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.

14 thoughts on “Decade of cuts continues at Western Mail

  1. I must say that I enjoy the Western Mail although I’m in the north and there are few copies available. Not just that but you can guarantee that at least once a month the paper doesn’t arrive at all. It does strike me that the Western Mail has shot itself in the foot with its online content. It’s often obvious from the ‘Comments’ that people are not now reading the hard copy.

    One thing that they could do is put incomplete articles online along with some complete articles…… a taster if you like so that there is some reason to go out and buy a copy.
    I don’t know if it has any effect on circulation but the Nationalist bloggers of the far right (Royston Jones) and the middle left (London Based Michael Hagett), have both run a non stop crusade against the ‘Western Fail’ or ‘Western Mule’ as they refer to it. They have both led calls for Nationalists to boycott the paper after the Western Mail (Martin Shipton) wrote articles deemed to be ‘Anti-Welsh (Language)’.

  2. Yet more ‘bleating’ about another welsh organization needing public money to survive in a pretty cold economic climate,which does’nt look as its going to improve in years. Perhaps the fact is that Welsh people don’t see the Western Mail as ‘value for money’, as its mainly a rugby magazine,with add-ons, and in no way compares with Irish national newspapers. On the other hand there is money to be found by cutting BBC Wales/S4C/WLB as none of them work in the interests of the 90 per cent of the welsh population. As far as reporting on the Welsh Government is concerned no one I know is interested as its turned out to be county council, with pretensions of grandeur.

  3. Western Mail can still survive and even thrive if it embraces some fundamental editorial changes. The Welsh nation is dying, too, and perhaps for the same reason as the Western Mail but no one is brave enough to bring the truth into the public domain!? The lack of guts, vision and courage amongst journalists is appalling. Welsh people must be told the real reasons for the demise of Welsh economy, education and NHS. Look no further than the ‘Bilingual Nation Concept’ what it means in reality, how it has been implemented and who is it for. Welsh people need uncompromising honesty from the news media. Perhaps it is not too late for Western Mail to give to Welsh people some real journalism and not be afraid of the nationalists or the Welsh Government. As long as they are honest they would prevail and survive!

  4. No reason to flog a dying horse. The Western Mail has turned into a fourth rate Daily Mail, with lifestyle and entertainment fluff. It also takes a rabidly anti-Welsh line on many social and political issues. Its spiritual home is London, with Wales treated as a second-rate ‘region’. Its journalistic merit is extremely limited. Far too many reporters, especially the political ones, are cut-and-paste merchants. You simply cannot rely on Wikipedia in this day and age. So many people have seen through the limitations and amateur approach of the Western Mail. I spoke with a group of Cardiff youngsters (18-20 year-olds) recently and they said that they received their news off the television – Sky mostly – and that they got local news from town newspapers, or through community websites. When I mentioned the Western Mail, some of them admitted that they had never heard of it.

  5. Your demise basically correlates with the lifespan of devolution, that is not a coincidence.

    Prior to devolution you were a Welsh based paper reporting on UK matters as we were 100% a part of the UK, your politics reporting was about Westminster. There were Welsh MP big beasts in positions of power, in all parties, it was interesting and affected out lives / future.

    Now you report about that failed parochial irrelevant outfit in the bay, and you are normally so very careful not to criticise it or it occupants.

    AS pointed out by Jon Jones in the opening comment, when Martin Shipton appeared to criticise the language he was castigated by nationalists and activists. I doubt if it bothered him, but you didn’t respond, you were afraid to respond.

    I will quote you Nye Bevan: ” Furthermore, are not my Hon. Friends — I say it with all respect — a little beside the mark? Is it not rather cruel to give the impression to the 60,000 unemployed men and women in Wales that their plight would be relieved and their distress removed by this constitutional change? It is not Socialism. It is escapism. This is exactly the way in which nation after nation has been ruined in the last 25 to 30 years, trying to pretend that deep-seated economic difficulties can be removed by constitutional changes. Over and over again, that has been proved wrong. I would speak frankly. I always Speak frankly to the House. In this propaganda in Wales, have not my Hon. Friends noticed the company they are keeping? The wickedest, most irresponsible newspaper in Great Britain leads this campaign in Wales, the Western Mail. Never was there a newspaper which, during my life, has been more out of touch with the physical and spiritual life of Wales than that miserable organ.”

    Read and listen to what he said because until you actively represent the views of the majority of the people of Wales your circulation will continue to fall.

  6. “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.”

    That’s odd because most people I know would say the Western Mail’s demise is down to the blatant pro-devo, pro-Welsh language, pro-independence, pro-EU, pro-navel gazing editorial slant which very few people actually agree with or want shoving in their faces day after day! That’s why we call the Western Mail the Western Fail…

    There was a time when the Welsh Mirror edited by Paul Starling actually looked like balanced reporting!!!

    I know production costs have improved slightly but it’s not so long since 40,000 was regarded as critical mass for a regional daily. At 25K a day, with a fair number probably going into the public sector at the taxpayers’ expense, the Western Mail is way past its normal redundancy cycle.

    But, to be a little bit fair, papers print what they are given! The budget for investigative journalism and/or real news-gathering has almost disappeared so much of what goes to print is re-hashed, or cut and pasted, agency copy. In Wales the Party media wonks on the devo-left (Plaid and Llafur) have been much more skillful at manipulating the media than the media wonks on the centre right and/or Unionist side so, in many ways, we have only ourselves to blame if our message has appeared to be drowned out.

    Instead of whining constantly about media bias, maybe the centre right should put its own house in order when it comes to dealing with the press BEFORE they find themselves without a regional press to deal with.

  7. The demise of The Western Mail started long before devolution. Since the disastrous takeover by Trinity Mirror in the 1980s it’s been downhill all the way with constant cut-backs and wholesale dumbing down of it’s editorial content.
    In that time rugby has gone from being confined to the back pages to being the newspapers raison d’être. (The last ever copy I bought had no less than 6 pages of rugby in the news section and another 6 in the sports section – that was the final straw for me).

    It has gone from being a National newspaper (if it ever was) to very much a light weight, regional publication. It’s enthusiastic and uncritical coverage of vastly expensive British state vanity projects like the royal wedding and the Olympics show plainly that it’s editorial policy is decided in London. From an independent Welsh news source you would rightly expect at least a hint of cynicism towards events that saw millions of pounds diverted from Wales to London.

    The sad truth is if the Western Mail disappeared tomorrow very few Welsh people would notice or care unless they happened to be rugby supporters.

  8. Well I enjoy reading the Western Mail, it is the only paper / Website (apart from this excellent site) that covers Welsh politics, education and current affairs in an adequate depth and gives both sides of each debate. I admit I don’t read its lifestyle sections but that is not to criticise these – they are just not my particular interest. I would like to compliment and thank all the journalists at The Western Mail for all their hard work of keeping us informed for all these years. Diolch yn fawr WM.

  9. “Yet more ‘bleating’ about another welsh organization needing public money to survive in a pretty cold economic climate, which does’nt look as its going to improve in years.”

    Remind us again Mr Morgan where your offspring work as you have proudly done on several occasions? Yes, in banking. Only this week a respected economist stated that the western banking industry is totally broken and would collapse if governments ie public money hadn’t been and still being used to support them. And do you know what? None are Welsh! So, I wouldn’t bleat so loudly in criticism of organizations needing public support if I were you.

  10. Sadly Glen is right, the Western Mail is in its present sorry state because of the mismanagement by Trinity Mirror. Cutting staff and charging the highest price they can, then putting all content for free on the internet. A classic study in how not to run a newspaper.

    The Western Mail should sell 500,000 copies and be the size of the New York Times. It should be owned by a not for profit public trust like the St Petersburg Times? in Florida.

  11. It’s interesting that the decline of the Western Mail is attributed by some to it being anti-Welsh but by others to it being pro-devolution.

    I don’t read it, but it must be in a pitiful state if readers can’t work out which side it’s on in such a basic matter.

  12. “The demise of the Western Mail correlates with the advent of devolution, its focus on Cardiff Bay politics instead of the proper stuff of Aneurin Bevan, its failure to articulate the political [anti-European, anti-Welsh language, anti-everything from what I can gather] preoccupations of the much vaunted/little seen ‘silent majority’, etc., etc., ad nauseum”

    What utter nonsense. Or is Welsh devolution responsible for the demise of London print media as well? The whole industry is in chronic decline due to technology and changing consumption habits (even Murdoch took pains to spell that out at Leveson) and the WM is no different. We might not like what is happening (I certainly don’t) but please, let’s keep our heads on and see this for what it is, and not dream up fanticist narratives with ulterior motives.

  13. David Bullock,
    I never thought I would say this, but it’s possible to be both pro-devolution to a certain degree and anti-Welsh. We’ve been stitched up well and truly by Labour in Wales.

  14. MY FEAR is that staff working on publications like Newport Matters, a Newport Council “newspaper” put through doors whether people want it or not, could very well be called journalists in the future and that kind of propaganda may become mainstream “news” and the writers mainstream “journalists”. These publications do sell advertising space alongside the usual stream of permanently upbeat pieces on dustbin etiquette and environmental preaching. Independent, objective inquiry and investigation would then, of course, become the opposite of news and journalism in an Orwellian nightmare world. If that is what political funding of journalism will mean then I would be very strongly opposed to it. A Labour-led Welsh government with no legitimate mandate for increasing powers due to voter apathy would then change the discourse to suit itself.

    Lady Justice Arden said at a Cardiff Law School talk I attended that “everyone is a journalist now” for litigation purposes (a person can be libelled in a blog or tweet just as they can in a newspaper), prompting me to rather mischievously ask her if that meant that everyone is a high court judge now (apparently not, as they have had a proper legal training).

    Journalism is a broad term and its greatest strength and at the same time its greatest weakness is that anyone can and should be able to do it and the technology has empowered people to do just that.

    Two things are crucial:

    1. What do politicians mean by “democracy” and safeguarding it? I have for instance, noticed how senior academics at universities and politicians at the Welsh Assembly are sometimes together on platforms, as if singing from the same hymn sheet and conveying the same message. University academic staff should be challenging and questioning, not meekly complying, and so should students.

    2. How is journalism going to be defined in the future? Surely we no longer need “messengers” but instead need to educate and empower ourselves to break and decode the news. Many blogs now offer incredibly useful information and opinions which newspapers before the internet would have edited out or omitted altogether. I will watch with great interest the story of blogger Jacqueline Thompson, who was arrested after she refused to stop recording a meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.

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