Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saving the Welsh press

(Owen: I have to say my heart isn't in it to write new blogs at the moment, but due to some of the content I have to make it clear that this was written before Sunday's news.)

I've been critical of the Western Mail in the past, but it's still the best source of detailed Welsh political and economic news. It's closure or "downgrade" would be a sad loss to Welsh civic life.

However, the print media as a whole is in decline and it's an even worse situation for (so-called) "regional" and local titles. Even the Scottish print press - which Wales has often looked enviously at - has seen significant circulation falls. News is now instant and online. Consumers no longer have the patience to make do with a single source produced once a day - and in many cases - don't want to pay for it either.

Many may point the finger at blogs, but all bloggers do is provide commentary on what the "old media" report. Blogs are no substitute for quality journalism. I don't believe bloggers are trying to muscle in on that territory, or plagiarise journalists work, just provide alternative viewpoints, analysis and - ideally - provide extra exposure for journalists stories.

In Wales the situation is typically grim. Wales has always lacked a proper "national" media unlike Scotland, and attempts to create such usually end in failure for a number of reasons. Sometimes commercial, like losing the independent ITV licence or job cuts at Media Wales. Sometimes political and cultural, like a national media that is largely Welsh medium in focus and people simply voting with their wallets.

News on Welsh NHS changes might be important to the Welsh public, but you can't beat a two page spread of Kim Kardashian's arse in the Daily Mail to turn heads. The only way you can get Welsh news high up in the "British" press is either a human tragedy, a story along the lines of "those wacky Welsh and their foreign ways" or something far more banal.

Andrew RT Davies growing a dodgy mullet, Kirsty Williams getting flesh tube earrings or a Labour backbencher grinning through the stages of putrefaction at a really bad Carwyn Jones quip and nobody noticing until the following Tuesday. That sort of thing.

What can we do about it?

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) - who's a member of the Assembly's task and finish group on the future of the Welsh media - suggested on Wales Home a few days ago that one possible "radical" solution would be to take Media Wales into public ownership, before handing it over to a not-for-profit journalist co-op.

A not-for-profit/co-op model for Media Wales? A good idea that's definitely worthy of investigation. However, evidence submitted to the group showed that Media Wales was making a tidy profit for Trinity Mirror despite the plunging circulation. A co-op type model is usually wheeled out only when a business is commercially unsustainable or unviable. But in this case, it might be a necessity.

Some sort of state subsidy is also worthy of discussing. I'll look at that further down.

Public ownership of a newspaper? No. No. No.

I don't want to go off on a tangent, but this is a perfect illustration of the Plaid Paradox. A perfectly reasonable solution to a problem becomes overshadowed by a suggestion that sounds "radical" but in reality is ill thought through. Electable, then unelectable, at the same time.

Wales might be left-leaning, but if a certain tendency within Plaid think that we want to live like The Smurfs, they need to loosen the keffiyah, put down the bong and Zillah Eisenstein and actually take a look around.

We like buying pointless crap. We generally like choice. We're some of the worst when it comes to conspicuous consumption. We're fine with publicly owned services, but I think most of us will draw the line at a publicly owned newspaper – even if it's temporary.

Surely it's easy to understand why a suggestion that the main newspaper holding the Welsh Government to account should be owned by the Welsh Government isn't going down too well.

At least Bethan Jenkins has stood up and said something about the market failing the Welsh media and prompted some debate. Perhaps good can come out of it after all.

The state can help – but how?

I might not - personally - believe that the state should be within bargepole distance of the print media, but there are certainly ways the state can help without needing to take over newspapers.

Norway is ranked joint number 1 in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, yet it operates a form of subsidy for its press managed by the Norwegian Media Authority. It was introduced in the 1960s after fears the Norwegian press was going through such a decline that freedom of speech and institutional accountability were at risk. Subsidy is given to newspapers that don't have the largest circulation in their respective areas, but also for press research and minority languages like Sami.

Technically the Welsh Government already does something similar to this.

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) asked a question to Housing and Heritage Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) a few weeks ago about Golwg 360.

Golwg360 is an online Welsh language "newspaper" subsidised indirectly via the Welsh Books Council to the tune of £200,000. It's attracting approximately 1million page visits a year. Golwg 360 is owned by private company Golwg Newydd - its sister company producing the Golwg magazine.

Some ideas for strengthening the Welsh press

  • Use the Welsh Books Council as a conduit for government press support. It would be independent of government interference and could have a new remit similar to that of the Norwegian Media Authority.
  • Use subsidy (via the "beefed up" Welsh Books Council) to increase the plurality of Welsh media online and via mobile devices – including the creation of new English-language and bilingual "online newspapers".
  • Start a round of "bidding" , and grant subsidy to (for arguments sake, an initial four) bids with the best case – the criteria can be decided independently by a panel of media experts. These new outlets should be expected to be run on a commercial basis and wean themselves off the subsidy as much as possible.
  • The Welsh Government can help with publicity, but that should be the extent of their involvement. For example, giving these new "publications" preferential access to ministers, AMs and news briefings.
  • Make new media and social media a key part of the curriculum at Cardiff School of Journalism.

Specifically relating to Media Wales and other existing print media:
  • Encourage a new model of ownership for Media Wales. Options on the table should include cooperative and not-for-profit status to ensure Media Wales can survive as a stand-alone business.
  • Work with Media Wales and Trinity Mirror to massively overhaul and update their online and mobile presence. The Walesonline website is incredibly dated and difficult to navigate for example.
  • The Western Mail and Wales on Sunday should become a high-quality "broadsheets", perhaps justifying a very high quality – on a par with the Observer or The Times - weekly edition.
  • Media Wales should consider launching a national free-sheet or national tabloid perhaps based on the South Wales Echo or Daily Post "brands".
  • At least one of the bigger non-Trinity Mirror owned Welsh publications (i.e. The Western Telegraph, South Wales Evening Post, South Wales Argus) should be encouraged to "go national" – either online or in print form (see general ideas above) to encourage competition and plurality.


  1. Some ideas here. How about the Western Mail becoming more available in North Wales, and available acorss the rest of the UK. I've seen the Daily Record being sold on the shelves in Sainsburys or WHSmiths but never the Western mail outsdie Wales.

  2. I once read a suggestion (I think it may have been Johann Hari) that the government could give everyone a years worth of free newspapers (their choice) when they turn 18, and hope that this would encourage a reading habit.

    Maybe the WG could give out free vouchers that anyone can spend on newspapers of their choice, but on condition that they are only redeemable against newspapers that have substantive coverage of Welsh affairs.

  3. We need a national freesheet to compete with the Metro, a paper that has no news content relating to Wales unless it would be in the London based press. Perhaps that with a good website would be a start, both produced by a Trinity Mirror co-operative would be good. And yes some completion. The Western Mail as an upmarket paper of record marketed and covering all of Wales, the Daily Post as the national free tabloid and a third paper produced by a non Trinity Mirror source, as you suggest based on something like the Argus or the Western Telegraph. We need diversity, we need depth of coverage and we need it to be Welsh based.

    I agree that nationalisation is not a good idea for political reasons, but a government financed mutualisation of Trinity Mirror Wales certainly would be doable. Lets face it there are plenty who see any Welsh media as in the thrall of evil nats - any thing you do will be regarded with deep suspicion.

  4. A good piece, and some good comments with it.

    Bethan's piece - as you rightly discern - was written with the aim of providing CPR to the debate around the Welsh media which, in spite of the task-and-finish group, is becoming as moribund as Welsh newspaper sales. It certainly wasn't policy, or even finished as an idea. It was put out there to be improved upon, and that has also worked (I'll be stealing some suggestions from here, so thanks once again).

    What it also served to do was set the scene for a highly-productive first meeting of the Cross-Party Group on Media and Broadcasting, which met last night. What will probably be coming out of that (subject to the group's agreement and provided we don't have any more Welsh media disasters that require immediate attention) is research into social enterprise models for our press.

    Everyone agrees that we are being less and less well-served by the status quo, and that having a largely London-centric media is not encouraging widepread participation in public life. What we need to be sure of is that any work doesn't seek to put right what is historically wrong. It's tempting, but at the same time, my son reads CNN off his smartphone on the bus on the way to college. What that means is that we need to have a researched view of what the future will bring, and attempt to make our plans accordingly.

    The CPG is open to everyone, and one of the views that came through clearly last night was that a debate that is as wide as possible would benefit the group's work. If you want to be involved (and it's also Chatham House rules), even if it's just to be included on the circulation list, you would be most welcome. Drop me a line at duncan.higgitt@wales.gov.uk

    Duncan Higgitt
    Press and Political Officer
    Bethan Jenkins AM

  5. Thanks for the response everyone, I'm glad there are so many good ideas regarding the future of the Welsh press.

    Having looked at some of the evidence submitted by relevant bodies to the inquiry it seems as though many of my own ideas and those of you guys are already being considered. There's hope at least!

    I think it's also important to point out that while we are concerning ourselves with the print press, broadcasting shouldn't be ignored either. There have been some blogs and suggestions regarding that before and I hope to add my own views and ideas on that at some point in the future.

  6. Are any functions relating to broadcasting or media policy devolved to the National Assembly?

  7. Anon 11:18 - Broadcasting is strictly non-devolved, but when it comes to the "press" it's unclear.

    I've given Golwg 360 as an example of what could be considered press support/subsidy by the Welsh Government and clearly the Assembly has some "sway" over the media as part of it's culture and Welsh language remits.

    I think it's only right that the Assembly is able to voice/seek views on non-devolved matters if they affect any of the devolved areas - in this case culture.