Huw Marshall unpicks some of the issues behind why the Welsh Government has decided to fund a Senedd reporter.
The Co-operation Agreement between the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru has a commitment to fund existing and new enterprises to improve Wales-based journalism to tackle the information deficit.
£100,000 a year has been allocated since 2022 to support endeavours in this critically important space.
The first round of funding went to seven recipients in August 2022: Caerphilly Observer, Cwmbran Life, Deeside.com, Llanelli Online, My Welshpool, Wrexham.com and Welsh language site Golwg 360. Each received up to £8,000, which went towards paying publishers for their time producing public interest community news. £20,000 was made available to four organisations in seed funding, and there was also a third pot which offered small grants to existing publishers experiencing an emergency, or technical problems.
The lack of direct reporting from the Senedd isn’t due to market failure. There is a market for public interest journalism.
This year the £100,000 fund has been increased to £200,000. Half will be awarded via the Welsh Public Interest News Accelerator, with an additional £100,000 set aside for pilot projects including, for one year, a Senedd reporter who will be employed by the Caerphilly Observer and whose output will be made available to other Welsh news outlets, like the local democracy scheme funded by the BBC.
The balance of the funding will go to Cardiff University to carry out research into the media landscape of Wales and funding will also be provided to Inclusive Journalism Cymru who are working to build a more inclusive and representative journalism sector. Partners in this project include Media Cymru and the IWA.
It is unclear how exactly these funds were allocated, but any investment in journalism in Wales must be welcomed.
It is the funding of a Senedd reporter that has received most attention – with baseless claims that a reporter funded by public money will somehow lack the ability to be objective. Remember that the BBC is funded by the public and does, overall, a fair job of reporting news from the Senedd in a balanced way.
I have no doubt that whoever is appointed will do the job of reporting the activities and output of the Senedd fairly, honestly, and objectively.
But it is fair to ask why the funding is needed for such a role.
Several comments have been made on social media, including by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters, that it’s due to market failure. This is where the issue of why? becomes tricky for me.
The lack of direct reporting from the Senedd isn’t due to market failure. There is a market for public interest journalism. Research backs this up.
It’s the failure of the business models of news organisations based in Wales that are at fault here. Those companies could employ dedicated Senedd reporters and some, to be fair, do employ political editors that fulfil some of this remit. But generally they don’t. Why? They simply cannot justify the expense of an individual whose output would not generate sufficient web traffic to make the roles financially viable.
Go back to 2005 and the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, South Wales Evening Post and Daily Post – all owned by Reach Plc – were selling a combined 171,000 copies per day and generating substantial revenues from the adverts they carried. Fast forward to today and those same four news titles sell a combined total of 30,000 a day, with the Daily Post providing a third of those sales.
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That’s a staggering 83% drop in circulation, with revenues being impacted severely. Revenues from print sales and advertising are forecast to drop below those from digital advertising soon, and the bad news is that’s not down to digital revenues increasing: they have stayed steady for the past few years at a far lower rate than print advertising delivered. No, it’s the continued decline of traditional media that’s at work here.
So, it’s a simple case of economics. Twenty years ago, lots of people were buying newspapers, advertisers were happy to spend their advertising budgets with news publishers because they knew that it was an effective way to reach customers at both national and local levels.
Then along came the internet and many news publishers made the crazy decision to give their content away for free. With the new dawn of internet advertising growing in popularity they must have thought that they would make their money back from this.
They were wrong, and on a massive scale. They failed to foresee the decline in newspaper sales and print advertising revenues, but perhaps more worryingly for them they didn’t foresee the ability for advertisers to reach customers directly on newer, more relevant platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and others.
The fact that many journalists are so poorly paid and becoming increasingly reliant on performance-based bonuses – per hundred thousand page views – illustrates the direction of travel for the news industry, not only here in Wales but across the globe.
This has led to an ever-increasing circle of doom. Fewer newspapers sold equals less revenue from sales and advertising. Revenue from digital advertising has become increasingly reliant on delivering page views, in their hundreds of thousands and millions.
So it’s not about quality any more – it’s about quantity with hope, rather than expectation, that one of the stories of the day, perhaps based on SEO, or even located in a different part of the UK, will deliver the big numbers. The fact that many journalists are so poorly paid and becoming increasingly reliant on performance-based bonuses – per hundred thousand page views – illustrates the direction of travel for the news industry, not only here in Wales but across the globe.
The simple fact is You won’t believe what Leanne Battersby looks like today generates far more page views than an article on the Senedd culture committee. Welsh news publishers had journalists covering the Senedd up until a couple of years ago. Their output could be used by multiple titles across Wales. They chose to withdraw them and redeploy journalists in roles that maximised traffic to their websites.
They’ll be delighted by the news about public funding for a Senedd reporter. Just as the local democracy reporting scheme provides news publishers with free quality public interest content, the Senedd reporters output will further bolster their public interest journalism credentials whilst they themselves employ fewer journalists as they continue to generate profits for their owners and shareholders.
That isn’t a market failure. It’s years of poor business decisions and declining revenues.
We are likely to see further job cuts in the coming years and the closing of titles across Wales.
Whilst this investment from Welsh Government into public interest journalism in Wales is welcome it’s merely a sticking plaster trying to stem the blood from an open artery.
This week, we highlight the role of public interest journalism: why it matters, and what can be done to strengthen it.