Welsh press crisis 1: Western Mail could be published weekly

Martin Shipton says mismanagement threatens what remains of Wales’ national press

Many journalists at Media Wales, which publishes the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and a string of weeklies across south Wales, believe the newspapers have a limited remaining lifespan. There is speculation that within a relatively short space of time the Western Mail will cease to be published as a daily and will become a weekly paper. If that happens, more jobs will be lost, and Wales will lose its only daily paper that seeks to take a national view of the country.

Members of the National Union of Journalists have no faith in the group management of Trinity Mirror, which appears to have no discernible strategy beyond the imposition of cuts to make the annual balance sheet look as healthy as possible. Inevitably, the cuts make it more difficult for those that remain to bring the papers out.

Ensuring the survival of our national newspaper

Tomorrow: John Osmond charts one set of difficulties facing a National Assembly group looking at the future of the media in Wales

On average, NUJ members at Media Wales have endured one redundancy announcement a year since 2003, as well as the closure of district offices at Swansea, Carmarthen, Neath, Aberdare and Ebbw Vale. Closing the latter three offices that largely served the company’s weekly papers preceded significant falls in circulation as reporters were pulled out from the communities they served. Not long after the Neath office shut, in 2009 the Neath and Port Talbot Guardians ceased publication.

Further cuts took place when the South Wales Echo moved from being an evening paper to one published overnight. Altogether, between 2003 and 2011, we estimate that around 100 jobs in the editorial department have been lost – approaching 50 per cent of the baseline total. By our reckoning, there are now 138 journalists employed by the company.

Since ‘convergence’ in 2008, when Media Wales journalists ceased being employed for a single publication and became responsible for supplying copy to all titles, there has been a policy of getting reporters to supply versions of the same story to more than one title. On a daily basis, therefore, readers will notice barely changed stories appearing in both the Mail and the Echo. Usually the Echo version will be a shorter version of the one appearing in the Mail. Obviously such duplication only occurs when there is a Cardiff or Valleys implication for the story that makes it suitable for the Echo. This policy has been instituted because there are insufficient writers employed to fill the editorial space available in all titles.

Management told our members that the latest round of redundancies, announced on July 15 2011 and involving 24 full time equivalent job losses, was imposed as a consequence of a huge downturn in advertising revenue during the first six months of this year. The loss of revenue from public and private sector bodies has been attributed by the company to the poor state of the Welsh economy, with both sectors having fewer jobs to advertise and retail trading being sluggish.

Yet the cuts also form part of £25 million ‘savings’ across the group announced earlier this year by Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey. The announcement of savings of this order has become an annual ritual in recent years, designed we believe to appease the group’s lenders and institutional shareholders. The group is heavily indebted, largely it appears because of past acquisitions. It is self evidently the case that the group’s businesses are providing insufficient revenues to meet debt repayments without cuts that are damaging its newspapers.

At Media Wales, local management has been obliged to impose cuts that are having a negative impact on the newspapers. This summer’s redundancies have led to a position where nine reporters are providing local news for seven weekly papers. The content of the papers is beefed up in six of the titles by a common section of Valleys news which includes material recycled from Media Wales’ other titles and a cross-title sports section. Another section is composed of so-called user generated material, supplied by non journalists.

The NUJ members who work on these titles are doing the best they can to make them attractive to readers, but the low staffing levels inevitably make it much more difficult to produce newspapers of the quality that readers expect and deserve. During the redundancy consultation, the union was told that if cuts were not imposed on the Celtic weeklies, the alternative would have to involve cutting into the Cardiff newsroom, where reporters create copy for the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday.

There were also four job losses in the sports department – three writers and a production journalist. The third area where job losses occurred in this summer’s cuts was in the editorial production department. There are now significantly fewer production journalists to design pages and sub-edit copy, making it harder to spot mistakes and putting extra pressure on those that remain.

The latest round of cuts has led members to conclude that any further job losses in the editorial department will make title closures all but inevitable. Yet with Trinity Mirror annually announcing ‘savings’ equivalent to many millions of pounds, and failing to come up with any credible strategy to end this downward spiral, members now equate pessimism with realism.

One factor that causes considerable anger to our members is the level of executive pay enjoyed by the group’s directors. Despite presiding over a group that has shrunk considerably in terms of turnover, profitability and staff employed, Ms Bailey’s total remuneration package in 2010 was £1.71m – a rise of £480,000 or 39 per cent since her first full year in office in 2004. Given the group’s performance since she was appointed CEO in February 2003, the union has argued that this amounts to a reward for failure.

In idealistic moments, members contemplate a future for the papers outside Trinity Mirror. Yet there would be serious difficulties involved in achieving such an outcome. Because Media Wales is part of Trinity Mirror, it is likely that any prospective buyer would be expected to include in the purchase price a contribution towards the group’s debts beyond the current value of the business. Further problems arise out of recent decisions to transfer significant elements of the business to Liverpool, the Trinity Mirror centre to which Media Wales management now has to report. The circulation and pre-press functions are no longer controlled from Cardiff, for example, and the marketing department has been reduced to the extent that it now consists of just one person. Apart from representing significant further job losses at the company, such complications underline the fact that decisions about the future of the newspapers will be taken outside Wales.

Since the National Assembly was established in 1999, Media Wales’ published accounts show that a total of £161,425,000 has been earned in pre-tax profits by the company. Little of that huge sum has been invested in Wales. All we have to show 12 years later is a business struggling for survival and the prospect of more of our members sacrificing their jobs so Ms Bailey and her fellow directors can continue to reap obscenely high rewards for a little while longer.

Martin Shipton, the Western Mail’s Chief Reporter, is Chair of the Cardiff and South East Wales Branch of the National Union of Journalists. This article is based on a presentation he gave to a University of Glamorgan conference on the Future of the press in Wales, in Cardiff on Saturday. It is also based on a submission made last week by the National Union of Journalists to the National Assembly Task and Finish Group into the future outlook for the media in Wales.

One thought on “Welsh press crisis 1: Western Mail could be published weekly

  1. I totally agree with the concerns expressed in the article today. If the Trinity Mirror titles are diluted any more they may as well all be published under one title.

    This is a similar process to what Beeching did to the railways many years ago – cuts, cuts and more cuts until the whole thing is unviable.

    The quality of the weekly I have been buying – Rhymney Valley Express – has drastically reduced since the Editors were taken away – general stories covering several valleys and many innaccuracies – certainly not a local paper and a recipe for failure. The only thing that has been retained is the local correspondent columns, which cost the papers virtually nothing.

    I do not blame the journalists – job cuts are putting intolerable pressures on them. They are being asked to do an impossible job.

    I would also suggest that publishing former evening papers overnight is also a joke. Surely a genuine morning paper fulfils a different function to an evening paper. The South Wales Echo has lost huge volumes of circulation as a result of virtually pulling out of the valleys and becoming virtually a Cardiff Echo.

    I also feel that it is a disgrace that the bosses who are presiding over this tragic situation are being rewarded with huge incomes – not in the same league as the bankers who did their best to destroy us – but going along the same track.

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