James Stewart looks at the consequences of just forgetting about newspapers in the digital age
Back in the late 1970s, when devolution was still a glint in Gwynfor’s eye and the Institute for Welsh Affairs hadn’t even been thought of, I was a cub reporter on the South Wales Echo. Just behind my desk was the door to an inner sanctum where Geraint Talfan Davies and John Osmond were steering the Western Mail’s coverage of the debate about the future governance of Wales.
The Mail was a strong supporter of devolution in its leader column and gave its readers full and informative coverage of the issue. The Echo took a vigorously anti-devolution line under its editor, Geoff Rich. It reported in detail the rebel campaign led by Leo Abse and Neil Kinnock in defiance of Labour Party policy. When the result was announced on St David’s Day 1979, it could be argued that it was the Echo ‘that won it.’
Either way, the important point is that these papers – along with others across Wales – offered their readers informed coverage of the great issues of the day. And people read them – the circulation of the Western Mail was more than 90,000 and the Echo sold 120,000 copies a day. Add to that the circulation of the Daily Post across the north, the Evening Leader in Wrexham, the Argus in Newport and the Evening Post in Swansea and we had a very healthy circulation of daily papers in Wales. And there were also weeklies, well staffed and well read.
Today, the picture is very different. The ‘national newspaper of Wales’ sells fewer than 30,000 copies a day and there are fears it may soon become a weekly. Ninety per cent of readers buy papers with no Welsh news in them and that is another significant change. When I was treasurer of the Cardiff and District Branch of the National Union of Journalists in the 1980s, we had more than half a dozen members employed by London papers.
Now, we have Welsh Government, but nothing like the healthy press, and neither the full coverage – we had when we first debated whether we wanted it. While the broadcasters grew to fill the growing gap in the 1990s, their coverage is now in decline as cuts begin to bite – a subject which the IWA has discussed in depth.
Does it matter that the vast majority of Welsh citizens do not read about the doings of their devolved government? Can local websites fill the gap? Are there other alternatives? It was in order to address these questions that the University of Glamorgan decided to organise a conference about the future of the press in Wales, which will be held in Cardiff tomorrow – for details of the conference and to register click here.
The first aim is to get a clear picture of just how bad things are. Andy Williams of Cardiff University will give an update on his research into the state of the Welsh press, revisiting a subject, which proved controversial when he wrote about it last year here. Wales’ high dependence on the public sector is reflected in the press, where employment advertising was dominated by public sector jobs. With government and councils cutting back, that advertising has dried up – and the impact has reportedly been much greater on papers in Wales than in other parts of the UK.
What this means for journalists’ jobs is cuts, as Martin Shipton of the National Union of Journalists will tell the conference. The Media Wales weekly papers in the Valleys first lost their editors and have now had their staff cut to just nine reporters for seven titles. Rachel Howells of the NUJ and Cardiff University will tell the conference what it means to a community when its paper is closed altogether, as happened to the Neath and Port Talbot Guardian.
The strategy of slash and burn is unlikely to retain readership. But there’s evidence that people will continue to buy a weekly paper if it offers something valuable and genuinely local. Liz Davies, editor of the Abergavenny Chronicle says readership and advertising are holding up better than expected in an area with a clear sense of community and identity, where she still has (just) enough staff to offer a proper news service.
The National Assembly is investigating the state of the media in Wales through a working group chaired by Ken Skates AM. He and Bethan Jenkins AM – who’s made a lot of the running on this subject – will take part in a panel discussion on the importance of effective journalism for a healthy civil society. John Osmond of the IWA will join them as they try to measure the impact on the body politic of a weak and declining press.
There’s a tendency to look enviously at Scotland, but Stewart Kirkpatrick of the Caledonian Mercury will report that things are far from healthy there – though he’s heard rumours of a bunch of nationalist millionaires who might buy the Scotsman! He launched his online newspaper in January 2010 but has struggled to fund it from advertising and is now relying on donations to keep it going. But does the Caledonian Mercury point a way for Wales? Could an online journalism platform combine the best of Wales Home, ClickonWales and other outlets, helping to fill the gap in quality coverage?
Is there any prospect of public funding – as was seriously considered for the proposed Welsh-language daily? Could a not-for-profit social enterprise have anything to offer if we find ourselves without a national daily paper? Or is it time to forget a printed press with all its costs and the challenge of selling to a new generation who look elsewhere for news and information?
Is it time for Wales to look forward and seize innovative solutions which might add journalistic value and breadth to the coverage offered by the BBC, S4C and ITV? How could an audience be enticed not only to read but also to interact with such journalism in the spirit of web 2.0 and its successors, as yet unimagined? These are the questions the conference will be asking.