By Roy Greenslade
Mike Gilson, the best editor the Brighton Argus has had in many a long year, has left the newspaper in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
Staff have not been informed why he has gone. The managing director of Newsquest Sussex, Tony Portelli, did not return a phone message. However, his personal assistant, who also acted as Gilson’s secretary, did confirm that he had departed.
Some of the Argus journalists were not surprised at the turn of events. They know that Gilson pressed for investment in order to transform the Argus into a quality paper. They say his plans were rejected out of hand.
Last week, Gilson was quoted in his own paper when celebrating the move of editorial staff into new offices in the city’s centre after 24 unhappy years in its outer fringes.
He said the move “sees the Argus rooted back into the community it serves” and believed it would help to “keep our finger on the pulse of the county’s beating heart”.
Gilson’s finger, however, will not be one of those on the Brighton pulse. He has been removed unceremoniously after less than two years in the post.
It is further confirmation of Newsquest’s parsimonious approach to newspaper publishing in general and the Argus in particular. It is a profit-seeking company that does not care about journalistic quality.
As long as the paper comes out every day, it has little interest in the content. Its managers – whether in Britain or in the United States, where its parent company, Gannett, is based – view editorial as an expensive necessity to ensure there is something between the all-important adverts.
Unsurprisingly, readers have turned their backs on the paper. It now sells barely 12,000 copies a day in one of Britain’s most thriving cities.
For 20 years, I have watched the Argus’s newsroom being strangled almost to death. And its final breath cannot be far away.
Gilson was almost the only experienced journalist on the staff and, under his leadership, there was no doubt that it had improved. Local politicians and business people were full of praise. But Gilson recognised that if it was to have any worthwhile future, then it needed a new focus.
With two large universities and a large educated, affluent, middle class population, he thought he had the answer in moving it up-market.
Gilson joined the Argus in February 2015 after spending five years as editor of the Belfast Telegraph. He also edited three papers before that: the Scotsman, The News in Portsmouth and the Peterborough Telegraph.
He has contributed a superb chapter to a forthcoming book about the parlous state of the newspaper industry, Lost for words: how can journalism survive the decline of print?
(Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Ray Snoddy and Richard Tait with Neil Fowler, it will be published next month by Abramis.)
His piece, based on the case histories of public interest reporting by his Argus journalists, illustrates the importance of a regional journalism that holds power to account.
He noted that “since 2008 more than 8,000 journalists have lost their jobs” across Britain, and commented: “Ironically this has not been deemed important enough a story. Newspapers have folded, commercial television news is decimated and only the BBC has staff in numbers … digital technologies have driven a coach and horses through media company business models.”
He praised “old-fashioned journalism” that tells “people things they didn’t know”. Accepting that news can be transmitted at speed, he argued that “we still need journalists with the time, training and passion to avoid this ever-increasing [democratic] deficit.
“No amount of digitally empowered bloggers, many of them diligent thorns in the side on a range of issues, will make up for the loss of professional reporting.
“In some towns, courts, council meetings and trust boards are all going unreported now. Meanwhile the explosion of press officers, more often journalists fleeing a shrinking industry and skilled at ‘social engagement’ now outnumber salaried journalists in many areas.”
It is hard not to imagine he had his employers, Newsquest, in mind when arguing that “the printed product can be re-invented … Long form journalism, analysis and investigation remain the best hope for the printed product.”
At the time of writing, Gilson had not returned messages asking him to comment on his departure from the Argus.
Roy Greenslade is professor of journalism at City University and a former Argus sub-editor.
This report first appeared on Roy Greenslade’s media blog on the Guardian website.
Since Roy Greenslade’s report was written this afternoon (Thursday 8 December), Tony Portelli, managing director of Newsquest South London and Sussex, said: “Mike Gilson, group editor for Sussex, has left the company. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank Mike for his contribution to the company and I hope that you will join me in wishing Mike every success in the future.
“With immediate effect Andy Parkes will take on the role of group managing editor for South London and Sussex. Andy is currently group managing editor for Newsquest South London. Andy will continue to report into me.
“Lucy Pearce will take on the role of editor/head of content for Newsquest Sussex also with immediate effect. In addition to driving the day to day news agenda Lucy will also be active in representing our titles within the business community.
“All staff that previously reported to Mike Gilson will now report into Lucy. Lucy will report into Andy Parkes.
“I am sure that you will join me in wishing both Andy and Lucy every success in their new roles.”