The future of Johnston Press is a concern for anyone who cares about journalism, not just those of us who used to work for it and still have friends employed at its 200-or-so titles. That ‘JP’ is in trouble is hardly news – it was certainly struggling while I was there – but the decision to put the company up for sale with a £220 million debt bill looming might well mark the beginning of the end.
This isn’t really the place to pick apart what went wrong for JP – I’ll leave that to others – or to consider the boardrooms shenanigans that may be afoot. For now, I’m more concerned about the fallout and where that leaves local journalism.
A sharp fall in staff
The sad fact is that the heart has been ripped out of a great many old titles in recent years. I read one account that said Johnston Press employed about 6,100 staff as recently as 2009. By 2017, that figure is said to have dropped to about 2100. Predictably, it has been impossible to maintain quality while losing that number of people. Journalism standards have been sacrificed on the altar of debt repayments and it has been grim.
I worked for JP between 2007 and 2015. Towards the end, If I’m totally honest, I found it hard to be proud of the work we did. Our resources were stretched, corners were cut and the management inflicted the laughable – and infamous – ‘longest local day’ and ‘summer of love’ campaigns rather than focus on journalism. It was dispiriting – as were the seemingly annual rounds of cuts that we all came to fear. In the end, I jumped in fear of the push that would surely have come. Many were desperate for the chance to take voluntary redundancy – and plenty of people were upset when they couldn’t take this.
Too easy just to blame JP
I don’t want to come across as a bitter former employee though. Far from it. Johnston Press gave me the chance to follow my dream and be a journalist. It paid much better wages than some rival companies when I’d earned my NCTJ qualifications and did support me through my NCE exams and training. It’s also too simplistic to blame everything on JP. I’m sure there were no easy answers to the debt it had to service and the collapse of classified advertising and the challenge posed by online content pre-dated the economic crash and remain as serious issues to be tackled.
Why local journalism matters
It’s what happens next that should concern us all. We really shouldn’t be complacent about the threat to a great many newspapers – nor should we be blasé about what their demise would mean. Too many communities don’t have access to important impartial information about local government, health trusts and courts as it is – a lack of local journalism means a lack of scrutiny and diminishes our democracy. It’s not just the grandiose role in ensuring the public is informed and involved, however, papers also serve an important role in celebrating and highlighting good causes. There’s enough doom and gloom in the world without losing a platform to record and celebrate the good things in life.
Regional ownership a way forward?
It seems inconceivable to me that someone would want to buy JP as a job lot. Why would you want to buy the I, for example, and get the Skegness Standard chucked in for free? They surely don’t belong in the same business. Would the owner of the Ritz have a go at running a B&B too? One lesson to learn from JP’s struggles is that it’s important to understand and cater for different readerships properly. What works in Boston doesn’t work in Spalding and Stamford, let alone Leeds, Brighton and Edinburgh. Splitting the papers up into smaller, regional groups would allow individuality to shine through more easily.
In my neck of the woods, Iliffe Media seems to have done a good job since taking on JP titles in the East of England. It’d be nice to see it expand its reach and take on a few more of the JP papers in and around Lincolnshire to protect them for the future. Iliffe’s rise has been coupled with the emergence of some stellar independent papers staffed by ex-JPers. Compared to other areas, we’re pretty lucky to be served by so many titles and hopefully this can be a blueprint for the country. In Spalding, bizarrely, there are three papers a week. The nearby cities of Peterborough and Lincoln have, to my knowledge, one. One day, I hope to write about how and why this quirk has arisen, but that’s for another post.
Johnston Press ‘sale’ feels like a big moment
We have to hope that there’s enough time to rescue titles before they’re lost to the history books. I remain convinced that people care about what goes on in the world around them and the stories of the people they know from school, work or friendships. The format might change and the business model might need to be updated, but the appetite for stories is timeless and the need for real journalism that isn’t fake rubbish is acute.
The looming sale of Johnston Press will probably be a telling moment in the future of journalism in this country. We can only hope that there’s a positive ending.