Six things we learned about news journalism in Wales

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

Culture Committee
News Journalism (pdf)
Published: 10th May 2018

Chair’s Statement, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West):

“The decline of commercial news journalism in Wales should therefore concern us all. As in other parts of the world, the circulations of Welsh newspapers have dropped sharply in recent years while online circulation has grown. However, this growth in digital readership has not improved newspaper profitability. Instead, we have seen job-losses, mergers and newspaper closures.”

1. There’s a marked decline in the Welsh press resulting in reduced choice

The shift from print journalism to online has impacted both newspapers’ profitability and, arguably, the quality of the stories; for every £1 gained in digital revenue, £31 is lost from print.

While this is happening across the world, in Wales it’s more keenly felt because there’s not much of a “Welsh media” in the first place – particularly when compared to Scotland and Northern Ireland. There’s also a lack of plurality (multiple outlets co-existing separately from each another) as Trinity Mirror and BBC dominate the Welsh market.

One way the gap has been filled is through the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service where 150 journalists were provided to other news organisations to cover local authorities. There were concerns this was being used as an excuse by those organisations to cut their own coverage and the Committee want a review.

2. A £200,000 two-year fund should be set up to support “hyperlocal” journalism

“Hyperlocals” are usually voluntary-run sites which replace or complement regional and local print titles. There are said to be 46 hyperlocals running in Wales (Oggy Bloggy Ogwr counting amongst them).

While they fill a gap, they’re hard to make economically self-sustaining with around 10% of hyperlocals making more than £500-a-month*. Caerphilly Observer’s Richard Gurner told the Committee how difficult it was to get local companies to advertise with him, while Rachel Howells of the (closed) Port Talbot Magnet said the website brought in just £1,500 over seven years compared to up to £5,000 per print version.

Welsh language titles like the Papurau Bro and Golwg360 receive £1.63million in Welsh Government grant funding – which the Committee would like to see continue. In the Labour-Plaid Cymru budget agreement, the Welsh Government proposed £200,000 over two years to fund new hyperlocal sites via Business Wales; the Committee recommended a contestable fund open to both new and existing outlets.

*For want of comparison, I make around £40-50-a-month in voluntary donations to cover three sites and I’m considering ways to boost it to at least £200-300 a month. If I can’t it’s all on borrowed time.

3. Local authorities should be able to publish statutory notices online

Councils are legally obliged to publish statutory notices (i.e. planning, traffic orders). Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism believed it would be “huge” if these notices could be published on hyperlocal sites, which could be cheaper than print whilst providing an additional income stream for the sites. The law would need to be changed, however, as it explicitly says they need to be published in a newspaper.

Nation.Cymru’s Ifan Morgan Jones (his day job being a journalism lecturer at Bangor University) argued in favour of publicly-funded English language online news, while the Caerphilly Observer and Port Talbot Magnet were awarded grant funding to run print editions.

4. Discussions should start on syndication

There’s been recent talk of establishing a “newswire” service for the National Assembly and even the employment of “in-house” journalists at the Senedd to cover its work* because nobody does. If only there was an independent news site covering the Senedd’s work.

Witnesses suggested different forms of collaboration, such as syndication with major national and regional titles to provide a revenue stream for hyperlocals, or the BBC providing a service to cover court reports and local council meetings.

*Seven years I’ve been doing it. Seven. Aside from the £40-50-a-month in donations from a dozen generous people I mentioned earlier, it’s pro bono. Only the BBC covers as many stories in as much depth….think about that. Shout out to Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) and Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) who’ve done more than anyone else at the Senedd to acknowledge that work and spread the word.

5. An independent Welsh Media Forum looks set to be ditched

Creating an independent Media Forum to assess media needs of Wales, advise on policy and consider models for supporting the print press was proposed several years ago. However, Culture Minister, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Merironnydd), told the Committee:

“I am not persuaded that creating another forum or group would deliver additional benefit. I want to simplify ways of working across my portfolio and be consistent in doing so, in line with the recent winding down of a number of Economy and Transport Advisory Boards.

I am looking to continue to build upon the strong relationships which already exist between the Welsh Government and external organisations. I will meet various individuals and groups relevant to my portfolio responsibilities and take advice from them accordingly….I can confirm that establishing an independent media forum was not a commitment in the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government.”

The Committee recommended this be reconsidered.

6. Local TV needs to adapt or die

Local TV (Made in Cardiff, Bay TV Swansea etc.) was kick-started with public funding on an expectation they would become commercially self-sustaining. That doesn’t appear to have happened, with Bay TV Swansea saying they had more success via social media than broadcast television, receiving 2million views over Facebook.

In some ways that presents an opportunity as it means public service broadcasting can be provided at a fraction of a cost and still reach a wide audience. Bay TV even suggested Welsh local TV stations could collaborate/merge into an all-Wales channel.

Many local TV stations have now been taken over by larger companies who have sought to reduce the amount of local programming they broadcast and make. The Committee concluding that expectations placed on local TV stations were unrealistic and it’s all but failed in its goal of addressing a lack of local news plurality.

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