Press gang

advent of electronic publishing had forced the magazine industry to improve its
recruitment and retention practices and led to the launch of an HR network
group last year.  Veronica Simpson
reports on the network’s progress in raising the profile of HR issues

The supposed glamour of a career in publishing has often been considered
lure enough to justify a cavalier attitude to staff recruitment, salaries, training
and conditions among much of the industry. HR has often found it hard to gain a
foothold in an industry which traditionally exults in its macho management
culture and hard-nosed business approach.

The periodical publishing industry ranges from large companies responsible
for many of the magazines on newsagents’ shelves to tiny operations publishing
specialist journals for small audiences.

Philippa Kennedy, editor of the journalists’ newspaper The UK Press Gazette,
says, "The trouble with this industry is that the rewards at the top are
so great, young people will put up with shoddy treatment in the hope that one
day they will hit pay dirt. It’s still a very unfair and precarious industry to
work in."

But the dotcom explosion two years ago enforced a much-needed reassessment
of priorities in some quarters (although by no means all). Suddenly,
experienced staff were jumping ship from old technology to new, and good
replacements were very thin on the ground. The result was that publishers were
forced to review their approach to training and career progression, recruitment
and retention.

Now the industry body the Periodical Publishers Association has launched its
own HR managers network – a regular (three times a year) gathering of HR
managers to facilitate the exchange of information, ideas and legal and
commercial updates.

The PPA’s training officer Felicity Keane says, "It was launched
because in many companies there is only one person in charge of HR, and they
found it quite isolating. You need opportunities to network and mix."

As a result of this group’s existence over the past seven months, several
major publishing companies have agreed to cooperate with a full salary survey,
alongside a benchmarking study of HR practices, so that direct comparisons can
be made. At the suggestion of the HR Network group, the PPA has also initiated
a graduate recruitment fair, which will take place this October.

Says Keane, "HR has been raised up the agenda, to the extent that it
was a topic for discussion at the PPA’s CEO conference for the first
time." As an indicator of intent, it is a positive move. But this network
is a self-selecting community, as it comes from publishers who belong to the
PPA and of representatives from publishers who are progressive enough to have
HR staff in the first place – still by no means common.

It mustered 30 representatives for its first meeting but only just over 20
for the second. Judy Little, who chairs the HR managers network group and is
also HR director at The Economist, concedes that there is still a long way to
go. "HR is still a fledgling discipline in magazine publishing. You have
to remember that magazine publishing is not a homogenous industry. It goes from
the large, reputable organisations such as The Economist or NatMags to one-off

"And the presence of good HR practice is by no means indicated by the
size or presence of an HR department: small companies will often take quite
good care of their staff but not have the resources for an HR division as such.
And there are medium-sized outfits where the HR role is little more than
administrative – the management has no idea what good HR is and wouldn’t
understand its importance if you explained it to them."

Little confirms that the big issue in publishing HR, for the past two years
at least, has been recruitment and retention of staff although, with the recent
bursting of the dotcom bubble, she predicts it may become less of a pressing

"However, companies are still concerned that they can attract new,
young people into the industry and then hold on to them. And it still remains
hard to get good, experienced people in sales and specialist editorial."

One by-product of the recruitment problems in the industry is that it has
put pressure on managers to offer higher salaries. This has caused problems for
employers in an industry where there are no formal job grades and benchmarking
is difficult. The main recruitment vehicle, The Guardian’s Monday Media
edition, has no salary information in many of its magazine job adverts, for
sales or editorial staff.

One out-of-London publisher pays rookie salespeople £10,000 a year plus
bonuses, while a major rival pays its sales graduates £14,000 basic plus
commission, with structured reviews over 18 months that should end up at
£17,000 basic, regardless of inner or outer London location. The company would
not, however, give any starting salary for journalists. Another company, which
recently won IIP status, declares, "There are very few of our employees
earning less than £15,000 a year."

The PPA HR network group plans to undertake a salary survey which will help
to clarify matters, although the information will be kept confidential between

Linda Rogers, the National Union of Journalists’ national magazines and
books organiser, says union derecognition has made it difficult for publishers
to benchmark salaries with competitors. "No publisher has been looking at
salaries in a systematic way," claims Rogers.

"We think it works against the company, as it makes the salary bill
very hard to calculate, and the current ad hoc system certainly does not help
line managers to plan their department budgets. We also feel that this
situation discriminates against women, who will notoriously talk themselves
down, as opposed to men, who will generally talk themselves up."

The lack of information on pay has also made it difficult to attract
freelance and casual staff, who make up a large proportion of the workforce
where high staff turnover and peaks and troughs in activity are the norm.
Freelance rates in many companies have barely gone up in the past 10 years.

Access to casual staff is vital to publishers because with continual new
launches, it is important to be able to assemble skilled staff quickly but on a
temporary basis.

London-based John Brown Publishing’s HR manager Helen Watson reckons
freelancers can make up 10 per cent of staff at any one time. "We are
putting together an information pack for freelancers so they know about health
and safety issues. It’s very important that they are briefed," says

This rapid ebb and flow of the workforce gives HR managers considerable
challenges in internal communications. A former employee in one of the larger
companies says staff learned about the acquisition of an important publication
in the US from the company newsletter, after the line manager failed to
announce the development to the team in person. However, many publishing houses
are using e-mail message boards and intranet technology to rectify the
communications problem.

In an industry where managers were traditionally selected because of their
prowess in sales or marketing, there is an increasing investment in management
training. Geraldine Pace, managing director of publishing industry training
company Communications Skills Europe, says, "The value of training has
filtered down as a real advantage, both in attracting and keeping staff, even
in the smallest companies."

However, according to Pace, sales training tends to be the priority, as it
brings faster short-term gains. She estimates that only 10 per cent of
companies really base training on individual needs and focus on career
advancement across all disciplines.

are putting more emphasis on developing staff, however. Two years ago, when
Haymarket, one of the UK’s largest privately owned magazine publishing
companies, failed its assessment for Investors in People, the company brought
in an HR manager. Helen Tiffany has introduced job descriptions and regular
appraisals focusing on training needs and career progression. "Haymarket
was very old-school, very commercially-driven," says Tiffany.

"Personnel was a department you rang to find out how much holiday you
had left. Since the dotcom departures, we have concentrated on making sure we
are providing career management in the company.

"Almost all staff have job descriptions and we make sure managers
regularly appraise their staff, are trained to do so, and through that
appraisal process we provide a variety of different training opportunities. I think
these are the basics that everyone should be aspiring to. And we now have 16
in-house trainers – senior managers who are willing to train people. That’s a
huge commitment."

Another factor limiting the development of management talent has been the
tendency in the past to promote only sales managers to the role of publisher,
in charge of overall commercial direction and magazine budgets. Some companies
are trying to open up management careers to journalists. Haymarket’s recently
launched publishing training scheme is open to all disciplines, for example.

Emap, one of the UK’s largest periodical publishers, has introduced for
editorial staff in two of its divisions a system of coaching, training all
senior managers in coaching and mentoring to keep a focus on developing the
in-house talent. All advertising staff go through an induction programme, with
extra targeted training thereafter. Other career development initiatives
include coaching and 180- and 360-degree feedback.

Across the industry as a whole, lack of opportunities at senior level is one
of the reasons staff turnover is high in the industry. Many companies estimate
staff churn is about 25 per cent and most employees leave at between 18 months
and two years.

The Economist’s Little says the industry’s new awareness of the importance
of staff retention and career development means it is attracting more skilled
HR professionals, "I am encouraged to see that the calibre of HR staff [in
magazine publishing] is improving," she says. "HR is higher on the
agenda but there is still a long way to go."

Case Study: John Brown Publishing
Headline features of HR function

John Brown Publishing was started in 1987 with three magazines and is now
one of a growing number of media companies specialising in contract and
customer magazines. It currently has 15 titles in its portfolio, including
specialist consumer and business titles. There are 180 staff at the specially
converted offices in west London and business is ex- panding in the US.

company’s HR manager is Helen Watson, and there is an HR officer to take care
of all personnel matters from payroll to training and development, and
reporting to the finance and operations director.

The HR function has been in place for seven months but it inherited a fairly
mature HR system in terms of training and appraisals. Also, Brown’s accessible
style as a director has fostered an approachable and non-hierarchical
atmosphere. Recruitment is carried out on an ad hoc basis.

Training is unstructured but responsive to the individual. Training needs
are identified through job description and annual appraisal procedures, with
most employees going on at least one training course a year. Training is
conducted both in-house and externally.

Career development takes place through appraisals. Publishers come from a
variety of disciplines. Salaries are discretionary There is a state-of-the-art
canteen, a bar (with regular "happy hours"), a film screening room
and regular on-site visits from a yoga teacher, a masseur and a beautician.

An optional pension scheme is open to all full-time staff plus full life
insurance from day one, health insurance and worldwide travel insurance.

Every month, John Brown hosts a staff lunch where the latest company
activities are shared, plus any major individual or team achievements praised.
Also, the entire company is taken on an annual teambuilding weekend in France.

Maternity benefits are currently discretionary or the statutory minimum but
the company is looking to instigate a more generous offer of six weeks at full
pay and 12 weeks at half pay. Job shares and part-time positions are available.

HR basics include job descriptions, regular appraisals and mature systems to
ensure training and career development programmes are provided.

"Our systems are good and pretty well established," says Watson,
"although of course I would like to take it further, and will need to
examine our progress as the company expands."

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