Over the past few decades, online traffic to news websites has soared. But declining profits for news providers have led to newspaper closures and job losses in Wales and across the world. The coronavirus crisis has dealt a further blow to this damaged business model, leading to redundancies at Wales’s largest news companies.
The First Minister has described these redundancies as a “threat” to democracy. These concerns were shared by the Senedd’s Culture Committee, though it said in a recent report [373KB]that it was largely “unclear how the Welsh Government has converted this concern into action”. Recent comments from the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism suggest that the Welsh Government is looking anew at how it can support a sector that was struggling even before the coronavirus crisis began.
Print pounds turn to digital pennies
Welsh newspapers have seen continued decline in their print circulations. Since 2008 the Western Mail’s circulation has more than halved – from 37,576 in 2008 to 10,341 in 2019 . Over the same period, the Daily Post’s circulation has halved – from 36,432 in 2008 to 16,327 in 2019. This is not out of sync with what has happened in UK dailies, with the Mirror and the Express both more than halving their circulation over the same period. These patterns are mirrored across the world.
Whilst print circulation has dwindled, online traffic has soared. WalesOnline’s use grew by over 1400% since between 2008 and 2020, up from 680,000 in March 2008 [3.3MB] to 9.7 million in June 2020 [415KB].
News organisations have struggled to monetise this increasing traffic. Other than a few examples, they have been reluctant to charge for access to their content, instead relying on digital advertising, the bulk of which [4.87MB]is hoovered up by Google and Facebook.
The result has been newspaper closures, job losses and market-consolidation by the big players. In 2018 the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee said [1.8MB] that:
The precarious state of news journalism in Wales is such that serious consideration should now be given to some way of supporting public interest journalism in Wales.
The civic value of news journalism was highlighted in recent research [3.3MB] commissioned for the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This showed that an increase in circulation and availability of local newspapers increased voter turnout, and that “the closure of local and regional news titles has led to underreporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions”.
“A perfect storm of market conditions”
The coronavirus crisis has disrupted this fragile market further. Recent analysis [4.87MB] suggests a year-on-year advertising revenue reduction of 20.5% for national newspapers, and a 24.1% decline for regional newspapers. Declining print sales were further impacted by lockdown in early 2020, as shopping footfall plummeted.
In April, Paul Rowland of Reach PLC, which runs newspapers including the Western Mail and Daily Post as well as the WalesOnline website, described the situation as a “a perfect storm of market conditions”. He called for more support for the industry from the public sector, such as business rates relief and more government advertising being placed in local and regional publishers.
This “perfect storm” has led to redundancies across the Welsh journalism sector. In early July, Newsquest – whose titles include the Western Telegraph, South Wales Argus and the South Wales Guardian – announced that 25 jobs would go across its Welsh operations. Later in the month, Reach PLC announced around 20 job losses.
The pandemic has also affected the licence-fee funded BBC, which has faced additional costs in operating safely during the pandemic, as well as a reduced income from its commercial arm. BBC Cymru Wales aims to save £4.5 million this financial year through measures that include 60 redundancies – 6% of its Welsh workforce.
Reporting during a pandemic
Whilst weathering this “perfect storm”, the devolved nature of many powers used to respond to the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on reporting of Welsh news. Whilst news consumption increased, concerns arose about inaccurate reporting relating to Wales.
In April the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee (CWLC) wrote to Westminster’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee outlining the potential of misreporting to misinform people in Wales, citing examples from across the UK press, and calling for more to be done to support local journalism.
The Committee’s letter was in response to DCMS Committee asking for examples of misinformation and disinformation around coronavirus, as part of its ongoing work on “fake news”. The CWLC Committee noted that it did “not need to look to social media to find examples of harmful false information about the coronavirus”, which were instead rife in the mainstream press, and fuelled by “UK Government announcements that frequently erase devolution in the interest of simple messaging”.
These claims have since been backed-up by research from Cardiff University conducted by Professor Stephen Cushion. His study found that the “vast majority” of participants could spot “fake news”, such as quack cures remedies for COVID-19. However:
When we asked them [study participants] about what false or misleading information about COVID-19 they had encountered, many instead referenced examples of what they saw as government or media misinformation.
The study found that “half of all respondents wrongly believed the UK government was in charge of the lockdown measures across all four nations”. The CWLC Committee was concerned that the “the drip-effect of this misinformation into Wales damages public understanding of steps taken to tackle the virus”.
The Welsh public’s appetite for news during the crisis was evident in television news viewing figures and online traffic. In March 2020, BBC network news audiences in Wales were 40% higher than in March 2019. S4C’s news viewing figures rose by 40% during lockdown. ITV Cymru Wales's six o’clock news viewing figures were up 12% during lockdown compared to the previous year, and its website saw a 300% increase in users compared to the previous six months.
An “unacceptable paradox”
“What coronavirus has done”, journalism lecturer Dr Ifan Morgan Jones told the CWLC Committee in July 2020, “is to hasten by two or three years processes that were already in train.” This further shock to the industry could have “some benefits”, he felt, if it “actually wakes us up to the need to take action”.
In 2018 the Committee called the retreat of news journalism from Wales “a profound public policy issue, which policy makers at all levels, not least the Welsh Government, need to address as a priority issue”.
In its recent report into the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on journalism and local media [317 KB] it shared the First Minister’s concerns that further job losses in the sector during the crisis were “damaging to democracy”. However, it felt that “other than welcome support for hyperlocal publications, it is unclear how the Welsh Government has converted this concern into action”.
The Committee called it an “unacceptable paradox” that “as the Senedd has gained further powers, public interest journalism has retreated from Wales”. It “urgently” called for the Welsh Government “to take affirmative action to support news journalism in Wales”. The coronavirus crisis has further reduced the capacity of the Welsh news sector, whilst increasing the demand for accurate and reliable information about Wales.
Support for independent media
In a recent meeting with the CWLC Committee, the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism suggested that he was receptive to calls for the Welsh Government to support news journalism.
Creative Wales, the Welsh Government’s creative industries division, had, he said, been tasked with exploring whether it “might be able to become an arm's-length body that could support further independent publication”. Any such support, he stressed, would have to “retain the independence of the journalism media” by having an effective separation from government.
The Deputy Minister noted that the Welsh Government already supports Welsh language news media, such as Golwg 360, where there is long-acknowledged market failure. This has not previously been the case for English language news journalism, which has to a large degree been left to provision from the BBC and market-based providers.
The Committee will be hearing from experts, probably before Christmas, about how the Welsh Government could support news journalism. Committee Members will consider difficult questions about how to support a sector which, though vital to democracy, requires independence from the state to do its job.
Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament
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