The Talking Point #21: Is the end nigh for Welsh newspapers?

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

In August 2010, BBC Wales reported that The Western Mail was bobbling around the 30,000 daily circulation figure, with some optimism that the figures were improving. The latest figures, from 2017, show its daily circulation has halved in less than 7 years.

The Daily Post – which has reclaimed its title as Wales’ best-selling (domestic) daily newspaper – has lost at least a third of its daily circulation over the same period. The South Wales Evening Post’s circulation has dropped by around 40% since 2013. The South Wales Argus has also lost around a third of its circulation since 2013 and is now circulating less than 10,000 copies a day.

Every single daily Welsh-published newspaper now has a circulation of less than 20,000 and their combined reach (numbers reading) is probably less than 200,000 people. If that isn’t a crisis, then I don’t know what is.

It’s true that newspapers across the entire UK are facing similar problems, but there’s a very real possibility – based on the rate of circulation declines – that some Welsh print titles will be economically unviable by the end of this Assembly term in 2021.

The question that naturally follows is, “What’s replacing it?”

Based on research from Reuters in 2016, it seems to be a pitched battle between television and the internet (excluding social media) – though radio was left out despite often having sizable reach in its own right.

The Welsh news publisher(s) have invested quite a lot in their online presence, with Wales Online now having significant pull. The quality of that work will always be questioned as they try to balance “serious” reporting with clickbait. Nonetheless, in raw statistical terms it’s been a success and has become a go-to site for news from Wales with very few direct competitors punching at that weight aside from the BBC (there are indirect competitors/challengers like Nation.Cymru).

Whether this new online model sustains itself depends on audience loyalty and advertiser income. Online advertisers want audiences that stick around for a minimum length of time and who come back time and time again. There’s no problem for Wales Online or other affiliated sites like Daily Post when it comes to the latter, but I’d question the former.

I can only speak for myself, but I might visit Wales Online several times a day and only spend a few seconds on it if I can’t find anything worth reading (and I assume the same goes for people visiting this site). The site also seems unusable on occasion without an ad-blocker and the auto-start videos can be annoying. One alternative to advertising Trinity Mirror might end up eventually considering is a pay-wall.

Nevertheless, we have to put up with it because unless you know where to look it’s all we’ve got in terms of mass-reach news about Wales. Wales Online, like it or loathe it, has to be a success because there’s nothing else.

You don’t get that problem with radio or TV news because you have to put up with what you’re given. There’s a much stronger BS filter as there are more stringent regulatory guidelines for broadcasters than newspapers and news sites.

That’s why you’re probably going to come away more informed by watching or listening to TV and radio news/current affairs programming than using Facebook or visiting a website. While BBC Wales have taken big steps forward on that through The Hour and Wales Live (alongside mainstays like ITV’s Sharp End and S4C’s O’r Senedd), it’s another area where Wales is lacking.

Last week’s debate and vote on broadcasting shows it becoming yet another policy area where a majority of AMs are quite content to whistle in the wind – hoping the UK will change to suit Welsh needs – as Welsh newspapers burn in the brazier and the only people left to cover what they say and do are people like me; one day that’s not going to be there either.

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