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October 2, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:38am

‘Great fear’ of fresh round of mass journalist redundancies this winter

By Charlotte Tobitt

Another round of “mass redundancies” among journalists is expected over the winter, a Scottish representative of the National Union of Journalists has warned.

There are fears some of the major commercial news providers could take the opportunity to cut more jobs if the end of the Government’s job retention scheme this month means advertisers making their own cutbacks again.

Joyce McMillan, chair of the NUJ’s Edinburgh freelance branch, told MSPs the union is already discussing and negotiating the terms of expected redundancies at some of Scotland’s commercial news providers.

She did not name any companies, but Reach, Newsquest, JPI Media and DC Thomson all own major Scottish titles (the Daily Record, Herald, Scotsman and Press & Journal respectively).

McMillan told the Scottish Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee on Thursday morning: “The great fear is that once the winter sets in, once the furlough support that many advertisers and so on have enjoyed begins to fade away, then there will be another round of mass redundancies among Scottish journalists.

“These are already being planned and discussed and the union’s already in there trying to negotiate the terms of them.

“Given how stripped down and how short of staff compared with a couple of decades ago  most journalistic operations in Scotland are, the prospect of another round of redundancies this winter is a particularly alarming one… the idea of having less journalism and less investment in journalism is really quite a frightening one in this circumstance.”

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McMillan said this was expected even though the picture for many regional titles has been “a bit less one of complete gloom than some media were anticipating at the time” with advertising revenue holding up better than many had even hoped.

“But in another sense there is every sign that most of the big players in commercial journalism are going to be using this opportunity to make yet more redundancies which is a really frightening prospect in terms of the quality and range of Scottish journalism,” she added.

Politicians in Wales have also raised concerns of an “avalanche of redundancies and newspaper closures” to come without an extension to the furlough scheme.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has since announced a replacement Job Support Scheme to supplement the wages of staff working at least a third of their normal hours in “viable” jobs.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill, associate professor in journalism at Napier University, warned the committee Scotland could see more “news deserts” if job cuts continue.

And, he added: “You’re not going to have a generation coming up that understands that journalism is,” leading to uninformed voters.

Press Gazette has estimated at least 2,000 journalism jobs have already been cut across the UK.

Giving the not-for-profit perspective was Peter Geoghegan, chairman of Scottish investigative journalism co-operative The Ferret and investigations editor at the Open Democracy website.

Geoghegan said both titles were protected from the reliance on advertising income that many publishers suffered from this year, and that although they hadn’t “grown massively” they had not retrenched either because they have longer-term funding.

Their concerns now are how they may be affected if people’s incomes become too squeezed, as they rely more on reader revenues, and what will happen to philanthropic organisations that provide grant funding if a 2008-level recession hits.

He suggested that enabling more public interest journalism providers to be given charitable status “would make it much easier for new organisations or not-for-profit organisations like The Ferret or community newspapers to be much more sustainable because charitable status is important for a lot of funders and has other advantages that we currently can’t access”.

The Charity Commission last month gave charitable status to the Public Interest News Foundation, which its executive director Jonathan Heawood said could “set a model” to show how more UK news organisations could successfully operate on a not-for-profit basis.

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