Editors and writers of the Guardian’s Saturday supplements have accused the publisher of carrying out a “massive act of self-sabotage” with its proposals to close the Weekend, Review, The Guide, and Travel sections.
Staff were told last week of plans to cut 180 jobs, including 70 journalists, after Covid-19 cost it £25m for this year.
The loss of the supplements are a major part of the proposals, with the company’s plan to launch a new Saturday package instead.
A statement written on behalf of editors and writers on the Saturday supplements following a meeting of the paper’s NUJ chapel called for more of the Scott Trust Endowment Fund to be used instead of large-scale redundancies.
The fund currently totalsd £954m, down from £1.013bn last year, and is intended to provide sufficient investment income to cover the Guardian’s losses in perpetuity.
The statement said: “If we aren’t using our ‘rainy day’ endowment fund for a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, what use is it?
“Especially given that there is hope that we might return to something approaching normality next year – with positive news on vaccines, therapeutics etc.
“Couldn’t we be using our fund as a temporary measure, rather than taking the permanent decision to axe four supplements at once?”
Saturday edition Guardian’s best-seller
The group accused the publisher of cutting off the main reason people buy the print paper.
Saturday is by far the biggest day of the week for print sales of the Guardian, with a circulation 130% higher than on weekdays.
The statement said: “The Guardian needs to be a product people are willing to pay for and Saturday’s sales figures prove people want to pay for our Saturday package with all its magazines.
“Cut all the supplements, especially the glossy magazine, and you are cutting off the reason people pay for the paper. Why attack what has always been the paper’s cash cow? This whole thing looks like a massive act of self-sabotage.”
The staff also claimed the plan shows “total disregard” to readers, who have shown “universal shock and dismay” online since it was made public last week.
“How does this fit with the much-vaunted ‘readers/subscribers first’ strategy?”
The Saturday section editors were forced to go into the office during lockdown because they were told their supplements were “absolutely crucial”, they claimed. They said they were later told the Saturday edition was the least hit by the coronavirus circulation slump.
The average circulation of the Saturday edition fell by 15% between March and April, ABC figures show. The Monday to Friday edition saw decline of 20%.
In March, the last set of ABC figures unaffected by the Covid-19 lockdown, the Guardian’s Monday to Friday edition had an average circulation of 106,734, versus 246,094 for the Saturday edition and 156,174 for The Observer.
The staff said advertising for the magazines had “held steady” with bookings in place for the autumn, despite an implication by management that advertisers had deserted them.
Questioning the commercial plan for the new magazine, they said: “Whatever replaces the supplements will lack the recognition or status of the supplements. Brands like Weekend magazine, Review and the Guide take decades to build up.
“The management’s assumption that readers will stick with the paper whatever is done to it, out of brand loyalty, is arrogant, anachronistic and wrong. Get rid of a Guardian glossy magazine and we will be handing over readers – and advertisers – to the Saturday Times and Financial Times.”
They also suggested that closing the Travel section, which they described a “major generator” of revenue through sponsored content and advertising, would see that cash go to the Telegraph and Times. This comes as Tourism Ireland is about to spend £350,000 with the Guardian on sponsored travel content, they claimed.
The Travel section, which highlights environmentally friendly and sustainable ways to see the world, also has an “important task” to play in delivering the paper’s core values on climate sustainability. Guardian Media Group has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and “prioritise and give prominence” to its environmental journalism.
Mags and digital tie together
The staff acknowledged that digital – which now makes up 57% of Guardian revenue – was underlined as a priority by management last week but said many of their sections also deliver online, with Saturday features routinely getting more than 3m page views.
“How does the closure and narrowing of content enhance the weekend digital offering, which is reliant on strong features?” they asked.
Instead they urged a review of the Guardian’s policy to give all of its content away for free and ask for reader donations, suggesting that its daily and sports podcasts, columns and features are all aspects that could be put behind a paywall while still allowing anyone to access the day’s news for free.
They also criticised the plan to cut 180 jobs when chief executive Annette Thomas, who joined the company in March, is on a base salary of £630,000 plus benefits.
“If this was happening in any other company we would be writing about it in disgust, and rightly so,” they said.
A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said: “In order to ensure the Guardian is financially sustainable and delivers the journalism that best serves our readers and their interests, we are having to make some difficult decisions.
“We are proposing to make some significant changes to our Saturday print sections, including the closure of Weekend, Review, The Guide and travel. We are planning a new and exciting Saturday supplement which will deliver a range of high-quality features, culture, books and lifestyle journalism. We look forward to sharing the plans for our new print package with readers in the coming months.”
Advertising, print, physical events and Guardian Jobs are the hardest-hit areas of GMG since the pandemic began.
In an earlier memo, Guardian editor-in-chief Viner and Thomas told staff the company faced “unsustainable annual losses in future years unless we take decisive action”.
Viner has said that sport and lifestyle journalism will bear the brunt of the proposed editorial cutbacks.