Forget Boozy Fleet St Image - Newspapers Turned Lean Long Ago; Not So Easy Now: Newspaper Journalists a Generation Ago Worked at a Time When Profits Were Thin and Accountability Was Poor

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Byline: ROY GREENSLADE

JOURNALISTS on national newspapers have become so used to job cuts The Independent announced a 20% cull of its 260-strong editorial workforce yesterday that it has blinded them to reality. Many editorial staffs are larger than they were a quarter of a century ago. Others are roughly the same size.

I admit that I was prey to such prejudice, which is why I set out to compare staff sizes 20 years ago, 10 years ago and now, expecting a very different result.

The task was also largely fruitless.

Newspapers, even those that boast of being papers of record, are poor at retaining in-house archives. Few have any records going back a decade, let alone further, and most were reticent about providing statistics, viewing them as commercially sensitive. It was also impossible to match like with like.

Aside from the ballooning size of papers, with extra pagination, supplements and magazines, the major problem is that website recruitment has distorted the figures, and they are rarely broken down.

One paper that was candid enough to provide data, the Financial Times, revealed that in 1988 it had about 150 editorial staff, in 1998 about 300 and, wait for it, today it has 550. The Guardian's staffing has also risen noticeably, though it was only able to go back to 2002, when its newsprint editorial staff totalled 448. Now it is 503. Meanwhile, over the past six years, its website staff has risen from 117 to 176.

There are cases where staffs have declined considerably, notably at the Daily Express, which boasted a staff of 320 in 1986. That fell to 230 by 1995 and it stands now at 215. That will go down further once it dispenses with 36 subeditors next month. A Daily Mirror spokesman also confirmed that its total has fallen, though no hard figures are available.

The Daily Telegraph did have about 600 staff at one point in the last decade, under its previous ownership. But it is now integrated with its Sunday stablemate and its combined total is said to be approximately 550 (though the union disputes this, claiming it is closer to 480).

The Independent's newsroom staff had already decreased since the early 1990s even before yesterday's announcement of 60 redundancies which will leave it with a team of 200.

The figures are very interesting but they tend to conceal the fact that the wages of many new online recruits are lower in real terms than starting salaries 20 years ago. Most importantly, the figures do not reveal that most journalists work harder than we veterans ever did in our Fleet Street days. They are more focused and more industrious.

However, this needs to be placed in context. Given the much smaller size of newspapers during the pre-computerised, pre-digital era, editorial staffing was disproportionately higher.

I'd lay odds that, the staff-per-page ratio is much lower now than before Fleet Street's post-1986 decline. There were broadsheets with no more than 24 pages, often fewer. …