U.K. journalists organize strike against churnalism

by Dana Liebelson
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

It's a story familiar to many reporters: budget and staff cuts force writers to resort to “churnalism,” the practice of rewriting press releases as original news.

But an editorial team in the U.K. isn’t willing to churn; the journalists are going on strike instead.

On April 19, nine journalists working for Tindle Newspaper’s North London and Herts papers will begin protesting a series of staff reductions and budget cuts that they argue has led to declining newspaper quality. During a two-week strike that will be documented on a blog, the staff will dress as the Grim Reaper and act out a funeral procession.

This isn’t the first time churnalism has been recognized as a growing problem among cash-strapped newspapers. IJNet recently reported on U.K. site churnalism.com, which was launched to expose this practice and talked to a reporter who had a "churn" story on the site.

IJNet spoke with features editor Jonathan Lovett, who is helping organize the strike, about churnalism, quality reporting and sustainable journalism.

IJNet: Why do you think churnalism is becoming more prevalent than it used to be?

Jonathan Lovett: Newspapers have suffered a double blow from the recession and the attractive benefits of advertising on the web. Churnalism has increased because the owners have been happy to save money through staff reduction.

As a consequence, the handful of hard-working reporters left don’t even have time to do the most rudimentary checks on their stories and get a few standard quotes—let alone investigate or generate stories themselves. These reporters have a lot of talent and are all senior level, but they are being wasted because the papers are focusing on quantity not quality. The net result is that our readers are being shortchanged with too much soft news and generic McCopy because we do not have the time to do a proper job. We have three reporters filling nine newspapers.

IJNet: Are you aware of the site Churnalism.com that exposes this practice in the U.K.?

JL: I have only recently discovered the site but I am full of praise for it. Perhaps it will lead people to question more and hold journalists accountable, which can only be a good thing.

IJNet: What specifically do you hope will come from the strike? How many journalists are participating so far?

JL: In the immediate future I hope we can make Sir Ray Tindle let the staff do their jobs and give readers a decent newspaper. What has impressed me so far is that we really seem to have hit a nerve. We have had hundreds of messages of support and yards of column space in the trade press. Many journalists from across the country have also pledged their support and will be joining us on the picket line.

IJNet: Will the community suffer from a lack of regional news during the strike?

JL: Unfortunately, our readers will suffer yet again by us going on strike. We wonder how on earth management will get the papers out over the next two weeks and there will certainly not be a great deal of local copy. But we hope the strike will be worth it so in the future, our readers will receive the papers they deserve.

IJNet: Do you think other journalists in the U.K. or abroad could benefit from striking over budget cuts and churnalism?

JL: Definitely. Striking should always be a last resort and we did everything we could to avoid it. We had nearly a year of negotiations and dozens of meetings with management and we would have accepted very little not to protest. We even said that we would call the whole thing off if management would give us one reporter on a 12-month fixed term contract, or a guarantee that if anyone else leaves, they would be replaced. Surely this was not too much to ask?

Unfortunately, we received absolutely nothing and we were told we should be grateful to have our jobs. Our hope is other journalists around the country follow our lead and stick up for themselves and their readers. The strike really does restore a sense of self-respect to a much-abused workforce.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Dodorema