The future of our national newspaper

John Osmond wonders whether the latest troubles at the Western Mail are a harbinger of worse to come

This week when we’re living through what seems like the hourly break-up of Murdoch’s British media empire, we’re also witnessing another twist in the break-down of the Welsh press. Yesterday the Western Mail (or Media Wales as it likes to be called) announced plans for “a new production system”.  This was code for full-scale merger, involving 22 redundancies, of the production operations of the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic Press weekly titles across south Wales.

So far as our national newspaper is concerned we won’t see a cut in front-line specialist political and reporting staff – what Trinity Mirror ominously calls “content generators”. However, sports coverage will take a hit, with rugby correspondents being reduced from three to two, and general reporters from three to one.

At the same time there are plans to reduce the news and features production journalists – those who edit copy, write the headlines and make-up the pages – from 26 to 11 full-time, and eight or nine part-timers. The latter would work an annual hours contract, with their hours occurring at the peak-time for production between 4.30pm to 830pm. As for the Celtic Press weekly papers there will be more ruthless cuts, with much greater deployments of what is called “user generated material” from euphemistically called “community correspondents” who contribute copy for the love and glory.

Why is all this happening? It’s a direct consequence of the impact of the public sector depression, driven by the Westminster government’s public spending cuts that are now starting to hit Wales for real. There are many fewer adverts for public sector jobs which the papers used to rely on for much of their income. Retail advertising is also taking a big hit. The result is that the profit of Trinity Mirror’s south Wales operation, projected to be around £3-4 million in the current financial year, is being scaled down to around £1 million.

The company’s answer is to cut back on its outgoings. Already reduced to the bone over the last few years – there were four or five redundancies in the marketing department only a few weeks ago – journalistic staff are now being affected on a scale that threatens the future integrity Wales’ national newspaper. As one of those affected told me yesterday, “We’re left wondering how much longer the whole operation has to run, three or five years or 18 months?”

This is a hugely serious matter for Wales. Even in its reduced state – with a circulation now hovering around 30,000 – the Western Mail is still a recognisably national newspaper for the country. Indeed, in the last few years it has noticeably improved its coverage of politics, and especially the National Assembly. For instance, it played a critical campaigning role in setting the agenda during the recent referendum on more powers. It still breaks stories in ways that the much better resourced BBC Wales seems incapable of or unwilling to do. Without it civic life in Wales would be much, much poorer.

What is to be done? It all hangs on the economy. With so much of Welsh life dependent on the public sector, if the present cuts agenda continues for another three or four years, as seems likely, then we can only expect more attrition. We could be faced with the Western Mail becoming a weekly news magazine, supporting a daily website.

A better alternative, if it became necessary, would be to try and create a more complete national paper by merging the Western Mail with Trinity Mirror’s Daily Post in north Wales. Combined, perhaps they could be called the Western Daily Post. It could have two main editions, one for the north and one for the south. They could be different in feel – the present Daily Post being in effect an evening local paper coming out in the morning, with the Western Mail still aspiring to broadsheet status. But they could still share a good deal in coverage and costs.

However, both these solutions – if, indeed, they were – would smack of desperate measures. Much better to keep the Western Mail going as our national paper for as long as we can. But these are desperate times for the newspaper industry – in Cardiff as well as London.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

14 thoughts on “The future of our national newspaper

  1. John I suggest that you read the OBR report which was published last week and in my opinion didn’t receive the publicity it deserved because of the hacking scandal. In 2015/16 the UK government willl need to find a further £22 billion in savings per year on top of those already outlined. This could be covered by tax increases but I doubt if any of the major parties will go into the 2015 election promising to raise taxes. We are in for decades of austerity which has really serious consequences for any area reliant on the public sector.

    The decline of the weekly local newspaper which used to play such an important part in local civic society should concern anyone interested in a vibrant democracy. There are lots of really good stories out there but you need journalists who understand the locality and have built up the right contacts. Parish magazine columns and banal columns from local politicians might fill up space between the dwindling adverts but they are no substitute for real journalism.

  2. Trouble is people are reading newspapers less and less, especially young people. A new commercially viable business model has to be developed if there is going to be a Welsh press. An all-Wales daily would be great as the two existing titles contract or fold but who would put up money for it?

  3. This news compounds the withdrawal from Cardiff of its ‘experimental’ but very successful Guardian Cardiff operation which brought national newspaper standards to the Guardian website and forced the Western Mail and the Echo to up their game on local reporting and online services. For the first time we had some semblance of coverage of real issues in Cardiff – and it seems to have vaporised again.
    As for the Western Mail – it has long since ceased to be a national newspaper of record (and try finding anything on their awful website search). With a few – very few and apparently to diminish – honourable exceptions, the standard of its journalism has plummeted in the 15 years I have been here. Even the PR recycling (great for PR by the way, poor for the reader) has become sloppier – as presumably the pressure to produce copy uncritically has been ratcheted up.
    It may seem blindly obvious to everyone except the management, that as you reduce the value of a product (quality of journalism, coverage of what matters – not Shirley Bassey/Jenkins and other B-list celebs, number of pages even) diminishes, and the price increases, your readership goes down.
    I don’t have any answers, but I know that this route is not the right one. It treats readers/consumers like mugs. And no wonder we’ve stopped reading.
    And who is going to sub-edit to a good standard and fact check the ‘community generated’ copy? No one, right? Self-argrandising politicians to the fore – and we have plenty of those.
    Perhaps Trinity Mirror should recognise that their papers in Wales aren’t just a commodity. Perhaps they could give them – print works and all – away now to an independent trust dedicated (like the Guardian’s Scott Trust) to doing the job. Then, maybe, we could find a community ownership model (Dŵr Cymru) that could create a real national media operation for Wales. Before it’s too late.

  4. Not to sound like a completely cynical and dissolusioned worker in the Welsh media (no, not Media Wales) but I really envy John’s almost child-like innocence and belief in the Western Mail. The truth is, it is a terrible newspaper, with no proper journalism evident in it for years (no offence to the staff – your bosses haven’t taken the time or invested the money in showing you how to do your job properly – it’s not your fault). All we have in it these days is regurgitated PR drivel. The Cardiff PR companies might think themselves clever for now, in getting their ‘story’ printed – but just you wait until your clients realise just how easy that is. As a ‘proud Welshman’ (sorry, I hate that term too) I would dearly love to have a national paper that North, South, West and (gulp) East can be proud of and communicate through, but it isn’t ever going to happen with the Western Mail. Scrap it now, get something else instead. Just as a side-note before I go and be all despondent somewhere else; John – why do you suggest that the North Wales version of your idea be the cr*p version, whilst us high-brow Cardiffians get the ‘aspiring broadsheet’ version?? Must be ‘cos all them Gogs are gap-toothed inbreds, surely???

  5. Find myself agreeing with Guto Ffowc. The number of press releases that are barely ‘top ‘n’ tailed’ that make it into the paper without any apparent thought all to quality or relevance has long been a godsend to PR companies and an easy billing. If you take out the mass distribution to government offices the actual number of true readers must be alarmingly low – certainly not enough to justify the ‘National Newspaper of Wales’ tagline which is now an embarrassment. With these cuts the quality will sink further with less news and more puff. It would seem inevitable without investment in quality journalists rather than ‘cut ‘n’ paste merchants’ the paper’s days are indeed numbered.

  6. The standard of the the WM’s content, both journalistic and editorial, is appalling for a so-called national. Losing professional journalists and editors will make the paper unreadable: perhaps it deserves to fold? There are other possibilities for good-quality, relevant journalism for Wales, from an independent cooperatively run news national (as suggested above) to weekly regionals with proper, relevant relationships with their local communities. But to achieve the sales needed, we simply must do something about the quality of the writing. We still drag out that cliche of Wales being a literary nation; in reality, at the moment the most popular platform for writing – the press – is mostly badly written and with no evidence of any editing whatsoever. There has to be a way of delivering the press Wales deserves.

  7. The Western Mail has been in a vicious circle for a long time – fewer people buying the paper because of changing reading habits, declining advertisement volumes, and consequent cutbacks, something all newspapers incidentally have suffered. The Western Mail now also has a serious problem of availability, the consequence it would seem of a management decision to close down its own distribution arm and hand this over to WH Smith. No Western Mail and Echo vans taking the paper around to outlets any more and making sure the paper gets a good display position. A UK distributor has different priorities and much less local knowledge so the Western Mail in most outlets now gets a bottom shelf position well behind the Mail, Sun, Mirror, Star, Guardian, Telegraph, Express, Times and sometimes the Irish Independent. Net result – even fewer purchasers and more cutbacks. The paper has now also disappeared from London, a territory once covered by a separate edition. This availability problem needs to be sorted urgently, perhaps with new and more innovative sales points also being developed. Why for instrance can’t the Western Mail be sold at The National Museum, the Botanic Garden, St. Fagans, the Millennium Centre and other similar places where people with an interest in Wales gather? With a reputed sale of 30,000 even a few hundred copies sold in these places could help to rebuild sales. Have contributors to this string got any other ideas as to how the paper’s circulation can be rebuilt thereby enabling the other parts of the equation – rising advertising and increased investment – to take place? Let’s be constructive and not as some of the contributions above suggest so full of bile we can only seemingly rejoice at possibilites that could as John says be a very serious for Welsh civil society.

  8. To call the WM a “National” newspaper is surely a “joke”, as with sales of 30,000 amongst a population of 3 million it is irrelevant as compared to the sales of UK papers such as Sun/Daily Telegraph. If it goes into liquidation it will be for the simple reason that Welsh people can’t be bothered to buy it, and it isn’t the job of public services to support it by advertising jobs!! The nation builders are consistently out of touch with real Welsh people who seemingly organize their life around the fact that they live in the UK, and that its capital is LONDON where real decisions are made, not merely dishing out the cash which is graciously handed over to it by UK government, and a proper one at that. If Welsh rugby continues to go south, like the rest of our economy then the continual rugby coverage by WM will become more irrelevant and less people will buy the paper. Its called reality and not even the “nation builders” can defy economic gravity over the long run.

  9. The reason the Western Mail is struggling is because its readership is declining, and declining rapidly, not becuase the government aren’t advertising in it. Better journalism would help, but cutting staff won’t. Likewise, a single national paper would help.

    I am convinced there is a market for a quality Welsh daily. I think the Western Mail could renew itself to be it, but if it won’t then it probably has to die to allow it to happen.

    The Western Mail is also not going to improve while it is run by relentless cost-cutters at Trinity Mirror. I am surprised there is not talk of a management buyout.

  10. Thanks to John and others for the constructive contributions made. As part of the redundancy consultation process, the NUJ is calling for a rescue plan aimed at ensuring there is a future for the Western Mail and the other Media Wales titles. The immediate cause of the crisis facing the company is the haemorrhaging of advertising revenue, although clearly there is a need to stabilise circulation – something that is not easy when in common with most other newspaper publishers Trinity Mirror decided to give away the entire content free online. Some of the negative comments are so wide of the mark that I can only assume they are motivated by personal malice. To suggest that the Western Mail is a terrible newspaper that contains no decent journalism and nothing but regurgitated press releases is utterly preposterous. There is certainly a debate to be had about the future of the newspaper industry in Wales, but rejoicing at the prospect of people losing their jobs is surely an element we can do without.

  11. Of course Martin Shipton has to defend his members’ jobs and as one of the exceptions I was thinking about in my earlier comment he can hold his head high. But ignoring the diminishing standards of journalism on the WM will not help the cause. Nor the reason for the diminishing resources – cut staff – reducing standards that must follow – cycle that its owners are applying.
    I’d like to see more trained, experienced journalists writing about Wales – providing jobs for the excellent graduates that the University produces.
    As an ex-NUJ member myself it would be good if the organisation could lobby for the Media Wales interests to join the billion other people world-wide working in co-operatives. Give the people of Wales a chance to support and develop its own media. This is one area where true independence from England would yield cultural and economic benefits. Where are the political – as well as unions – voices in this?

  12. Yeah… Shipton can ‘hold his head high’.

    Mr Objective?

    His modus operandi is personal attacks and mud-raking journalism. No-one should be celebrating the loss of jobs at the WM, but it would be nice to see a bit of parity over the way it treats similar stories affecting different political parties.

    His rule appears to be: ‘is it a tory?’ – ‘front page’. ‘Labour?’ – ‘obscure paragraph, page 11’…

  13. All this knee-jerk disparagement of the Western Mail is sad to see. I am with Rhys David on this one. You cannot just wish away economic circumstances, or the realities of the Welsh market place. But that apart, it seems that no-one has noticed the change in the paper in recent years. It strikes me that there is now much less of a concentration on the Welsh celebrity stories that were certainly oversold a few years ago. The test every morning is this – is there anything substantial in the paper that I did not know before or will allow me to be better informed on an issue. I have to answer yes to that question most mornings. There are days when I wish it were better or when I wish it had been able to dig deeper, but it is plain daft of people to say we would be better off without it. The possibility of collaboration between the north and south Wales arms of Trinity Mirror is, at least, a constructive idea, even if there are some real obstacles to its realisation.

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