Northeast Press, publisher of the Sunderland Echo, confirmed today it was moving design and subbing operations from Sunderland to accommodate the introduction of the controversial new content management technology, Atex.
Around 18 staff members currently working at its subbing "hub" in Sunderland, which produces the Hartlepool Mail, the South Shields Gazette, Northumberland Gazette, the Morpeth Herald and a string of weeklies, are understood to be affected by the planned move to Sheffield.
Johnston Press only created its Sunderland production centre last July to "consolidate" the subbing operations from five district offices across the region.
Staff at the Scarborough Evening News, similarly owned by Johnston Press, last week balloted for strike action in protest over the introduction of Atex and a proposal to move its production to Sheffield. The National Union of Journalists said today that its members in Sunderland would oppose any attempt to force unwelcome conditions on them.
Chris Morley, NUJ Northern and Midlands organiser, said: "How Johnston Press can proclaim with a straight face that they 'publish local newspapers and internet sites produced by local teams of people' when they shift production of newspapers more than 160 miles south from Northumberland to Yorkshire is beyond me.
"More importantly, we fear it will be beyond the local communities who will undoubtedly pick up on the fact that much of their local paper is fashioned outside the North East.
"Johnston Press has the Atex juggernaut rolling throughout the group and expects its journalists to be panicked into deciding in a matter of a few weeks whether to uproot completely, apply for lower paid redeployment or leave with a redundancy package in despair at what will remain."
Stuart Birkett, managing director of Northeast Press, said today the introduction of Atex would be phased in over six weeks. The new technology would combine print and web publishing into one system and improve "newsgathering and content loading workflows". Consultation with all affected production staff in Sunderland had commenced, he added.
Union members across Johnston Press are expected to ballot later this month on a possible group-wide strike over the introduction of the Atex system and concerns about low staffing levels.
Journalists at the Johnston Press-owned Blackpool Gazette and Herald are already involved in industrial action and have this week embarked on an indefinite period of work-to-rule.
Oliver Luft writes for Press Gazette.