“Read all about it!” But not for long

Another week, another depressing set of job losses, this time in the media. First BBC Wales announces 60 posts are to go. Newsquest which produces the South Wales Argus, Western Telegraph, South Wales Guardian and the Tivyside Advertiser says it is losing 23 jobs. Then Reach, which owns the Western Mail, Daily Post and Wales Online tells more than 70 of its journalists they are at risk of redundancy. This is part of a wider trend across the United Kingdom. Between 2005 and 2018 more than 200 local papers closed leaving 58% of the country with no regional newspaper.

Cue outrage from the politicians. The First Minister says ‘democracy needs a strong media’ to hold elected representatives to account; ‘The Welsh Government urges those groups to rethink their plans.’ In a rare show of unity the Conservative MS Andrew RT Davies agreed, ‘At this rate there’s going to be hardly anything left which is pretty dire for Welsh democracy.’

Traditional business models for local and Wales wide papers it seems are in tatters as both editorial content and advertising move online. The damage has been magnified by the concentration of titles by the major media companies and the overriding need to maximise profits and cut back on resources, that is, staff.

The implications of the death of local news are massive. How will people learn about Welsh Government policy, decisions made on their behalf in the Senedd or by their local councils? Decisions which will directly affect their lives, from the size of school classes to what services you can get at your local hospital to the withdrawal of weekly bin collections. A 2016 study by King’s College London discovered that UK towns where local newspapers had closed showed a ‘democracy deficit’ leading to reduced community engagement and a heightened distrust of public institutions.

In Wales of course we have an added dimension – devolution. Covid has highlighted the importance of people on both sides of the border understanding the different responsibilities, laws and regulations which apply in each country. An unintended consequence of the pandemic is that people are now ‘getting’ devolution. We should have the confidence to reset news provision in a way which serves our needs not those of the traditional proprietors. Can we for example go hyper-local? Should we have a truly national paper? And can we ensure a more representative mix of journalists? With one or two exceptions political reporting in particular still seems to be the domain of white men.
‘But what is to be done?’ as someone once said. Now is the time for fresh thinking on the way news media in print and online could be delivered. The past weeks have shown how Welsh Government support for footloose companies sadly can go wrong, the £13m investment in Ineos being the most obvious example. Why not pump prime a Wales based industry for what will be small change compared to the money spent attracting ‘major inward investors?’ Let’s be bold and rely on ourselves for once rather than a distant multinational for answers.

There’s an interesting analogy between local news outlets and the way that village pubs have suffered from ownership by major national pub chains. Local services cannot quickly respond to local market changes because they are no longer community focused. The National Union of Journalists and the Co-operative Party have suggested hybrid co-operative structures for local papers. Membership of the co-operative would include not just staff but also supporters in the wider community. 

The digital consultant Huw Marshall is trying to launch New Media Wales a weekly paper, online and social media news service. But to do that he needs 500 subscribers to commit £5 each a month. Since 2017 Nation.Cymru has offered an independent online news service for Wales. There are also a number of independent sport and news podcasts, many of them a labour of love for their creators.

Marshall has argued that just like the other industries which have benefitted from government bailouts news media too should be targeted for help. He says the Welsh Government could use 0.01% of the £500,000,000 they will receive as a consequence of the Chancellor’s latest stimulus announcement to create a £500,000 media investment fund. This fund would support job creation and retention and allow media companies to pilot new sustainable business models.

There is political will for this approach from across the parties. In its 2018 report on news journalism the National Assembly’s Culture Committee recommended the Welsh Government create a fund for ‘a contestable scheme that is available to both new entrants and to support innovation and sustainability among current operators.’ The Welsh Government had already committed £100k for two years to support journalists seeking to set up their own businesses in hyper-local news.

There is a precedent for direct intervention too. In 2009 the then Heritage Secretary agreed to give the Welsh language news website Golwg 360 £200,000 annually, initially for three years. Without this money Golwg says it simply could not operate. At the same time another bid for a newspaper ‘Y Byd’ was dropped amid claims of a lack of support from government.
Apart from decimating S4C’s budget the former UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will be remembered for his championing of local TV. To get them off the ground local TV stations took tiny amounts of the Licence Fee to prop up channels in places like Cardiff, Leeds and Birmingham. They offered a different, often quirky take on all things local. When the subsidy disappeared so did many of the stations. Wouldn’t some of the money spent on the plethora of BBC services now available have a bigger, more creative impact if it were competitively bid for by new entrants to the market or those already delivering news but who are unlikely to continue doing so for much longer?

And what of the really big beasts of the new media world, the likes of Google and Facebook who hoover up content and advertising at the expense of national and local providers? There’s another interesting analogy here, this time with football’s Premier League which allegedly ‘trickles down’ financial support to smaller clubs supporting the pyramid on which it thrives. How about a tiny tax on these billionaire businesses or a levy on their advertising revenues to support local news? Achieving this might require collective international action and seeing how adept these companies are at not accepting responsibility for the downstream effect of their actions we should perhaps look for an answer a little closer to home.

So here then are just a few suggestions – co-operative news partnerships jointly owned and run by journalists and communities, a subscription service, a kick starter grant from government, a tech giant levy or ongoing support for sustainable news ventures via the Licence Fee. There are many more potential answers to trying to fix a system we all agree is on its last legs. There is no single magic bullet but can we for once stop saying that democracy is dying, someone must do something about it and just, do something about it.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://resetcymru.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/read-all-about-it-but-not-for-long/