The Welsh Media XI: The Press, Journalism & Independence

(Title Image: vb.is)

These final two parts will look in more detail at some of the specific issues raised over previous articles and consider some of the policy options that might be available to us through independence (or now) to fix those problems. It’s not an exhaustive list and no doubt myself and many other people will return to some of these issues in more detail in the future.

This first part looks at journalism and the future of the press, the second part (in three separate articles) looks at broadcasting.

Media Plurality & Viability

The Problem: Offering multiple voices and perspectives on the same topic is fundamental for any democracy to properly function. While access to news has expanded, choice has narrowed with news about Wales concentrated in too few hands. “News-snacking” (using multiple sources to read small amounts of news) has resulted in an increase in online and digital readerships, but the BBC retains its dominance of broadcast news in English and Welsh (despite the best efforts of ITV), while Reach and Newsquest publish as many as 75% of Wales’ weekly and daily print titles between them (as well as the largest online news outlets). Readily available access to free news means the medium-term viability of Welsh newspapers is under serious threat. Adding to the problem, online advertising revenues haven’t matched pace with the decline in print advertising revenues – perhaps due to technological interventions like ad blockers and the dominance of Google and Facebook.

Alternative business models that are less reliant on advertising – There are many different ways to support journalism beyond venture capitalists or tax-funded outlets and if it’s the chase for profit which is causing a market failure in the first place, then alternatives need to be actively considered. This could include:

  • Employee, co-operative and community ownership – On the same principle that communities should have first dibs on community assets, a case has been made for this to extend to local media. The Press Gazette argued in 2015 that the bar for successful community ownership (whether a co-operative, community trust or employee ownership) is often set lower than other forms of media ownership. There are several examples of successful community-owned media outlets in the UK including the Bristol Cable, Marlborough Online and the West Highland Free Press. Could this work at a national level?
  • Membership-based business modelsThe Guardian is probably the most successful example of a membership-based funding model, with more than 1million members as of 2018. The Athletic has recently launched a similar scheme in the UK. Now, you wouldn’t expect a Welsh publication to be able to replicate it precisely, but it’s certainly feasible as long as there are clearly defined benefits resulting from membership (i.e. exclusive offers, ad-free experiences, voting rights).
  • Paywalls & micropayments – This is something I’ve actively considered but decided agains. Essentially, it’s a pay-as-you-go system where you pay either a fixed weekly/monthy sum to access everything or a small sum to read a particular article. This would probably only work effectively if all online publishers in Wales taking it up agreed to use the same system, perhaps developing into a “virtual Oyster Card” style system for online news. Cornwall Reports switched to a paywall system earlier in 2019.

Customisation & print-on-demand – Imagine you could create your own newspaper or magazine, selecting what news you wanted (or pre-selecting a specific title), and then have it printed on demand. “Impossible”, you say. But believe it or not, the technology to do this has been around for several years. The fact it hasn’t taken off suggests it’s perhaps not viable and it would require significant investment to put kiosks in supermarkets, public buildings and railway stations etc. Is it worth considering as an experiment?

Press Support – This is one of the most commonly-aired solutions – based on examples in Norway and Sweden – where the government awards either direct grants (via a body similar to the Wales Books Council), grants tied to public service obligations or indirect funding via tax breaks. In Norway, state grants are given to newspapers based on their circulations to enable them to be published outside their immediate “patch” without losing revenue; in Wales, it would be like giving the South Wales Echo a grant to be distributed in Swansea and the Evening Post grants to be distributed in Cardiff and Newport. In 2018, the Norwegian press subsidy was worth 362million krone (£34million). Based on population, a similar scheme in Wales would probably cost around £20million. The question is, would it be chasing good money after bad and does the future lie in digital rather than print? Immediate newsgathering is better suited to online, but in-depth pieces could be left to magazines or newspapers published less frequently than daily.

Enforcing competition laws at a Welsh level – UK competition law requires a referral to the Competition Commission if a merger would result in control of more than 25% of a particular market. Under these terms post-independence, Reach and Newsquest takeovers of multiple Welsh titles probably would’ve been blocked as only the Welsh market would’ve been taken into account, not the UK one.

Subsidised publication of national freesheets – Ideally, for a country of Wales’ size there should be at least four or five completely distinct and separately-owned national newspapers, supplemented by a good number of local and regional titles. A more radical idea/option of last resort would be to use press support (mentioned above) to underwrite the publishing, promotional and distribution costs for several daily newspapers, which would be to be available nationally (nor regionally) as short – maybe no more than 30 pages an issue – freesheets (along the lines of Metro or Iceland’s Fréttablaðið ;you can take a look at a sample issue here – pdf). Not having to pay would no doubt boost circulations and subsequently improve plurality while publishers can concentrate on commercial concerns and getting stories in the first place. However, the quality of coverage might not change and there would be many unintended consequences such as littering and questions surrounding the long-term sustainability of, or dependence on, public funding for private companies. Any such newspapers would likely be continuations/successors of existing Welsh titles but such a project could encourage smaller independent publishers and regional titles to “go national”. They needn’t necessarily be print titles either or strictly daily publications; pdfs could work as in the case of Fréttablaðið.

Break up BBC Wales? (Part XIIa) – This is perhaps a controversial suggestion, but the BBC is so dominant in Wales that post-independence it could be split into several distinct organisations, with a publicly-funded news agency (similar to NOS in the Netherlands) taking over the news aspect and, subsequently, promoting competition with other providers.

Standardised and simplified advertising processes – Buying advertising should be as simple a process as possible, ideally with the same system used across print, online and broadcasting. The reason Google and Facebook are so popular is that the process is fairly easy and intuitive. Obviously there’ll still be a need for companies and individuals to produce advertising, which will be costly in some circumstances, but the process itself should ideally be as intuitive and simple as it is on Facebook – a drag and drop system for booking TV and radio ads, for example, and something similar for newspapers.

The Democratic Deficit

The Problem: Despite the Welsh Government and Senedd controlling pretty much every front-facing public service (criminal justice and welfare aside), coverage of devolved politics – while often done superficially outside of broadcast news for Welsh audiences – continues to fail to capture the attentions of the population. The regional-centric nature of the main print titles in Wales and the near-complete absence of coverage by the UK media has left a highly-damaging void in terms of coverage of the Senedd and local government, reducing public scrutiny and awareness of key decisions which directly impact people’s daily lives.

The Senedd and Welsh Government should actually follow media and broadcasting recommendations through to some sort of conclusion – I provided a list of the number of reports, inquiries, committees and task and finish groups set up to deal with this issue earlier(Part V). While a few things have been achieved as a result, the issue is still with us because the powers that be only seem to go a third or half of the way towards where they ought to be. You could even argue, cynically, that the Welsh Government enjoys staying out of the limelight and refuses to consider devolution of broadcasting because it would make their lives a bit more uncomfortable. In terms of the Senedd, very little seems to have come from the most recent Digital Task & Finish Group. Wakey, wakey! The situation regarding the Anglocentricity of news in Wales is so bad that one day this is going to come around and bite AMs on the backside (the 2016 referendum campaign was a warning shot) and possibly become an existential threat to devolution….and you can forget independence – this is as big a problem as economics.

Apart from a few AMs who’ve been banging on about this for years  – Bethan Sayed deserves the most credit for that and I fear she’ll end up being a “Cassandra”; Lee Waters is well aware of the situation from his time at the IWA, while Hefin David and Suzy Davies seem to appreciate what I’m trying to do with Senedd Home – many amongst the rest of them, particularly the government, either won’t see it coming (or aren’t treating the problem as seriously as they should be), will continue to expect the UK media to pick up the slack (they won’t) or will see the problem too late to do anything about it. All it will take is a co-ordinated campaign by the Daily Mail and The Sun, careful targeting on Facebook and false balance by the BBC and devolution is gone.

Procedural changes at the Senedd – Paraphrasing the late Steffan Lewis, the Senedd is often a cure for insomnia. That’s not a criticism of AMs’ work as I see for myself that they’re better at their jobs than they’re given credit for by pretty much everyone – particularly in the committees. People often bring up the computers in the chamber, but that’s not the real problem. While the Senedd’s procedures aren’t as arcane as Westminster, there are some things which make covering it and picking out stories an unnecessary chore: the procedural jargon; AMs repeating what other AMs have just said in the same debate; a reluctance to make and take interventions which occasionally results in a parade of overwrought speeches (the perspex lecterns are a bigger issue than the PC monitors); lax enforcement of speaking time limits; holding the same debates on the same topic more than once a term; holding debates on subjects over which they have little to no control (The B-word) which reinforces the perception of being “a talking shop”; Ministers relying too much on notes and using buzzwords. This is a whole topic in itself, to be frank.

Some of the biggest stories come from the most unexpected places – The Welsh Government is relatively open when it comes to releasing data and statistics and, more often than not, some of the biggest stories are in documents on the Senedd and Welsh Government websites that are essentially hidden in open view. Some of the most-read stories on Senedd Home have come from ministerial letters to committees (a few of which are blunt), data trends or FOI requests submitted by members of the public. I realise time pressures mean relying on press releases and alike, but there are plenty of serious stories out there if you know where to look and crucially, if you have contacts, who to ask. More recently, stories on the bus pass changes, school funding and fleeceholds have got far more traction on Senedd Home than anything to do with Brexit.

Ministers should make themselves available for (and actively invite) interviews – With the change in First Minister, there’s noticeably more openness at Cathays Park with press conferences being held more regularly. That hasn’t always been the case and the Welsh Government has a terrible track record of doing everything by press release. How many times have you heard or read those immortal words, “We asked (insert Minister here) for comment, but a spokesperson said….” We have a basic democratic right to see and hear from people making decisions on our behalf so we can judge whether they’re up to the job or not. More press conferences by party groups and committees wouldn’t go amiss either. Frank views make headlines and generate interest – just don’t do it on Twitter.

AMs shouldn’t take what’s left of the Welsh media for granted – Whenever there’s an issue with the Welsh media, the reflex of AMs is either to demand the BBC fills a gap or to harangue Fleet Street titles for not giving them enough coverage (as if they’re obligated to do so). Then they go and write articles for publications, or appear on programmes, with seeming very little Welsh audience penetration and wonder why they’re not well-recognised and nobody hears about what they do. You can probably imagine how demoralising it is when AMs and other civil society types say “there isn’t enough coverage of the Senedd” then get cock-a-hoop when a debate gets a few paragraphs in The Guardian or there’s a minute or two on Channel 4 News once in a blue moon; to me it sounds like “f**k off”. So I can only imagine what it’s like for those who make a living out of political journalism in Wales day-in, day-out – many of whom at BBC Wales, ITV, S4C and the major newspapers often do an excellent job in difficult circumstances but are victims of snobbery. Everyone (nationalists, rather) got very excited at the one-off Welsh edition of The National (a Scottish pro-indepedence newspaper) last week, but if you don’t help build what we already have it’ll be gone before you know it.

Stop using peoples’ ignorance of devolution as a political tactic – All too often, politicians from all sides use muddled perceptions of what is or isn’t devolved to draw attention to themselves and manufacture an outrage. On the one hand, Westminister and the UK Government are blamed too often for failings well within the remit of the Welsh Government (particularly the NHS and both local government and school finances). Meanwhile, the opposition often argues for Cathays Park to intervene in areas beyond their own control (rail infrastructure, foreign policy or even, ironically, broadcasting) or, as the Conservatives have done recently, allocate the Welsh Government’s budget before they’ve had a chance to – we get a block grant, it’s not ring-fenced for specific purposes. If you need the powers, make the case for them and tell us precisely what you’ll do with them. If you have the powers, quit whining when you get shown up and take responsibility. It’s frustrating to even have to say that, though admittedly it’s wishful thinking to believe it’ll stop any time soon.

Supporting Local News

 

(Pic: Press Gazette)

 

The Problem: Local offices of regional weekly print titles have closed, resulting in the centralisation of editorial roles. While the introduction of the BBC’s Local Democracy Service has stemmed a decline in local news coverage (particularly coverage of local government), the public take it upon themselves to provide local news via social media – which on occasion is nothing more than gossip or anecdotal. As this is rapidly becoming the main way people in Wales now get their local news, you should be worried about it.

Local media has to be local – While it may make the bottom line better and prove more “efficient” and less expensive to provide local news from centralised operations, for local news to have any sort of future it has to be based in the community it serves. While pretty much anybody can do the sort of work I do on Oggy Bloggy Ogwr, when it comes to properly reflecting what’s going on in a community you need people on the ground full-time building relationships with local people, local government and local businesses. The audience is there. How to you keep it local? It could include alternative business models as mentioned earlier. Also, office locations/”local footprints” could be used as part of evidence when weighing up competition decisions, while offices for local newspapers, local broadcasters and hyperlocals could be exempt from business rates.

Prevent council “news sheets” from making a return – The council news sheet does appear to have died out. The money spent on council PR departments could be better utilised supporting hyper-local and community newspapers, run along the same model as the Caerphilly Observer or some of the other titles and sites I’ve mentioned previously. There’s long been a case made for official public notices (planning applications, licence applications etc.) which require mandatory publication to be published on hyperlocal news sites to help generate income.

Mandatory webcasting of all local council meetings – You can’t cover local government properly if you don’t know what councillors are doing and saying on behalf of constituents and it’s often inconvenient to go and sit in a public gallery at 2 pm. Some Welsh councils already webcast meetings as standard while others might only webcast specific meetings. Complaints about low viewerships don’t stand up; from my experience, while a Bridgend Council planning meeting might be only be watched by tens of people, my summary of it would often reach several thousand.

Using franchised hyperlocal websites to blood journalistic talent – As mentioned in Part IV, Wales doesn’t have a problem when it comes to producing journalists and others with high-level media skills. Perhaps universities provide one answer to the decline of the local press. They could use the resources at their disposal to actively encourage journalism students to run franchised hyperlocal newspapers or websites – perhaps as an obligatory sandwich year, perhaps with some limited Welsh Government or Development Bank financial support. Turnover of staff will be high of course, but they’ll develop the kind of practical and business skills that they might not get in a lecture theatre.

The Impact & Quality of Digital News

The Problem: Despite online news becoming increasingly important to the public, the quality of news about Wales on mainstream websites has been criticised. This is largely due to the competing priorities of trying to drive audiences to websites and apps to boost advertising revenues (meaning more low-brow sensationalism), with the need to cover often complicated but important political and current affairs stories in a way that a majority of people can understand. Additional problems include fake news, technical issues with websites that make using them frustrating (pop-up ads, autoplay videos), the duopoly Google and Facebook have on online advertising and the reliance on semi-professional and volunteer-run websites to fill gaps in news coverage.

The Welsh print press should focus on promoting its inherent strengths, particularly trustworthiness and level-headedness – While the medium itself might well be seen as antiquated, newspapers and magazines do have strengths they can focus on which puts them at an advantage over online and broadcast news. Newspapers and magazines often do a far better job of putting news stories and political decisions in a broader context. The quality of writing and editorial oversight are usually higher and, as said in Part III, magazines are considered particularly trustworthy sources of information. The quality of information and quality of writing is the newspaper’s biggest strength and instead of aiming for younger audiences to entice them back to print or chase to break news first (which can be left for websites), they should target older audiences and promote the fact they have higher standards to uphold and are, at least in part, professionally regulated. In the current political environment this is more important than ever.

Niche sites and syndication – The print industry is in decline because once larger companies take over smaller ones they either run them down deliberately to eliminate competition or do so because they want to improve the bottom line of the parent company. Digital news can avoid this. Syndication is one way to ensure “content creators”, who may have expertise reporting one particular subject, get their work gets seen by a larger audience, with a larger independent website hosting their work alongside internally-sourced work. An example of this is Senedd Home’s (as a specialist blog – Part V) current syndication agreements with Deeside.com, Wrexham.com and Nation.Cymru. It’s a convenient way to fill gaps in coverage on the larger independent news sites (pushing them more towards the mainstream) without impacting or threatening plurality; if one site fails or becomes unviable, it doesn’t take everything down with it.

Franchised and other local portals – Local portal websites could combine things like local TV & radio services, blogs, local and national stories from the established media and local advertising under a single “one-stop-shop” brand online. In Your Area has been set up to do something very similar, while as said previously most communities in Wales have hub pages on Facebook. Wrexham.com and the Caerphilly Observer are probably two very good templates to develop local hubs from and, in an ideal world, every county in Wales would have at least one independently-run site similar to them – possibly franchised out from existing sites with government press support (i.e. Conwy.com, Gwynedd.com sister sites to Wrexham.com and Deeside.com).

AI newsgathering? – There are already experiments with automated news reporting (programmes such as RADAR), but one potential near-future application would be to use AI to plough through mounds of government and local government data, speeches, text and official documents to flag up potential stories to (human) journalists.

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