Journalists at NationalWorld’s national news website have said morale within their team is at “rock bottom” in a letter to the company’s HR department.
The problems at NationalWorld.com, they claimed, are in part caused by a drop in the number of managers, which they said has also led to chronically late publication of stories.
The site was launched in March 2021 and in the past few months has seen a wave of departures.
The NUJ members who sent the letter singled out company chief executive David Montgomery for particular criticism, alleging he has pushed the national news site away from “incisive, informed” coverage and injected it with socially conservative politics.
The letter was sent from NationalWorld.com NUJ members and the NUJ National World Publishing Chapel.
The week after the letter was sent, NUJ members across National World’s news titles voted to go on strike as part of a pay dispute, separately from the concerns raised by the NationalWorld.com staff.
National World declined to comment for this story.
NationalWorld staff feel there is ‘no one left steering the ship’
The NUJ letter was sent on Wednesday 23 August, shortly after a wave of compulsory and voluntary redundancies from both NationalWorld.com and the wider business. In July Press Gazette reported that the company’s headcount had declined by 27% in the 18 months since it acquired the former JPI Media newspaper titles.
The letter to HR said: “Everyone who was involved in data journalism, investigations and audience engagement [at NationalWorld.com] has now left our team, either as a result of the disastrous restructuring or the voluntary redundancies that immediately followed.”
The union claimed the restructure had initially involved the creation of eight new specialist roles, including deputy editor and SEO editor, but “half of the originally proposed roles are vacant or no longer exist”.
They said “a total lack of management capacity” had left staff feeling as though “there is no one left steering the ship” and that “stories submitted for editing by 5pm [are] still waiting to be subbed by lunchtime the following day…
“There have been times when items filed before the weekend are still waiting to be published on a Monday because there is nobody with the time to check them.”
The letter describes unclear delineation of roles, with SEO writers and generalist and specialist reporters “pushed around from team to team without any discussion”.
Similarly, it complains that the launch of National World’s Freeview channel, Shots!, has meant “valuable time that could be spent researching and writing stories is wasted on chasing unwilling members of the public up and down the high street” for vox pops.
“Managers are increasingly talking about the page view performance of the team not being good enough, but in the next breath they will be telling one of us to go out to film mandatory vox pops that will generate no page views.”
Shots! launched last month and is populated with content produced by National World journalists around the country. The company did not hire new staff to run the channel.
The NUJ members said: “The kind of videos being suggested do not reflect the incisive, informed and intelligent coverage that was promised from our teams when NationalWorld.com was first launched.
“It’s clear that someone – presumably David Montgomery – has decided that a change in direction is needed, but nobody seems able to articulate what that means in practice.”
David Montgomery lays out ‘socially conservative’ themes for coverage
Montgomery, a long-time media executive who previously served as chief executive of the Mirror Group and Local World, was accused in the letter of steering NationalWorld.com to the political right against the wishes of employees.
The letter said: “The closest we’ve had to any steer on editorial direction is the note from David setting out his wish for us to focus on broad themes like the ‘control freakery of London-based leaders’, promoting ‘individual freedom and discipline’ and exposing those who ‘wilfully make no contribution to society’.”
“We are coming under increasing pressure to put our names to content that we disagree with…”
One National World journalist told Press Gazette those themes had been interpreted by staff “as a dog whistle for a move towards right-wing and socially conservative politics”.
The journalist echoed reports that Montgomery has directly involved himself in the output of the site, becoming “de facto editor” of NationalWorld.com and leading daily editorial meetings.
“What was perhaps the most shocking thing that resulted from us being thrust into this close encounter with David though was to see first-hand just how little clue he has about digital news… I don’t know of a single colleague left at NW.com that hasn’t lost total confidence in the management and editorial direction.”
In July the National World group NUJ chapel passed a vote of no confidence in Montgomery, urging shareholders to intervene as the company simultaneously cut roles while delivering a maiden dividend.
The letter said staff had been kept in the dark on the site’s aims: “How can we be expected to meet the goals required by the company if we have no idea what they are? All we know at the moment is that morale is at rock bottom and the page views aren’t far behind.
“We are being made to feel as though this is our fault, but we’re not to blame,” they continued, citing the recent redundancies.
Voluntary redundancy reopened for NationalWorld staff
August’s NationalWorld.com letter to HR concluded: “All the issues above have created a horrible working environment and, sadly, the behaviour of some of our managers is only fuelling the misery…
“Our managers should be people who we can trust to support us… Instead, we’ve had managers telling us that refusing a task is not an option – even if we are deeply uncomfortable with what is being asked of us.”
Those practices, it said, are “making daily life so unhappy for us, that has people unable to sleep properly at night… It feels like one endless mind game”.
“We don’t believe it is too late for these issues to be addressed and for this team to have a fresh start, but it’s clear that intervention by HR and other senior managers who can provide the necessary leadership is urgently needed.”
Press Gazette understands that since the letter was sent to HR, the offer of voluntary redundancy has been reopened to staff at NationalWorld.com but not the wider company.
The National World journalist with whom Press Gazette spoke said: “The attitude is ‘if they don’t like it, they can go’.”
During the last voluntary redundancy round in July National World invited staff who found the new operating model “concerning” to apply for the scheme.
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