The Welsh Media IV: Who’s telling Wales’ story?

(Title Image: Wales Online)

Who owns the Welsh (print) media?

This isn’t particularly scientific but, as a snapshot, of the 44 Welsh-based, English language local and regional weekly and daily print titles that I found (so it doesn’t include the likes of the Caerphilly Observer) all of them are owned by just 4 companies and the majority (75%) are owned by just two companies: Reach (formerly known as Trinty Mirror) and Newsquest.

Of these 44 newspapers, none is published by a company registered in Wales. None.

Herald News International (Carmarthenshire Herald etc.) is incorporated in the United States after securing a £1.5million investment which has since seen them continue despite coming very close to going out of business.

On October 19th 2019 – weeks after this post was published – it was announced that Herald Newspapers ceased trading after failing to secure additional investment. That means the proportion of newspapers owned by Newsquest, Reach and Tindle Newspapers has increased and in a stroke Wales has lost several local newspapers. A few days later a deal was struck at the last minute which would see a single print title continue (Pembrokeshire Herald) alongside online versions.

Reach are based in London (Cardiff-based Media Wales being a subsidiary of Reach) and are listed on the London Stock Exchange. According to Reach PLC’s 2018 annual report (pdf), cover prices for Reach titles have gradually increased to make up for falls in circulations meaning the company continues to make an operating profit. Nonetheless,  advertising income from print (£176.7million) still outstrips digital advertising (£103.6million) despite circulation declines. The financial position of their Welsh titles is unknown.

Newsquest – whose largest titles in Wales are the South Wales Argus and Wrexham Leader – are also based in London and are a subsidiary of an American company, Gannett. They took over Mold-based publishers NWN Media in 2017 along with their north Wales titles. They reported a pre-tax profit of £108million in 2018.

Tindle Newspapers are based in Farnham in Surrey and have a large number of local titles across England and Wales in their stable (some of their Welsh titles include the Cambrian News and Glamorgan Gem). At the end of 2017, they were reporting (pdf) a turnover of £22.6million (across the UK).

Away from newspapers, there are many English language magazines and periodicals focusing on news, current affairs and literary criticism, notably the IWA’s Welsh Agenda, as well as Planet, New Welsh Review, Wales Arts Review and Poetry Wales. All of them receive grants from the Wales Books Council totalling £155,000 a year for four years as of 2019.

The situation with Welsh language print media is quite different, with all titles being owned and published within Wales.

All Papurau Bro – 52 of them according to a recent Welsh Government statement – are primarily run and published by volunteers. According to a BBC report from 2017, they collectively receive around £90,000 a year from the Welsh Government. While they tend to be paid-for titles, circulation is usually in the few hundred to maybe no more than 1,000-2,000 – which matches some of the smaller English language local weekly print titles (Part III).

In terms of the more professional Welsh language print output, the largest are Barn, Golwg, O’r Pedwar Gwynt and Barddas – all of which receive Wales Books Council funding. There are several Welsh-language magazines aimed at children and newly-launched magazines aimed at teenage girls (Lysh) and women (Cara). £380,500 a year has been awarded to Welsh-language magazines for the next four years by the Wales Books Council.

There’s a long and inglorious history of attempts to launch and sustain Welsh language newspapers and the only one that lasted any length of time – Y Cymro, a weekly newspaper – ceased print publication in 2017 (though a website and digital publications still operate). There are reported plans to relaunch as a monthly newspaper/magazine.

In summary, the awkward situation we find ourselves in is that English-language print and online media in Wales can be/is expected to be commercially viable, though it’s often in the hands of a few owners based outside of Wales who could shut them down in an instant to improve profit margins. Meanwhile, the Welsh-language print media has lots of plurality and is often locally owned and produced, but seemingly can’t operate without subsidy. The key is to somehow find a happy medium and that’s a difficult task.

Training and employment of journalists in Wales

 

(Pic: Cardiff University)

It’s unclear how many professional journalists there are in Wales at present, but all indications point to long-term downward trends in terms of newsgathering jobs.

Concerns have been raised by politicians and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) alike about journalism and editorial redundancies at the BBC, Media Wales/Reach and Newsquest; the NUJ has claimed “thousands” of journalism jobs have been lost over the last twenty years.

While in times gone by journalism mainly consisted of on-the-job apprenticeship training, now it often requires a journalism degree or pre-requisite postgraduate professional training to attain NUJ membership and be eligible for a Press Card – which is (as good as) official industry accreditation.

According to the university admissions service UCAS, Welsh universities offer at least 30 undergraduate and 11 postgraduate courses defined as being in journalism. Bangor, Cardiff (JOMEC) and the University of South Wales are the predominant undergraduate journalism schools, while Cardiff is arguably the most important postgraduate centre.

If you include all media-related courses, then there are at least 74 undergraduate and 28 postgraduate courses and probably thousands of students.

JOMEC is considered to be one of the best journalism schools in the UK and moved to a prominent new building in Cardiff city centre at the start of the 2018-19 academic year. It’s also home to the Centre for Community Journalism – a networking and training portal for community and hyperlocal journalism.

Bangor University offers several joint degrees which include journalism and is also ranked very highly for the quality of its teaching. The University of South Wales’ journalism and media school – based at the ATRiuM in Cardiff – offers cutting edge and practical training in traditional journalism, broadcast journalism and other courses necessary to harness opportunities presented by the “new media” (Part VIII).

You would think the journalism situation in Wales would be buoyant if we have such a strong production line, with many alumni having gone on to become household names.

It’s just that with so few journalism opportunities within Wales, they have to look elsewhere – in particular, London (perhaps in future, Manchester) – to make a serious living out of it. People who would’ve once become journalists in Wales may instead find alternative jobs in political communications, public relations, the Third Sector, lobbying (all largely coming about because of devolution), as well as academia/research/teaching or other facets of the media such as regulation, programme production and advertising. Journalists who do newsgathering and reporting give the impression of being an endangered species in Wales – and that’s an incredibly dangerous situation for democracy (Part X).

Broadcasting and TV production is a different matter (Part VII) and, if anything, Wales (Cardiff in particular) is doing relatively well there.

Do people trust the media?

As important as plurality is, another key factor to consider when it comes to journalism are levels of trust.

According to Ofcom (pdf – p89), magazines are considered the most trustworthy, highest quality, most impartial, most in-depth, most useful when it comes to forming an opinion on something and widest-ranging source of news and information. No other platform comes close.

Television also comes out relatively well, with high scores for trustworthiness, quality and accuracy – though it doesn’t do quite as well when it comes to impartiality or opinion-forming (which hints that some members of public believe TV news is politically biased). All TV news providers were ranked similarly to each other, though the BBC comes out on top, with Sky News second and ITV third.

Despite its reputation for quality and depth, Channel 4 News – as well as Sky News and Channel 5 – all do badly on local and regional news, which as mentioned previously (Part III) was deemed particularly important to Welsh audiences.

Radio, newspapers and “other internet” (presumably online news websites and blogs) all perform similarly to one another, though “other internet” comes out better on providing an understanding of a topic, newspapers come out better on importance as a source and similarly radio on quality.

The highest-rated UK newspapers for quality and accuracy (pdf – p94) are The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. The Evening Standard, Metro, The Sun, Daily Star and local newspapers all score relatively poorly; The Daily Mail and Daily Express do respectively well despite their reputations.

Social media (pdf – p97) was ranked the lowest across the board, with just 39% of people who considered it an important source deeming it trustworthy and impartial. Twitter was generally deemed to be more trustworthy and accurate than Facebook – though no social media platform had a majority of people who considered them impartial, which suggests most people are clued-up to politically-biased “echo chambers”, or more often than not simply don’t like what they see and read on social media.

The only things social media scored well on were personal importance and offering a range of opinions – Twitter doing particularly well there.

What types of news coverage do people consider to be important?

 

A story like this probably straddles a line between a serious health story and entertainment. (Pic: Pink News via Wales Online)

We live in an age of churnalism and listicles – particularly online – and that has shaped the news agenda; once one formula is deemed a commercial success, everyone else tries to copy it.

A lot has been said about the quality of journalism in Wales squared mainly at Wales Online and most of it is subjective opinion and occasionally unfair – more on this in Part V. Many people may even say there’s not even a market for local or national news in Wales; the evidence suggests otherwise (Part III).

From the Ofcom report (pdf – p88), the most important reasons people seek out the news was to generally be “aware of what’s going on” – with no real difference between the UK, the world, nation/region or local area.

47% agreed that it was important to keep informed about certain issues, while 36% and 34% respectively wanted information about daily life (health, taxes, education) or to form opinions on important issues. Only 13% said they wanted “fun and entertainment”.

These figures would seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that listicles and clickbait are actually what people want.

The problem is that while a listicle or clickbait will draw people to a website by grabbing their attention or piquing their curiosity, they might not stick around and it encourages and perpetuates “news-snacking” – using multiple sources for brief periods.

It generates numbers, but I doubt it generates a captive audience as such and it gives the impression of a low-quality publication (even if many listicles are well-written). Meanwhile, the “boring stuff” might not generate reach, but it probably does generate a lower bounce rate and longer session duration (online). It’s the age old battle of quantity vs quality and you often need quantity to survive online if you’re reliant on advertising – it’ll probably take me a month or two to get my Senedd Home audience back to where it was before the summer recess, but I’m reliant largely on donations and syndication.

I’m not going to act all pretentious as say that I turn my nose up at Wales Online’s Buzzfeed and listicle-style articles (or grievance-style opinion pieces elsewhere). Speaking for myself, I might only spend 30 seconds on there, probably not seeing any adverts while I do; the most recent ones I can think of at Wales Online are something about speed dating, someone selling their socks to perverts and the guy above with priapism warning men not to inject their penises (as if we need a warning) – which, although priapism isn’t funny and can be very serious, read like a late April Fool’s joke.

While that applies online, it’s just as likely to apply to newspapers – “the boring stuff” perhaps attracting an audience more favourable to advertisers because they usually have money to spend and are more likely to be politically-engaged (explaining why broadsheets are more popular amongst ABC1s and engaged C2DEs and why paywalls and memberships seem to be working for the likes of The Times and The GuardianPart III). The BBC, of course, doesn’t need to worry about any of this and can take more risks and cover subjects others don’t or stories which require more resources because they don’t have any advertisers or alike to keep on board – but does that threaten media plurality?

The failure to make this kind of work accessible to everyone without being patronising is a serious challenge and the blame for this failure doesn’t really lie with any one sector of the media or group of people – but chasing money generally as well as chasing quick results online are perhaps the main reasons and I touch on them later. There’s a danger for newspapers and news websites that once it becomes associated with a certain type of story or publishing style they’ll find it very difficult to be taken seriously on anything else and will, excuse the pun, become typecast. Breadth of news is important, but quality shouldn’t be ignored for breadth’s sake.

Key challenges facing Welsh journalism

The collapse in circulations (and advertising revenues) – If you want a really good, succinct overview of why so many newspapers have closed over the years, then look at this mic-drop worthy thread on Twitter from Lehigh University’s Prof. Jeremy Littau. While it’s an American perspective, it’s equally applicable in the UK and Wales; one of the conglomerates mentioned, Gannett, is the parent company of Newsquest – a big player in the Welsh print media.

The key takeaway is that while newspapers were once considered “a licence to print money” due to high profit margins for relatively little investment, the internet has destroyed that idea – not necessarily because it can deliver news instantly to someone’s screen, but because newspapers failed to adapt their online models quickly enough. Advertisers want a captive audience and Google and Facebook (as well as sites like Craigslist) have cornered the market newspapers used to have in getting adverts in front of eyeballs (Part VIII).

Welsh newspapers are, in the main, still reliant on advertising income both online and in print to keep going. Wales Online publishes advertorials (advertising disguised as a news story), some UK newspapers (The Times etc.) have introduced paywalls, while The Guardian operates a very successful donation and membership scheme. No single system works better than any other.

Changing consumption habits – This was a while ago now, but in 2013 The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire told a Welsh media conference that UK newspapers (at the time) sold around 240,000 copies a day in Wales, compared to 160,000 sales for the six Welsh dailies. While it’s true to say that when it comes to newspapers Welsh people are more likely to read something with an Anglo-centric view of the world, it’s probably only two or three newspapers (The Daily Mail, Sun and Mirror in particular) and some Welsh newspapers will out-circulate UK papers. So it’s probably more accurate to say the Welsh are turning our backs on newspapers (Part III) for whatever reason, not necessarily news about Wales (Part V).

Lack of plurality of ownership – Having a situation where just two companies own three-quarters of all newspapers produced in or for a country of Wales’ size would be intolerable and probably a breach of competition laws. It’s allowed to happen in Wales because once you count UK newspapers (which don’t publish much in the way of Welsh news anyway) there’s no objective plurality problem. In an independent Wales, however, the lack of plurality of ownership of the print press and domination of the BBC would raise serious questions about press freedom (Part X, Part XI).

Editorial parochialism – Scotland has four genuinely national daily newspapers (Wales has only one in name only; The Western Mail – and that’s stretching it) and eight regional daily newspapers owned by about five different companies, some of which are based in Scotland (that’s before counting Scotland-only editions of UK newspapers). The post-devolution vacuum – a lack of truly national newspaper coverage – hasn’t been filled yet, with the Welsh “domestic press” fragmented into city/region-centric newspapers. That means local issues might get decent coverage, but national issues are usually seen from a parochial perspective, not a whole-Wales one.

The language question – We have the will to do something about the Welsh-language press because we have a natural remit there. That’s not the same when it comes to English. Simply providing English translations of Golwg360, Y Cymro or Papurau Bro would undermine their intention to be exclusively Welsh-medium. It’s also harder to justify doing it due to the extensive choice that already exists in English – even if those choices don’t serve Wales particularly well. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation.

Leveson fall-out and the reputation of the industry as a whole (Part X) – The Leveson Inquiry seems to have passed Wales by for the most part and I don’t think there’s ever been a serious scandal involving a Welsh news outlet; the only one I can think of is the Ceredigion Herald. Journalists – particularly at Fleet Street tabloids – don’t have the best of reputations in the first place, but questions remain on how and to what extent the press needs to be regulated and even how and to what extent media law and media ethics extend to “citizen journalists”, bloggers and hyperlocals in order to maintain and build trust.

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