Production at the Mirror, the Express and hundreds of local newspapers could be disrupted by a strike after their parent company, Reach, said it could only offer staff a 3% pay rise.
The National Union of Journalists rejected the offer. He said his members were already bearing the brunt of additional household energy costs after Reach closed the vast majority of its offices during the pandemic. Many journalists now work permanently from home.
The union said profits at the company, which owns major regional headlines including the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo, jumped in 2021 when it paid its chief executive, Jim Mullen, a total package of worth £4 million.
David Higgerson, a senior Reach executive, told MPs on Tuesday that his boss’s salary was not excessive for the private sector, but confirmed that journalists at the group’s regional newspapers earn £21,000 a year, with the possibility of senior executives getting £25,000.
MPs stressed that this was not enough to start paying off the student debt that many young journalists had racked up to enter the profession. At a meeting of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in Cardiff, they questioned whether clickbait articles on local news sites were undermining traditional public interest journalism.
Higgerson admitted that some of his staff were concerned about the use of click targets as part of their post reviews, but insisted that many readers liked articles that went viral. “What is sometimes dismissed as insignificant is actually quite important to many of our readers,” he said.
The best way for local journalism to thrive was with a “successful business model”, he said. Reach increasingly ditched its traditional newspaper headlines and focused on branding its city-based live local news website. The approach attracted 18 million readers a year to the Manchester Evening News website, six times the population of Greater Manchester.
He also said Reach needed to hire a specialist employee to protect local journalists from online abuse, with one reporter telling him she had a good day at work because the abuse “just was low-level misogyny. “.
Higgerson said local Facebook groups were causing problems for her business, but she had no choice but to stay on the social network because of the large audience it delivered.
“There’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “If we say we’re not going to put our stuff on this platform, it has a direct impact on our ability to support journalism. It’s a tough place to be, both for brands and for the duty of care to our journalists.
Professor Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths, University of London, told the committee that low journalist salaries and high productivity demands affected the editorial management of local news outlets.
“If you have a precarious contract, you are more likely to be a docile journalist,” she said. “You won’t mind having to submit 17 stories a day. You only have to produce it because your contract depends on it. You’re never likely to stand up and say you disagree with that particular direction or that particular story.