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.