Joe Robinson's News
Life is tough in regional newspapers at the moment.
The newspaper industry was once a licence to print money. It isn't any more.
There's a spiral of decline that doesn't seem to have an easy exit strategy.
Around 20 years ago for example, the 'LSA Express' had a team of reporters - led by the extremely capable and detached Barbara Crossley - that numbered half a dozen reporters, plus editorial staff.
Today they have just part of an editor, and two reporters.
There used to be Gazette and Express reporters at every council meeting, and at most committee meetings.
Now, most of the Council and Cabinet meetings are unreported except for the press statements issued by the Council, after (or in some cases before) them. And only the most contentious issues justify the attendance of a real reporter.
Local investigative journalism is now a dying skill, and the spatial needs of advertising revenue have forced journalists into a superficiality that goes beyond clarity and brevity.
The introduction of new technology is doing away with staff, and forcing those that remain to adapt to become 'jacks of all trades' as they do the work of reporter, copy-taker, typesetter, sub-editor, and even photographer.
The need for such change is as understandable as it is unwelcome.
The Gazette and LSA Express' publisher (Johnson Press) reported a 56% drop in profits during 2009 after a significant decline in advertising revenue.
In its results for the year ending January 2010, it reported profits of £43.3m from revenues of £428m, which were down 19.5% year on year.
The fall was led by a 26.5% decrease in advertising revenues that were only partially offset by cost cutting
measures such as the introduction of the new Atex content management system - where journalists are, we understand, tearing their hair out, at being automatically provided with pre-determined column inches (or probably column centimetres these
days) to fill each day, on templated page layouts.
We've seen the Atex system described elsewhere as "an all-singing, all-dancing, record-keeping and reminder program for advertising representatives, with integrated content and production links" so you get the picture.
With declining revenue, a dying (literally) readership, and reducing circulation, the cost saving measures to remain profitable are forcing those who entered journalism as a vocation; as a calling; into uncomfortable positions.
It's a picture not unfamiliar to us.
It has striking parallels with the introduction of the 'competitive tendering' regime for grounds maintenance (and other manual services) in local authorities some years ago.
This forced people who - for example - saw their role of looking after public parks and gardens as a vocation, and who felt their work to be a cross between science and art, to become mere functionary 'jobsworths' - destroying their job
satisfaction, and the reason they came into the work, at a stroke.
We recall an excellent anecdote we were given to describe the change in ethos that this system wrought - Imagine, if you will, an American Tourist walking into the Sistine Chapel and seeing a chap laid on his back on a board close to the ceiling
with a candle strapped to his forehead painting the artwork, and hearing the tourist shout up - "Hey fellah, that aint a bad job at all. How many of them can you do in a month?"
Devaluing the skill of the artist is a loss to us all.
And in newspapers, this is really important. Because although breaking news is now readily available 24 hours a day from radio and TV networks, and can be beamed to millions of websites and cell phones, and some aspects of local news can be picked up
from blogs, RSS feeds and 'The Daily Me' such as counterbalance or PhilTheOne in Blackpool, we are not as comprehensive, and the radio and TV news can never be as local, as the coverage
of a comprehensive, locally based newspaper staffed by those who do the job for the satisfaction of it.
And when you take away the job satisfaction, you lose the best players.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Gazette's loss of its South Fylde reporter, Joe Robinson, who leaves the Gazette today to take up - in the words of Monty Python -
'something completely different'
counterbalance rubs occasional shoulders with most of the local media, and the South Fylde reporters in particular, so we get to know them quite well.
Joe will be a huge loss to the Gazette. His (comparatively to us) tender years, belie both a sound and mature capability, and probably the most easy-going manner we have ever come across in a journalist.
You instinctively feel you can trust him, and he won't abuse that trust. His reports and articles, (unlike ours, because we don't claim to be), are always balanced, and he usually gets the inside track.
Sure, from time to time, he takes a position that doesn't agree with yours (but then, there are many that would say so do we), and he might seem to be having a go at you, or at least at what you are doing, or he might not be able to cover
something you feel ought to be highlighted, but we found him to be solid with professional integrity, and very easy to talk to.
So today, we're very sad he's leaving the Gazette.
The people of South Fylde will be the poorer for it, and a new journalist will have to get to know us.
We asked Joe for a parting comment, and he told us....
"It's been an absolute pleasure working with everyone in Fylde from all the local campaign groups to the councillors and politicians on all sides.
Everyone, even if I was having a pop at them as the job sometimes required, has been really nice and I hope they all feel my writing was balanced and informed and I did more good than harm.
The fact that everyone has been so helpful made the job much easier and shows why Fylde is such a nice place to live.
At The Gazette too the staff are absolutely first class and are trying their upmost, under very difficult circumstances, to keep standards up.
They are all quality people and I would urge anyone, if ever they see a few mistakes creeping in, to remember the pressures the newspaper industry is under at the moment.
Staff numbers are constantly being reduced and it is making things very, very difficult.
It is only thanks to the hard work and huge numbers of hours worked by those in charge that the paper actually gets on to the shelves.
The senior staff, particularly Jon Rhodes, Paul Fielding and Alison Bott as well as Heather Butler before she left, have helped me so much, both professionally and personally, and I owe them an immense debt of gratitude."
So Joe's gone. - Who's going to cover South Fylde now?
Well it's not yet been announced, but we understand one likely name in the frame is Helen Steel. If that's right, we look forward to getting to know her better.
And what's the 'something completely different' that Joe is moving into?
Well, it was a big surprise to us, as it will be to most readers we guess. We hear he's going to work for Fylde's new MP Mark Menzies as a researcher and local point of contact whilst Mr Menzies is in London at Westminster during the week.
That strikes us firstly as being a very good idea on Mr Menzies part, and secondly, a good choice of someone to represent him locally.
Someone as easy to talk to as Joe, with the integrity and trust that he brings with him, will be both a credit and an asset.
We wish the partnership well.
Dated: 6 June 2010