FEATURE 

When publishers resort to mumbo jumbo

Most people understand the reasons for publishers’ cost cutting, but many are left confused and irritated by the convoluted statements that accompany them. Steve Dyson reports.

By Steve Dyson

When publishers resort to mumbo jumbo
A pretty ribbon.

Gobbledygook is the last thing publishers should be guilty of. But when it comes to announcing job cuts and title closures, the regional media seems to excel at misleading jargon.

Newsquest

Let’s focus on a few examples, starting with Newsquest’s job cuts in early 2018 after its acquisition of NWN Media, which came amid a promise of investment in new technology.

Newsquest’s statement carried by various media sites included this 33-word sentence: “The Company is to consider a reduction in editorial staffing numbers, in line with the recent changes to the print portfolio and pending roll-out of new editorial systems, which will significantly improve workflow.”

Another spokesperson added: “As a result of introducing more efficient systems, we are considering voluntary redundancy applications from editorial employees who may be interested in this. This forms part of our plan to ensure NWN Media has a sustainable future.”

Note the way the bad news is sandwiched by positive phrases: ‘significantly improve’, ‘more efficient systems’ and ‘sustainable future’. The same types of words were thrown up in the air to land again a few months later when Newsquest announced more cuts after buying the CN Group in Cumbria.

“These investments in our systems will make our business more efficient and streamline the way we work,” one spokesperson said. “They will allow us to collaborate more effectively with our new colleagues elsewhere in Newsquest and offer much greater resilience.”

‘Investments’, ‘efficient’, ‘streamline’, ‘collaborate’, ‘resilience’ … all of these are the jargon words that would fail any of the Plain English tests that local newspaper companies should be passing.

How about this instead (my interpretation): “We’re spending more on computers which means we don’t need as many staff, so some will lose their jobs. These cost savings will mean we can still make profits, which will help these titles to survive.”

Jargon words that would fail any of the Plain English tests that local newspaper companies should be passing.

Reach

Newsquest is not the only company that struggles to tell it the way it is, as shown by Trinity Mirror (now Reach) when it tried to explain why its ‘Live’ online brand roll-out in early 2018 meant almost 50 print jobs were going.

Trinity Mirror’s statement included the following gibberish: “Last autumn, the Birmingham Mail began to pilot a new publishing approach aimed at creating a completely standalone and sustainable digital business under the new brand of BirminghamLive.

“We have been very pleased with the progress made in Birmingham where audience numbers are showing healthy increases … and today we are announcing plans to extend the model across the West and East Midlands, and our Bristol / Gloucester / Somerset / Dorset regions. We are also continuing to refine our print production operations in some of these regions.”

Note the jargon words ‘standalone’ and ‘sustainable’ (there it is again), followed by the positive inference of phrases like ‘very pleased with the progress made’, ‘audience numbers are showing healthy increases’ and ‘continuing to refine’.

How about this instead (my words): “We’re cutting back on around 50 jobs in print, reflecting the fact that both newspaper sales and advertising revenues have fallen. These savings are helping us to invest more in online titles, which are growing.”

Senior management at Reach were playing with waffle again when the company announced more job cuts due to its continuing ‘Live’ brand roll-out in July of last year. A Reach spokesperson said: “It’s a restructure to accelerate our digital audience growth and consolidate our print publishing into a single regional unit.”

‘Restructure’, ‘accelerate’, ‘digital audience growth’ and ‘consolidate’ were the good old boardroom words bandied about here, and even though job losses were eventually admitted to, there was a clear attempt to hide them behind more double-speak.

Reach’s statement said: “The restructure will create a number of new roles and will lead to a marginal increase in staffing levels in Manchester, and a reduction of around seven roles in Huddersfield. We're consulting with teams about alternative roles and will be providing a full programme of training and support.”

Reach made sure it bunged in random positive phrases like ‘create a number of new roles’ and ‘marginal increase in staffing levels’ before whispering about ‘reduction’ in the final clause of the first sentence. It then quickly landed on a sentence cushioned with ‘consulting’, ‘alternative roles’ and ‘a full programme of training and support’.

The adage ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ comes to mind. But this poor level of transparency is not what we want from the trusted regional press, is it?

How about this instead (again, my words): “By merging production teams, we’re making around seven jobs redundant in Huddersfield, although there may be one or two new jobs in Manchester.”

More Reach cuts announced in November last year, based on merging regional production in the Midlands, were also enmeshed in a jargon-filled statement, as follows: “The proven success of regionalised print production, along with the investment in a common system across the Regionals division, has enabled us to further refine our workflows.

“We propose to take advantage of the new opportunities created by these changes to introduce one production model across Regionals editorial.”

Note ‘proven success’, ‘investment’, ‘further refine’, ‘advantage’ and ‘new opportunities’. How exciting does that sound? But then comes: “Specifically, we are today proposing to combine the print production operations of our seven daily titles in the West and East Midlands into a single operation to make the most efficient use of our resources. This move will not necessarily require anybody to relocate.”

That was a bit more worrying, but at least the last sentence about no-one having to move was a relief … until an extra sentence meant this was nothing but bad news, if the reader managed to get that far: “The proposed changes are expected to lead to the loss of six full-time equivalent roles in total across both regions.”

In this case, Reach should have at least started its statement with the ultimate truth, like this: “We’re making six roles redundant by introducing one production team across the Midlands.”

Even though job losses were eventually admitted to, there was a clear attempt to hide them behind more double-speak.

JPI Media

Over at what was until recently Johnston Press – now JPI Media – change management experts (oh no, they’ve got me at it now!) are perhaps the most experienced at spin, as shown in the company’s confusing statements about its Northern Ireland titles in March 2018.

A group spokesman said: “To better serve our readers across Northern Ireland, we are focusing more resource on our community reporting team, while also adding a reporter at the News Letter and creating a Northern Ireland Commercial Editor.”

Great news! What else can ‘better serve’, ‘more resource’, ‘adding a reporter’ and ‘creating an editor’ all in the same sentence mean? But hold on a minute, the above was then followed by: “This will mean redirecting a small amount of resource from other editorial areas within Northern Ireland, but an overall headcount reduction of just one.”

What began so encouragingly as a positive suddenly crash-landed as a negative, albeit a small one.

What was it that George Orwell said in his essay, Politics and the English Language? Ah, yes, here it is: “Language is a political issue, and slovenly use of language and clichés make it easier for those in power to deliberately use misleading language to hide unpleasant political facts.”

Exchange politics for business and that’s unfortunately what regional publishers are doing all too often today – when they should instead be proud of making things easier to understand.

This poor level of transparency is not what we want from the trusted regional press, is it?

NUJ reaction

The problem is that this distortion of facts can result in serious problems for publishers, with frustrated journalists even taking industrial action. Back in late 2017, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) announced a vote of no confidence in management at what was then Trinity Mirror’s (now Reach’s) Midland group of regional titles and threatened a ballot for industrial action mainly because they felt staff had been hoodwinked.

Here’s an edited outtake from a furious NUJ statement: “The chapel is appalled to discover the true scale of the job losses … After initially refusing to announce how many of our jobs will go, we now learn the ‘small’ reduction will see nearly 20 per cent of editorial staff gone … To add insult to injury, we remain in the dark about how this new project will look or work.

“In a cruel twist, only one week after production staff were told their jobs were safe, we are told that two more jobs will be axed in a ‘separate’ national cull … In light of this, the Chapel has taken a vote of no confidence for the vague proposals being made … [and] will immediately ballot for industrial action over these forced job losses, low staffing levels and high workloads.”

The point is that most people – including journalists and their unions – know that print sales and revenues are falling, and not only understand but almost expect ongoing cost-cutting by publishers as they strive to survive. In many cases, they want to help if they are approached honestly and transparently.

But instead of being rational and straightforward, publishers constantly attempt to insult the intelligence of their audience, leaving staff and even industry observers at best puzzled and at worst outraged by tortuous and disingenuous statements.

Only a handful of examples have been scanned and highlighted in this article. But why not take a look at any publisher’s recent statement about job cuts or title closures, and you’ll quickly spot your least favourite chunks of misleading jargon or gobbledygook. It’s time publishers – in the business of clear communications – learned from these mistakes.

This distortion of facts can result in serious problems for publishers.