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.

4 thoughts on “The press and online journalism in Wales: problems and possibilities.

  1. ‘One way forward would be for the National Assembly for Wales to establish a Standing Committee on Communications’.
    Somehow, I think not!!
    Media like all product whether tangible or digital must be driven by ‘demand’. If there is little or diminishing demand then no amount of government involvement, studies or research is going to help nor can it create demand. The solution is to create product that people want to watch, see, read, consume and most importantly pay for. The Internet has changed everything and if media types (hacks) can’t adapt or evolve with their customers/viewers/readers then they will be ‘disintermediated’ pretty darn quick.
    Government subsidy of journalism leads to erosion of impartiality and loss of investigative rigour and energy. You can see this already when county councils (you know who they are!) threaten to withold placement of paid notices etc if a newspaper prints anything they don’t like. The Western Mail gets a substantial income from local and national government for notices and this I imagine has a high priority in an editor’s mind when considering whether to publish a ‘political’ story.

  2. I couldn’t disagree, more, Chris.
    To suggest that news and journalism are commodities like any other is a bit misguided, in my view.
    We’re not talking about fridges, here. To leave news provision to the vicissitudes of the market ignores the fact that most theories of democracy presuppose a vibrant and healthy news media (at local, regional, and national levels) so that people know what’s going on, what’s being done in their name, and so politicians (and others) can be held to account when that’s needed.
    News, I think, can now be seen as a public good. That is, something which the market cannot provide in sufficient quality for quantity, but which the public needs, and which is socially important, nonetheless. I can’t imagine you saying the same thing about national defence, or healthcare, or education. The media plays a similarly crucial role, and the market just isn’t playing it any more for us.
    It was an accident of history that commercial advertising subsidised our local and regional news for so long. Things have now changed and many advertisers can get a much better, cheaper, and more tailored service elsewhere (by buying ads on social media, on search sites, etc).
    And just because the public don’t want to pay for news doesn’t mean we need it any less.
    I agree with Tom O’Malley’s assessment here, and the IWA’s call for a contestable fund for local news. I think that the big tech firms (who grow fat by aggregating and distributing news produced by others, while avoiding paying their UK taxes) should stump up. A fund, using this money, should be set up to which providers of local news seeking to experiment with new business models, and who need investment to do so, can bid to help them become more sustainable.
    Media Wales employed around 700 editorial and production staff just 15 years ago. Last year they employed just over 100. We’ve already lost newspapers, and those that remain have been gutted from within so that they are shells of their former selves.
    The old business models for providing general local and regional news to a mass audience are broken in that they just can’t sustain the levels of journalism we need as a society. We urgently need to experiment with plural models, to try new stuff out, to study what wrks (and what doesn’t).
    Otherwise, as a society, we risk sliding into an unprecedented levels of ignorance of public affairs, and an general state of low-level civic corruption. We may well be halfway there already.

  3. Of course I agree with you, Dr.Jones, that news is not a commodity. My point is that ‘government’ or even academic involvement through ‘research’ cannot deliver what is needed which is a free press with journalistic integrity that can hold government or other entities (like the 1% of the 1%) to account. It used to be that a good story or scoop would ‘sell newspapers’ and that the revenue from this could justify (for the bean counters) the hiring of journalists to uncover and report on these stories. The problem is that the public is no longer willing to pay for ‘paper’ and advertisers for paper ads so newspapers are overly reliant on government paid for notices. Everything is moving online where revenues are essentially non-existent.
    The search for new models of journalism continues as exemplified by this latest article I read in the NY Review of Books

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