Reach has offered staff earning £60,000 or less a 4% pay rise and assured them the current round of mass redundancies does not mean the company’s digital strategy has failed.
Staff earning more than £60,000 would not receive a pay rise under the plan, with Reach saying it wants to prioritise its lower-earners during the current cost of living crisis and revenue downturn.
Last week Reach’s chief digital publisher David Higgerson and group editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley told editorial staff redundancies would need to be made in order to respond to a “combination of unprecedented cost inflation, a challenged consumer economy and an industry-wide decline in open-market advertising yields”.
The National Union of Journalists later revealed the proposals involve putting 420 journalists at risk in order to cut 192 jobs. However the plans could still alter: an earlier round of redundancies launched in January saw about 80 jobs lost from an original plan of 200.
Press Gazette understands that Reach will continue to employ about 1,200 regional and local journalists following the planned redundancies. Including its national titles – the Mirror, Express and Star – Reach employed 2,862 journalists in total at the end of 2022.
The regional teams will undergo some restructuring, with the largest newsrooms including the Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo continuing to focus on scale while mid-sized and small regional titles change their targets to focus more on engagement metrics (rather than overall page views). Some specialist and insight roles will be centralised as part of this process.
This follows the decision earlier this year for nine Reach websites to take a “newsletter-led approach” making email their primary means of content delivery rather than the websites. This change has taken place on the “Live” websites in Norfolk, Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex and Hampshire.
Staff were told at a town hall meeting led by Higgerson on Friday that the changes did not mean Reach’s strategy until now has failed, but rather that it has put the company into a good place to weather the current storm with a large audience. The publisher reached 37.9 million people in the UK in February, according to the latest Ipsos iris figures (making it the largest commercial online news provider in the UK).
Reach staff were told that the customer value strategy, Reach’s drive for registered users and more first-party data that launched in 2020, has already been bringing in millions in additional revenue per year with 12.7 million registered users as of the end of January – many of whom view more than ten times the number of pages compared to non-registered users.
A Reach spokesperson told Press Gazette: “The overarching strategy of the business remains the customer value strategy, which as we shared earlier this month has been progressing to plan, with data-driven revenues up over 50% in 2022, to almost a third of digital revenue overall.
“We are also still very proud to serve the largest audience of any commercial publisher in the UK and Ireland. However, it is no secret that we and other publishers need to continuously adapt and find ways to engage with our audiences more independently of the tech platforms.
“Working to build a more secure audience will be an essential building block this year and alongside the customer value strategy will give us more control over our destiny and even greater insight into our readers.”
Additional revenue areas that the publisher believes could help it respond to the current advertising downturn include affiliates, podcasts, video and paid-for premium offerings. However the customer value strategy will remain the linchpin of its plan.
News fatigue and Tiktok lead to ‘online attention recession’
The town hall also explained further the idea of an “online attention recession” hitting Reach that means it needs “to return our digital audience to growth”, as mentioned in Higgerson and Embley’s initial message to staff about the proposed redundancies.
The latest Ipsos iris data shows time spent with Reach sites dropped by 28% year-on-year in February 2023, totalling one billion minutes last month.
Staff were told one reason may be rising news avoidance across both local and national topics, an issue worrying three-quarters of global news leaders at the start of the year.
Higgerson had raised news avoidance as a challenge for 2023 in comments to Press Gazette at the start of this year. He said at the time: “It is easy to focus on the probable recession and what that means for journalism when looking ahead to 2023, or to obsess about what the big traffic referrers will do next, but I think news avoidance is the bigger issue which trumps both… My attempt to solve it means paying more attention to, well, attention. As in attention time. We know people are spending more time than ever online, but research constantly tells us more and more people believe they are actively avoiding news.”
He had suggested the answer lies in being useful, and therefore relevant, to readers – and that this would also help solve the “platform dilemma”.
Staff were also told of pressure on local news as Facebook withdraws from supporting news, and of the difficulties posed by the fact platforms such as Tiktok keep people on their own websites and apps rather than encouraging them to click through to publishers.
Need for daily and direct audiences
Doubling down on the customer value strategy will, therefore, involve a push to develop direct audiences who come to Reach sites as part of a daily habit.
Chief executive Jim Mullen said in Reach’s annual report, published on Tuesday: “We now have around 5.6 million registered users who accessed our content within the last 28 days. That’s important because these relationships are the lifeblood of our brands.
“Being a growing part of our customers’ daily lives means customer interactions and the data they generate are more recent, more relevant and more valuable for advertisers.”
The annual report revealed how Reach began concentrating on developing four “strategic pillars” in 2022: “driving deeper customer engagement, growing new audiences, being the go-to place for local news and diversifying revenues”.
‘Lack of hope and confidence’ among staff
However, not all staff are equally convinced by the company’s proposals of the past week and NUJ reps in the Reach group chapel unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in senior management on Friday.
Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, said the vote was “a reflection of the strength of feeling amongst journalists across the company, and how deeply worried they are about their job security and how the company’s strategy affects them and their families.
“There is a lack of hope and confidence in the decisions being made – about the direction of travel, the shape of the business in future, about the ever-changing priorities and about how the process is being handled.”
One Reach regional journalist told Press Gazette that they and their colleagues feel “demoralised” and like they are “constantly being given contradictory messages” between the importance of scale and the need for loyal audiences.
“Or we’ll be told that we need to focus more on original local content, but we’re not necessarily given the time to achieve that because our targets in terms of how much content we have to produce are so high. We’re told that we want to bring more weekend style feature type content into the week and then they’re cutting the kind of roles that produce that content. It feels aimless, like it’s constantly changing.
“They’re constantly talking about the latest Facebook algorithm and how that’s going to cause a drop off in page views and it genuinely so often feels like no matter what we do, it’s not enough.”
A former staffer, who has recently left the company, voiced fears that print titles (which account for 75% of revenue) are being neglected.
They said: “Even during the ongoing cost of living crisis, enough loyal readers still go to their local shop, petrol station or supermarket to pick up a copy of the paper they’ve read for years to keep the company afloat.
“But instead of rewarding them, Reach continually puts up the cover price, reduces pagination and shares content between titles. It has said so publicly in financial reports to the City.
“Not only that, even font size has become larger. Equivalent news stories and features are consequently considerably shorter than they were a few years ago.
“Dedicated readers are paying more for less. In the meantime, the same content can be read for free online.”
They said despite the customer value strategy there is still an “incessant demand for quantity over quality” online and questioned why the company does not invest in ad-free subscription digital products “containing the quality content which people pay for in print”.
One of the regional websites where redundancies are proposed is My London, which launched in 2018 and saw a burst of page views growth that meant it briefly overtook the Evening Standard before dropping down again.
Fourteen My London reporters have been put at risk of redundancy, with eight likely to be cut, leaving five general reporters and one what’s on writer. The number of content editors may reduce by three to have one executive editor and six content editors, with ten people put at risk of redundancy. Meanwhile the site’s social media and audience engagement team will combine with other titles in the South East, with seven put at risk of redundancy likely resulting in a reduction in four roles.
Roles not put at risk include the race and diversity editor, transport editor, TV writer, court and crime reporter, politics and people reporter, chief reporter and photography. BBC-funded local democracy reporters, Facebook-funded community reporters and those working on the Reach-wide Curiously project targeting 16 to 34-year-olds on social media are also safe.
Several regional editors have announced their departures over the past week, including Jamie Macaskill at the Hull Daily Mail, Teesside Gazette/Teesside Live’s Ian McNeal, Cheshire Live’s Frances Barrett, Staffordshire Live and the Burton Mail’s Julie Crouch, and Leicester Mercury, Leicestershire Live, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry Live and Northants Live editor Adam Moss.
Alison Gow, who was most recently interim audience and content director for video and audio and has also served as audience and content director for the North West, announced she was leaving after 19 years at Reach a day before news of the redundancy proposals was announced.
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