Decade of cuts continues at Western Mail

John Osmond warns the end of our national daily and other Welsh titles is in sight unless new support for newspapers can be found

Despite management protestations the latest round of cuts at the Western Mail signals the end of Welsh print journalism unless a new business model can be found. Trinity Mirror has announced a further 92 jobs losses across its UK regional titles, including 16 redundancies in Cardiff where the Western Mail Features Department will be axed. Ten jobs will be lost as a result, with a further two sports writers and two photographers also leaving.

Later this year more redundancies of production staff are expected as the papers move to a new content management system where journalists type their stories directly into templated pages that reduce the need for editing.

In north Wales the Daily Post and associated weekly papers are losing 11 journalists and production staff, including the Daily Post’s Features Editor and Features Writer. Instead, the paper will have to rely on a ‘shared content unit’ based in Liverpool for feature articles. In addition, the Post has recently lost its own dedicated Westminster Press Association service. Henceforth, Parliamentary coverage for the Daily Post and Liverpool Post will be undertaken by the Western Mail’s correspondent.

Elgan Hearn, the NUJ’s Trinity Mirror North Wales Father of the Chapel, said: “How can we retain a distinctive Welsh service to our readers when we do not have feature writers on the ground in their local communities? People are not stupid and they will not continue buying papers that are increasing in price while having less news pages and features that they could already have read in the Mirror or Sunday Mirror.”

The latest round of cuts has prompted alarm at Westminster that a foundation stone of Welsh democracy is being chipped away. This week an Early Day Motion sponsored by the three Plaid Cymru MPs, has attracted support from a number of Labour MPs including Martin Caton (Gower) and Albert Owen (Ynys Mon). Lord Dafydd Wigley and former Secretary of State Peter Hain have been in touch with Media Wales management to express concern.

The latest redundancies continue a trend that began a decade ago in 2003. At that time the Western Mail and Echo operation in Cardiff employed 826 staff, including 599 in editorial and production roles. Today it is run by fewer than 300, with just 110 editorial and production staff. The latest round of cuts will take these below 100.

Meanwhile, circulation has taken a nosedive. In 1999, the year the National Assembly was created, the Western Mail’s circulation was a little over 55,000. By 2003, at the end of the Assembly’s first term, it had fallen to 45,000. Today it is down to around 25,000.

The decline can be almost wholly attributed to the coming of the Internet and the decision of managements to put most of the content of their newspapers free online on their websites. At the same time income from newspaper advertising has plummeted and has not been replaced by income generated from the digital offering. The newspaper-buying public is aging. Younger people rarely buy a paper, expecting their news to be free of charge online.

In response Trinity Mirror are experimenting with a new digital publishing model, known as Newsroom 3.0 which, it says, will have “greater emphasis on the production of digital content, including breaking news, pictures and video” and the “creation of a number of new roles at the national titles for writers and photographer/videographers, plus a number of new digital roles”.

So far, however, the company has not released details of these trials and the journalists involved remain sceptical. In a letter to Trinity Mirror Human Resources director Lesley Summerville, the NUJ’s Northern and Midlands organiser, Chris Morley, said:

“We have noted the prominence given by the company to the trials carried out over the last few months on Newsroom 3.0. The point of a trial is to examine how successful it is in meeting the aspirations for it. We have therefore requested that the company provide the union with the detailed findings from these trials, such as (but not restricted to) the numbers of people accessing the daily blog, overall increase in web traffic, and how many were unique users.

“We wish to know what were the impacts on other areas of the business such as print and how that manifested itself in both the length and intensity of working for all editorial staff. Most important of all would be what benefits there were for the company’s revenues? This is crucial if the company is to win the confidence of members in a roll out of Newsroom 3.0 given the investment of significant newsroom resource.”

In Cardiff the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic Press weeklies have been further compromised by their merger into the Media Wales operation, with most journalists working for the group as a whole. The weeklies – the Glamorgan Gazette, Rhondda Leader, Pontypridd Observer, Cynon Valley Express, Rhymney Express, Merthyr Express, and Gwent Gazette – only have one dedicated reporter each.

Western Mail Managing Editor Alan Edmunds is doing his best to protect the national daily’s news offering. Removal of the Features Department is being compensated by news journalists also being given a feature role. The number of special supplements, which have been losing money, will be reduced, freeing up space and journalists’ time to deliver more Welsh dedicated features. The new ‘shared content’ unit at Liverpool will supply soft generic material on topics such as fashion, entertainment, and reviews.

In a letter this week to Wales TUC General Secretary Martin Mansfield, who had written expressing concern at the latest cuts, Alan Edmunds strikes an upbeat note:

“Please let us reassure you that our planned changes will in no way detract from our coverage of the National Assembly for Wales, or the quality of our Welsh news and sports service. In fact, as part of the reorganisation being proposed, the Western Mail is planning to carry even more pages of Welsh news each week, reflecting the growing agenda set by further devolution of legislative powers, to which you refer. As I am sure you are aware, the Western Mail was at the forefront of the campaign to grant primary legislative powers to the National Assembly and our focus on how well these new responsibilities are being used will be relentless.

“The planned changes will also enable us to provide even more coverage of Welsh news, politics and sport on our website, WalesOnline, and to expand the range of services we provide on digital platforms, building audience through the launch of new e-editions for our daily and Sunday titles. Our well respected political, health and education correspondents will continue to provide in-depth features and analysis of the important issues facing the people of Wales.”

Nonetheless, given the trends of the past decade, the long-term outlook for the Western Mail and other newspapers across Wales looks bleak. The Mail’s Chief Reporter, and Father of the NUJ Chapel in Cardiff, Martin Shipton, said:

“We are taking some comfort from the fact that there are no deep cuts being made to our core news operation. However, in the long run, if our newspapers are to survive in anything like their current form, there will have to be public funding. Commercially newspaper operations are a dead duck. There simply isn’t enough money to sustain them in the longer term. In the next few years more newspapers will go. Whole communities – and in the case of Wales, a whole country – will become dependent for their news on one monopoly supplier, the BBC. We’ve been saying this for years.

“However, the people who hold the purse strings, the politicians, are not yet up to speed with this reality. You can understand their reluctance to face up to it, especially at a time of austerity and widespread funding cutbacks. But if we want our newspapers to survive, with all that means for the health of our democracy in Wales, this has to be the direction of travel.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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