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August 30, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:13am

Why are Reach journalists going on strike?

By Andrew Kersley

With a strike involving more than 1,000 journalists on the UK’s largest newspaper publisher Reach on the cards after a 3% pay offer, Press Gazette found out why reporters are heading to the picket lines.

One Liverpool Echo reporter says his flatmates have to share ten minutes of hot water each morning before work because they can’t afford to spend any more than that on the boiler.

But now as he writes about inflation hitting 18% in January and how families in the city are struggling to cope, he says he’s increasingly seeing his own situation mirrored in his work.

“That 18% figure particularly scares me,” he says. “Even last winter, the flat was freezing – I was shivering when I was working from home. To turn the heating on [even then] was a ridiculous price.”

A reporter for the Manchester Evening News says she won’t be able to afford to get married to her partner without a rise in wages. 

A reporter at the Daily Record in Glasgow says: “I’m worried about sitting there freezing, to be quite honest with you,” she tells me. “And you’re using that energy just to work from home.”

Press Gazette has spoken to nine Reach journalists and has heard stories of reporters taking up second jobs as lecturers, copywriters or selling items on Etsy to make ends meet.

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Some staff working for the UK’s biggest news publisher, which prints nationals like the Mirror and Express as well as over 130 regionals, have alleged that reporters can’t afford to pay for childcare or are having to scrap pension contributions to pay bills. Others are applying for jobs in PR.

Just being able to make ends meet was the main driver for many of those who talked about why they were choosing to go on strike.

Pay for reporters at Reach ranges from £21,000 a year for a trainee, to £30,000 for a senior reporter on MyLondon.

In June, Reach chief audience officer David Higgerson told MPs local reporters at the company earn from £21,000 for a junior and £25,000 for a senior.

Press Gazette understands that Facebook-sponsored community reporters at the company (a trainee position) earn around £19,500. 

The median (typical) UK salary according to the ONS is around £32,000 a year.

“Reporters are still struggling to make ends meet, and having to go sometimes from pay-check to pay-check to pay their bills. And it’s only going to get worse,” one reporter says. “You can’t ever get away from those pressures, you can’t ever come to work, and just think I’m gonna focus on work and not think about the fact that I’m struggling to make ends meet. Because you come to work and you’re forced to write about it.”

Press Gazette understands since July the NUJ has gained over 200 new members in Reach, taking their total to over 1,100. When the ballot results came in earlier this month, 79% of Reach’s eligible NUJ members voted in favour of strike action after the company refused to offer more than a 3% wage increase for reporters.

A first group-wide strike was due to take palace on Friday, 26 August, but was called after last-minute talks brokered by ACAS.

After the talks failed all Reach journalists in the NUJ will now head out on strike from 13-15 September.

Why are Reach journalists going on strike

Several Reach journalists said anger had been brewing since 2020 when all non-furloughed staff took a pay cut of at least 10% for three months at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The money was originally not meant to be paid back but, after a small group put together a claim, Reach said it would pay back the £4m total.

“We’re looking at real terms pay cuts approaching 10% due to inflation in the past two years… we’re basically running to stand still in a way,” one MyLondon reporter added. “There’s a lot of anger about it. Reach had a hugely profitable year last year.” 

Last year, Reach posted a pre-tax profit of £143.5m on revenue of £615.8m.

But in the first half of this year interim profit for Reach fell by 31.5% year on year from £68.9m to £47.2m.

Several of the Reach staff members Press Gazette spoke to cited the fact the company has paid £14m in dividends to shareholders this year. The company also has around £47m in cash reserves – twice what it claimed to have at the beginning of the pandemic according to the NUJ. The union estimates the current cost of a 1% pay rise for all staff to be about £2m a year. 

Chief executive pay packages

Many Reach journalists are unhappy about the pay package of chief executive Jim Mullen. In 2021, Mullen’s overall remuneration totalled over £4m, a 743% increase on the year before and 104 times the median pay package at the company. His base pay was £488,000, most of the remainder was made up of share options which have yet to turned into actual cash.

That same year Reach reporters were offered a 1% pay increase after being told the company couldn’t afford any more. 

“It really did disgust me. I don’t I don’t think anyone, particularly not in times like this, no one should be on that much… You can’t take a 700% pay rise, and then offer £750 to your workers,” said one reporter, who said he joined the NUJ the moment he saw the size of Mullen’s pay package.

“For two, three weeks after that it just kept playing in my head, It was all I could think about. Every time you work late or like sitting in bed in the middle of the night doing extra work unpaid, or on a weekend to keep the outlet going, it’s hard to motivate yourself when you have that £4m number ringing in your head.”

A large number of reporters also felt like they were having to shoulder the costs of cuts made by the company. During the pandemic Reach moved to a ‘Home and Hub’ policy that saw the company shut many of its offices and request many of its reporters to begin working from home, often permanently. “Many people are now only working from home. They are now shouldering full square the energy price rise, just for the privilege of working at home, doing their job,” says NUJ Reach organiser Chris Morley. “Meanwhile, as you know, I think Reach did say that they were saving £8m a year by doing that.”

Press Gazette understands staff have been offered a one-off cost of living payment of £200 but a Mirror journalist told Press Gazette: “That’s not going to touch the sides, especially when you consider people’s student loan repayments and any existing outgoings they’ve got that comes through their wages and what the taxman will take. That £200 will get whittled down very quickly.”

Meanwhile, staff have been asked whether they are taking part in the strike in order to help them plan coverage for the walkout. A Mirror journalist told Press Gazette: “I’m worried that that’s identifying union members, that they’re building lists.”

Journalists see themselves in the stories they cover

Reporters told us they are recognising their own problems with overwork, unaffordable bills and low pay in the very people they were interviewing for stories. 

On 23 June the Daily Mirror ran a front-page decrying corporate fat cat chief executives who were earning 85 times the average amount of employees at their companies. 

“I’ve never felt more ashamed of a company I’ve worked for than I did when The Mirror published a front page about how many times bosses were being paid more than their workers,” said one journalist. “And we had a lot of discussion in our group chats about the fact that our boss would be at the top of all of those lists.”

Several people we spoke to expressed concerns that the squeeze on salaries will force reporters from less affluent backgrounds out of the the industry. A recent NCTJ report suggested 80% reporters come from elite or professional backgrounds – twice the workforce average.

“If you come from a poor family, it’s harder to get into journalism,” one Reach journalist said. “And it’s even harder to stay in journalism now, because you don’t have that same support to help you get through these years on the low wages.”

But one Reach journalist who does not plan to go on strike said: “The Cost of Living crisis is hard for everyone – but it’s not a permanent thing. Reach, by all accounts, is a good employer…

“Those striking are taking a very short-term view of the world right now, and they’ll cause themselves more harm than good in the long run.”

Low pay has been a long-standing complaint across the regional press with Newsquest and National World offering similar salaries to Reach.

In response to the latest effort at talks to resolve the dispute, a Reach spokesperson said: “Over the weekend we have been in discussions with the NUJ in hope of avoiding industrial action, but unfortunately these talks have ended without agreement.

“We were able to meet the majority of requirements put forward by the NUJ and proposed an accelerated career development framework that would have set out clearer salary progression for journalists, so we are disappointed that our offer was rejected.

“We remain open to talks at any time to resolve this dispute and to begin to deliver these substantial improvements for our journalists.

“Our priority continues to be to protect the interests of all our colleagues and stakeholders, ensuring the group has a sustainable future in the face of an uncertain economic backdrop.”

Picture: NUJ

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