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March 24, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:10am

Newsquest says Archant titles will have ‘much more secure future’ after sale, but staff fear cuts

By Andrew Kersley

Newsquest has insisted it will give Archant’s news brands a “much more secure future” as staff expressed concerns of more “internal upheaval” to come.

Newsquest, which remains the second biggest regional publisher in the UK after last week’s buyout of Archant which was the fourth-largest, also said it had “no plans” to merge titles – although its chief executive said some redundancies are “likely”.

The publisher also said the deal means it will be able “to invest in the great local journalism that both companies do”.

Archant owns more than 100 news and magazine brands, mainly in East Anglia, London, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and the South West. There are few areas of overlap, with Newsquest having wider coverage of the UK.

The deal did not include eight of Archant’s specialist magazine titles: Air Gunner, Airgun World, Sporting Shooter, Clay Shooter, Rifle Shooter, France Magazine, French Property News and France Property Shop. They are now undergoing a sales process directed by Rcapital, the private equity owner which bought Archant in 2020. Several specialist titles had already been offloaded to Kelsey Media last month.

Archant was taken over by Rcapital in August 2020 amid ongoing financial difficulties. The company made a pre-tax loss of £7.6m in 2018, the last year that it released full group accounts before being acquired by Rcapital.

Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker told Archant staff on Friday: “Like Archant, we are committed to providing a first-class news service, and a first-class advertising and marketing service for our communities. That’s our business. And we’re committed to getting it right long term.”

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He added: “We see ourselves as a local UK digital marketing agency… Being the number one digital marketing partner to local businesses in our markets is absolutely the strategic priority for Newsquest.”

One Archant employee told Press Gazette they feared Newsquest “does not care about journalists or journalism. And that conclusion was not challenged by anything Henry Faure Walker had to say on Friday”.

They added: “If you look at the way Newsquest and [its US owner] Gannett operate elsewhere, the obvious conclusion to draw is that they are going to cut resources, salaries and journalists’ jobs to the bone because they have proven that they can make money from a business without putting in a lot of time, effort and money into the journalism in it. They hollow out the newspapers that they buy.”

They expressed fears that the company’s main priority was not delivering local journalism but making advertising revenue.

Another Archant staffer said: “I don’t want to be pessimistic but this buyout has me really concerned. I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Newsquest and how they treat their staff.

“Some of my friends have left jobs and the industry completely after finding the constant pressure of increasingly higher targets too much.

“Archant has managed to maintain a level of quality, especially in their printed products, that seems completely alien to Newsquest and its titles. And the constant shrinking of the market into a small number of big publishers is bad for everyone.”

A third reporter added: “I guess it is more internal upheaval. I’ve been at the company since 2019 and seen a few changes at the top already. I just hope this is something that offers both the business and the employees within it stability.”

A fourth Archant staff member also shared a fear of the unknown, especially after they only heard updates about the sale process before Friday through the national press.

They added: “People who worked there I spoke to said basically they don’t value their journalists. Journalism is seen as a cost rather than an asset.”

In a statement, a Newsquest spokesperson sought to reassure Archant staff.

They said: “Archant has been in financial difficulties in recent years culminating in it going into administration 18 months ago.

“It has had no money to invest in its business and unfortunately had to close a number of its local newspapers. None of the Archant or Newsquest newspapers or magazines compete with each other and there are no plans to merge any titles.

“By bringing Archant and Newsquest together we will be able to give their titles a much more secure future and be in a position to invest in the great local journalism that both companies do.”

Faure Walker said that there was “likely to be some restructuring” in areas where there is “duplication” and a “genuine case for redundancy”. He added that any “significant changes” in staffing would be communicated by the end of April, and they had not decided if Archant would keep its separate name.

The acquisition came after Newsquest and Reach were accused of treating journalists like “battery hens” by a senior insider at National World, the third-largest regional publisher, because of their use of page view targets for reporters.

Asked by an Archant staff member on a conference call on Friday whether he agreed with this description, Faure Walker said it was “a load of bollocks”.

recent survey of National Union of Journalists members in Newsquest found that 72% of participants did not think their digital page view targets were achievable and 55% of respondents reported that they were actively looking for a job outside of the publisher.

On the takeover, Newsquest NUJ national coordinator Chris Morley said: “We are always concerned when we hear a smaller business is being taken over by Newsquest because its industry reputation in recent years goes before it.

“Deep and damaging cuts across the board have been made with its past acquisitions despite pledging at the moment of takeover to maintain journalistic excellence.

“Whether it be the Romanes Group in Scotland, NWN Media in Wales, Isle of Wight County Press or CN Group, serious job cuts have followed. We challenge Newsquest to declare publicly that it will not engage in the same ‘hire and fire’ tactics that the P&O bosses have just adopted to force through contract changes and inferior terms.”

Alice Pickthall, a senior analyst at Enders Analysis, said the deal was unsurprising in the context of the current market: “The first, and perhaps most obvious point, is that we are now another regional publisher fewer in the UK. Consolidation is always to be expected in a declining industry.”

She added: “Like any merger, it is likely the new owners will seek to reduce costs and overheads, though Rcapital will have likely realised many back-office rationalisations.”

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