The press and online journalism in Wales: problems and possibilities.

Tom O’Malley says there is a need to collect data on where the media stands in Wales.

The IWA media audit covers a great deal of ground. One area, well trodden before, is the position of the newsprint industry in Wales.

In 1966 the total circulation of morning, evening, weekly and bi-weekly local newspapers in Wales was 1,067,000. By 1990 it was around 739,000. As the IWA audit points out, in 2008 the daily circulation of the Western Mail stood at 37,576 and the Daily Post at 36,432. By 2015 these had dropped to 17,815 and 24, 485, respectively.

This is part of a UK longer term decline in circulations. The circulations of the Sun, and the Daily Mirror, both widely read in Wales, dropped from 3,043,000 and 1,554,000 to 1,772,043 and 777,597, respectively between 2007 and 2015. All of these newspapers have migrated to online provision as well, with the Daily Post, for example, having around 1,263,280 unique users.

The current state of newspapers in Wales is the latest phase in what has been a secular decline in newspaper readership since the late 1940s. Today, it seems to be accelerating because of the availability of news online for which readers only have to pay the price of their broadband or mobile phone connections.

Advertising is increasingly migrating to online outlets, putting pressure on the finances of the industry. In 2014-2015, Trinity Mirror, owners of the Western Mail, closed eight major titles in England. The   ‘number of average monthly unique users grew by 87 per cent year-on-year to 73.2 million’. It saw its online revenues grow by over 47%, yet this was still only 6% of the group’s publishing revenues. Online reach is increasing, but, Trinity, like other groups are still searching to find ways of turning that reach into revenues that match the decline in advertising revenues from paid for publications.

Across Wales there has been a haemorrhaging of talent, as downsizing, cost cutting and mergers have led to the loss of jobs for journalists. This, inevitably, means that publications rely increasingly on trawling the internet for stories, or on re-writing press releases. Although the focus on local stories is arguably stronger in many of Wales’s really local, small town or rural publications, there is still a lack of journalistic resources being put into researching and writing up stories that matter about the cultural, political and social life of the country.

There has never been one daily Welsh newspaper that circulated uniformly across Wales. There have been titles like the Western Mail which address national issues, but for much of the post-war period its circulation, has been largely in the South. This localism has been true of the Welsh press since the 19th century at least. Indeed it was the BBC which, from the 1930s onwards, provided the very first all Wales form of regular communication. The penetration of London based titles in Wales has also, always been high.

Nonetheless, there were more local papers in Wales in the post-war period, and there were reporters employed by them to cover the local and national issues that faced the country. Newspapers did their bit to encourage Welsh people to engage with the complex local, regional and national questions that faced the country. The concern is that now, as resources for print news decline, so too do those devoted to reporting Wales to those people who live here.  In addition a strong culture of reporting adds to the diversity of views available to people, and counteracts what is widely recognised as a neglect of Welsh issues in much of the UK wide print media which is widely consumed in Wales.

Remedying this situation is not straightforward. One proposal has been for the BBC to contract out some of the licence fee revenue to the large newspaper companies that run the local press in the UK, so they can provide reports of local government and the courts. But this would be bad for the BBC, opening the door for more and more of the licence fee to be put up for grabs from commercial companies. It should not be the BBC’s role to subsidise the profits of private companies.

There has to be a combination of incentives to commercial providers and public intervention, funded by levies on many of the huge internet concerns, such as Google and Facebook, whose activities in soaking up advertising revenues have arguably contributed to the crisis. There are organisations like the Media Reform Coalition and the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom which are pressing for fundamental changes to the legislative framework in order to address some of these issues.

In Wales, as elsewhere, there needs to be clear, coherent policy on the media – even though broadcasting is not a devolved area. Policy must be informed by proper research. We need a consistent, updated source of data, readily available to the public, academics and politicians in Wales. It should not just be about the press, but the media as a whole.

The IWA Audit signals the range of work that needs doing. Without this information to hand, it becomes like the film ‘Groundhog Day’. Every time the question of the press or broadcasting comes up for policy discussion, here or at Westminster, interested parties have to search out the data anew.

One way forward would be for the National Assembly for Wales to establish a Standing Committee on Communications, representing all parties. It could co-opt specialist advisers, and commission, for a relatively small amount of money, the on going collation of data across all the sectors. This would then feed into NLW and WAG discussions. Then these recurring problems, which have been with us for so long, and which the IWA Audit so properly draws attention to, can begin to be dealt with properly.

Tom O’Malley is Emeritus Professor in Media at Aberystwyth University.

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