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Unreality check

16 Mar

THE managing director, Don K Jacket, has circulated an email announcing the creation of a new executive role – Assistant Editor (Grassroots News). This has caused a stir among a workforce that has suffered redundancy upon redundancy over the past four years and has seen its workload and stress levels increase dramatically.

It’s late at night and the Misfit is twitching in her chair.

Misfit: “Didn’t they have an Assistant Editor (Grassroots News) at one time, and wasn’t he made redundant?”

Leek Man: “It was Mad Max the Manxman. Yes, he was one of the first to get the chop.”

Misfit: “But can they do that – make someone redundant when it suits them then recreate his position for someone else when it suits them?”

Leek Man: “Yes, because they have no concept of reality. What is reality in the present will be unreality in the past. Irrespective of the legal aspect of the redundancy process, they’ll do whatever they need to do in the present, and fuck what went before. That will have been brushed aside.”

Pause.

Misfit: “If we ignore reality and give ourselves executive titles, will that protect our jobs?”

Leek Man: “I expect it will.”

Misfit: “Good. I’ll be Assistant Editor (Stories About Furry Meerkats at Bristol Zoo). What will you be?”

Leek Man: “I’ll be Assistant Editor (Bloody Axe of Retribution and Merciless Avenger Destined to Snap One Day and Twat All the Executives).”

Misfit: “That’s that sorted then.”

There’s no such thing as a . . .

22 Feb

CHIEF reporter Big Bernard is shuffling papers rather seriously as he prepares for afternoon conference. Everyone files into the Editor’s office and sits down. The Editor looks around and everyone looks back.

Editor: “Bernard. You got a splash for us?”

Big Bernard: “Boss. I have a splash for you. And it’s a good one. And it’s just this moment come together.”

Editor: “Let’s hear it then.”

Big Bernard: “In a nutshell, we’ve learned through a Freedom of Information request that the chairman of the local health authority has run up an expenses bill of £5,000 in restaurant costs over the past year – £600 of that blown on one night for him and his mates in a posh restaurant just before Christmas.”

Editor: “Whoa . . . How do we stand with this – legally?”

Big Bernard: “It’s all in the public domain. But it’s our Freedom of Information request so we have it all to ourselves. It’s exclusive.”

Editor: “Go on then.”

Big Bernard: “The £600 was spent in one night at The Pink Trees Hotel, which is somewhere between York and Leeds. We’ve got a picture of it, so we could use that on the front page.”

Editor: “And this was just before Christmas, you say?”

Big Bernard: “Correct.”

Editor: “Do the expenses say who else was at the meal?”

Big Bernard: “No. Why?”

Editor: “Because I think I might have been there.”

Moment’s silence.

Big Bernard: “Wow. It’s a plush spot. What did you have?”

Editor: “Can’t remember. But it was good. And I think someone paid my taxi home.”

Big Bernard: “Oh. Where does that leave us?”

Editor: “Dunno. Shall we go away and think about it and reconvene in half an hour?”

In a nutshell . . .

18 Feb

NITHERLEY Football Club are in severe financial straits. The Nitherley Observer and Bugle is running a campaign of support. The Editor puts one of his many ideas to conference:

Editor: “I’ve had this great idea to get away from all the financial stuff and add a bit of colour to maintain readers’ interest. We give the club mascot a video camera and do a video diary for the website, and we follow this up with a first-person piece in the paper.”

Big Bernard, the chief reporter: “What, that bloody daft dog?”

Barry the Business Editor: “It’s not a dog, it’s a racoon or something.”

Editor: “Fer fuck’s sake. It’s not a racoon, it’s a fucking squirrel.”

Big Bernard: “It’s not a squirrel, it’s a big brown dog with big pointed ears.”

Editor: “Yeh? And what’s big and brown with pointed ears? It’s Nutkin the Squirrel. It’s official name is Nitherley Nutkin.”

Big Bernard: “So we give Nitherley Nutkin a video camera and it does a video diary, and then it follows it up with a first-person – or first-squirrel – piece for the paper?”

Barry the Business Editor: “Can I just say something before I go back to my desk? If you’re going to approach Nitherley Nutkin you need to talk to the man who wears the costume, not Nitherley Nutkin himself because he’s just a fur and foam suit.”

Moment’s silence.

Editor: “Thank you for that, Barry. Now will you please attend to your duties and fuck off back to your desk?”

Barry the Business Editor: “Will do, boss. No probs.”

Barry leaves the room and closes the door behind him.

Editor: “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if ever the job of investigative journalist comes up and I suggest Barry, tell me I’m fucking nuts.”

Big Bernard: “Like a squirrel.”

Editor: “Like a fucking squirrel.”

Window of opportunity

15 Feb

I CLIMB the stairs to the Deputy Editor’s office to find him leafing through a leather-bound volume of the defunct Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society accounts. I notice a long metal object, shaped like a truncheon, on the desk next to his telephone.

I pull up a chair and gaze around the semicircular office at the wonderful things he’s managed to amass over the years: thirteen clocks, an Imperial typewriter, a set of Russian dolls, piles of railway magazines, a cobalt-blue Codd bottle and a complete set of I-Spy books. On the floor are more metal truncheons. These are a recent addition.

“What are those things that look like truncheons?” I ask, curiosity getting the better of me. “Truncheons?”

“Ahhhh . . .” he says, peering up from his account book. “They most certainly are not truncheons. They are cast-iron weights from sash windows. This one here on my desk is from a Regency window. The ones on the floor are largely Victorian. But the history and development of the sash window can be traced back as far as the 16th Century – in Britain at least. In Holland they go back even further. Did you know that Blenkinsop’s Foundry in Pontefract was a major producer of sash window weights?”

“Fascinating,” I say. And he laughs, because he knows I’m taking the piss.

“What brings you up here to my lonely garret, Pork Chop? Not that I want to be distracted, because I’m working on a piece for my Yesterday Today series and these accounts of the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society are a mesmerising goldmine of facts. Did you know that one of the most popular commodities the Co-op provided in its early days was white doorstep paint? Doorsteps in Newbiggin – a colliery community – were all painted white, apparently, so that the women had to scrub them every day to keep them clean.”

“Fascinating,” I say again. “I just wondered why the Editor has been summoned down to head office. Is there something in the wind?”

“Ooooooh . . .” says the Deputy Editor. “I’d be surprised if he knew himself why he’s been summoned.”

“More jobs going? More redundancies? Another wave of terror and bloodshed about to sweep through the offices of the Observer and Bugle, Nitherley’s great family newspaper?”

“God, I hope not,” says the Deputy Editor. “I don’t expect there’s much demand for collectors of sash window weights.”

“I don’t expect there is. What about doorstep painters? There might be an opening there. Is there still such a thing as doorstep paint?”

“I say, what a splendid idea. What a marvellous way to make a living. Hang on and I’ll Google it.”

I watch his fingers – more used to clattering the Imperial typewriter – fumbling across his keyboard. The clocks begin to chime 9pm. One buzzes.

“Gosh. My goodness. There’s plenty of doorstep paint on the market. Ronseal do tins for £6. That’s cheap.”

“Charge £10 a doorstep.”

“It’s the future. My word, the past is the future.”

“Yesterday Today.”

“Everything that goes around comes around.”

“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

As I rise to leave, he says: “I can’t go into business by myself, Pork Chop. I’ll need a partner or an apprentice – someone to stir the paint.”

“Put my name down.”

“Can you come up with a snappy company title?”

“Step On It.”

“You’re hired.”

Spit. No polish.

11 Feb

I’M sitting in Friday afternoon conference fighting an overwhelming desire to sleep. Up to now, the discussion has centred on heavy business stories, the economy, and the financial troubles of Nitherley United, the local football club.

The Editor is slouching in his executive chair. Chief reporter Big Bernard is yawning silently. Assistant Editor Tony Malone is tapping his fingernails on the arms of his chair. Blank Frank the website wizard is gazing vacantly through the window at pigeons sitting on the neighbouring roof. The Leek Man is shuffling his papers and preparing to give his presentation on the national news.

It’s more heavy stories – the economy, the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the plight of Andrew Lansley and his ill-fated NHS reforms, and bonuses for Barclays investment bankers. My eyelids feel like lead weights are hanging from them.

Leek Man: “And finally. Enfield council has launched a bid to ban spitting in the street. They have approached Communities Secretary Eric Fatboy Pickles for permission to introduce a bylaw to that effect.”

A moment’s silence while this information is digested by minds that are far from alert.

Blank Frank: “What if they don’t see yer spit? How can they arrest you?”

Leek Man: “How the hell should I know? That’s nothing to do with me. I’m just telling you what’s on the Press Association news list – ‘Council’s bid for spitting ban’.”

Blank Frank: “Yeh, but if they don’t see yer gobbing, if say you’re walking down an alley and there’s no one there and yer just gob in the gutter, how the hell can they catch you?”

Tony Malone: “But that can happen with any law – murder, assault, using a mobile phone while you’re driving. Democracy is underpinned by our acceptance of the law and our willingness to comply. If you break the law and gob in the street, then you knowingly run the risk of being caught and facing the consequences.”

Blank Frank: “And what if yer out running and yer need to spit – like footballers do? What happens then?”

Leek Man: “Jesus Christ. You’re breaking the fucking law, for fuck’s sake.”

Big Bernard: “What if it’s an accident? What if you’ve got a cold and you suddenly cough and this great big greeny comes out and hits a copper and runs down his tunic? What then?”

Leek Man: “Why don’t you fucking well ring up the chief executive of Enfield fucking council and fucking well fucking ask him?”

Editor, sitting forward in his executive chair: “That’s a fair point. People have accidents. Look at Paula Radcliffe crapping down that drain. She didn’t get up in the morning and say ‘Hey, I feel like a good shite but I’ll save it for later when I’m running the London Marathon.’ It just came over her all of a sudden and she had to do it there and then.”

Tony Malone: “They should do it with chewing gum too.”

Editor: “Do what with chewing gum too?”

Tony Malone: “Ban it along with spitting.”

Big Bernard: “But where would you put your chuddy? You’re not allowed to swallow it because it bungs up your insides.”

Editor: “You should do a Paula Radcliffe and spit it down the drain. The drains go into the sewers, don’t they? That’s probably why Paula got away with it – the drain went into the sewer so all she did, technically, was bypass the loo.”

Tony Malone: “No. The wastewater systems that take rainwater from the roads and the sewer systems are not interconnected, Boss. They discharge in different places, otherwise you’d get poo popping out of the drains every time it flooded.”

Editor: “Is that right? I didn’t know that. Anyway, spitting ban. Great story.”

Only two paragraphs on Enfield council’s spitting ban appear in Saturday’s edition of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle, yet it generated more discussion than the economy, the Leveson Inquiry, bankers’ bonuses and the state of the NHS rolled together. And it kept us awake.

A toast to the future

10 Feb

THE managing director is holding his six-monthly staff presentation in an area of the building that once housed the Nitherley Weekly News. The Weekly News still exists – but it’s no longer produced in Nitherley. People with strange accents, most of whom could not pinpoint Nitherley on a map of northern England if all the other towns were removed, produce it somewhere south of Yaddlethorpe.

In recent years a tradition has evolved on the editorial floor of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle. When the Empress Lu Zhi, the MD’s ruthless though highly-efficient personal assistant, sends journalists an email inviting them to the presentation, it is dutifully ignored. For some, this is a form of protest against job losses and the wage freeze – a snub to the man who has initiated several waves of redundancies and is attacking their quality of life. For others it’s just that they can’t be arsed.

So Don K Jacket holds his presentation in an office as empty as a prairie and as cold as the Steppes. A collection of advertising reps, cleaners, administrative staff and reception girls with amber faces huddle on chairs arranged in a half-moon like a cinema auditorium. And at the end they clap.

Then life returns to a subdued normality. Those among us who refused to attend the presentation soon learn of its content. Revenues are still down. Targets have been missed. The pay freeze will remain in place. But the outsourcing of production and services and the transfer of jobs to other areas of the country – that strategy has been a phenomenal success. Something to celebrate, apparently.

At midnight, as frost cracks pavements and noisy drinkers slide from pubs, I pull on my coat and wander through this vast and empty building. I walk along corridors that once thronged with people, pass through an echoing press hall that’s now used as a furniture storeroom, peer through windows into offices that have been locked since their inhabitants were sacked three years ago and their jobs exported to India. And I try to figure out what it’s all about.

What is a regional newspaper if it’s not produced by the people and for the people of that region? Is its existence justified purely by the necessity to generate profits and hit targets set by accountants who care little about journalism and venture north only to visit the Lake District? Or is it more than that? Is it a heart that should beat like a drum; an authoritative voice that should be heard and respected; a mirror to reflect the concerns of the public; a vehicle to inform, educate and entertain its readers?

Or perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps this emptiness, this dust, this self-inflicted decay, the haemorrhaging of jobs and seemingly voluntary freefall into obscurity is the true nature of free enterprise. Perhaps the people don’t want newspapers any more. Perhaps, instead, they would rather sit down to their boiled eggs and toast in a morning and click on an app. Instant information.

Perhaps the future – the real and profitable future – is instant eggs and instant toast.

Backs to the paywall

24 Jan

CONVERSATION on the Nitherley Observer and Bugle subs desk:

Leek Man: “Hey, have you seen this story on the Hold the Front Page website about the Greenock Telegraph introducing an online paywall?”

Geordie Mork: “No, Ah cannat say Ah hev.”

Leek Man: “It’s an exciting concept. Readers are having to pay for news.”

Geordie Mork: “Man. That’s what they did in the olden days. They divvent dae it now because it might save wor jobs.”

Leek Man: “Do you think the Greenock Telegraph’s on to something? Has someone sat down and initiated a thought process that has arrived at a logical conclusion? Like, ‘We’re paying reporters loads of money to write stories so instead of giving the finished product away for free we’ll sell it and get some return on our investment – perhaps even make a small profit?’ It works well in other sectors. Some might argue it’s the basis of the free market economy.”

Geordie Mork: “Gan an’ make wor a cup of tea Leek Man man, an’ divvent worry aboot it.”

Leek Man: The water heater’s still out of action.”

Geordie Mork: “Then gerrus two coffees from the machine.”

Leek Man: “There’s a 25p paywall.”

Geordie Mork: “Howay an’ shite. There’s another company that deserves ta gan oota business.”