirror’s cock-up over the faked pictures of ‘British soldiers torturing prisoners in Iraq’.

When the paper announced its scoop by putting the photos on TV, Eddie Rawlinson did a screen grab at home and – before the paper even hit the streets – was telling his email cronies that he suspected there was a rabbit off, somewhere.

Eddie had been on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere and he knew what soldiers were supposed to look like.

The lacing on a soldier’s boots was WRONG, he said. The rifle held by one of them was the WRONG type.
The vehicle in the picture was the WRONG vehicle for Iraq.
The fastening on a soldier’s webbing was WRONG.
The trousers, at the ankle, were WRONG. The flow of urination (the soldiers were supposed to be peeing on the prisoner) was WRONG.

If Eddie had still been running a picture desk those photos would never have got across it.

The editor, Piers Morgan, would not have been fired. The paper – once the most highly rated and respected by soldiery of all ranks – would not have been brought into shocking disrepute.

But in the old-fart clear-out schedule, people like Eddie had been too expensive to keep. How do you put a value on experience? Does it matter that you have a newsroom staffed almost entirely by people who have never actually seen a soldier in uniform? How much are proprietors prepared to pay out in legal costs, rather than paying far less money in salaries to people who can save the company bacon?

And wherever the Mirror went, the rest of Fleet Street inevitably followed. It had been the same with pay deals; the Mirror always went in first, and upped the money, and the others all made their claims on the back of that, with no other justification or negotiating tactic than that the Mirror had got it.

So when the Mirror reduced staff, everybody else did the same.

Before Maxwell, a typical cost-cutting exercise asked on-the-road reporters to forgo the second round of vintage port and of Havana cigars at the end of lunch.

The point that they missed upstairs, however, was that the apparently indulgent lifestyle meant that reporters (this would apply to about half of them, I’d guess) would actually go out of the office and make and meet contacts – and would spend the money, and often come back with stories that were several hundred times cheaper than those that were bought-in, and rewritten by their colleagues who just pocketed the same level of exes and never ventured further from the newsroom than the office pub.

Dan Ferrari, in contemplative mood, once told me that if each of the hundred or so on-the-road men (this was early 70s) ‘went out of the office and spent their expenses and returned with only two exclusives each - every year - they would be far more use than sitting at their desks rewriting PA, and we would have a better paper.’

Far better to have a deserted newsroom, with staff out on the road, than have a roomful of people hanging about in case a Boeing crashed on Buckingham Palace.

But in the States, when a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis this month, the local paper sent 75 reporters, writers and photographers off the editorial floor and out to cover it. This was a paper that had reduced its editorial staff by – coincidentally – 75 earlier in the year, and everybody had moaned about it.

Whether the people who were standing idly by were any good, or had any experience in covering instant news, is difficult to judge from this distance.

But I somehow suspect that there won’t be too much sympathy among London editors for the tribulations currently being experienced by their opposite numbers across the pond.
Pictures: Edward Rawlinson