Ifan Morgan Jones
It has already been noted by historians that pandemics don’t necessarily change society, but they do speed up the change already happening.
One change that was already happening was the decline of newspapers and the growth of digital journalism, and this is one change that looks likely to be significantly speeded up by the coronavirus pandemic.
With fewer people venturing to the shops, printing offices in lockdown, businesses unwilling to advertise and journalists stuck at home a pandemic is the perfect storm for the already precarious business model that was just about keeping newspapers going.
It was no surprise therefore, to hear that Reach plc, which owns many of Wales’ most prominent titles, are furloughing staff, and other companies have announced that some newspapers will temporarily cease publication altogether. Whether all of them will be back is highly questionable.
Unfortunately digital journalism can’t just shed newspapers and keep going as, despite a huge fall in readership, in many cases the newspapers remain much more profitable than their digital equivalents.
While print newspapers have always made much of their money from advertising, a combination of ad-blockers, a lack of reliable information about audience numbers and demographics, and social media sites hoovering up online advertising means that digital news sites have struggled to pay their own way.
As a result of these factors, commercial media in Wales was already in long term decline before this current crisis and is likely to come out of it at the very least severely weakened.
This all has an impact not just on the media but Wales’ fledgling democracy as well.
Audiences complain about clickbait online journalism but the truth is that when tiny teams of journalists are expected to bring in tens of millions of readers a month just to eke out enough advertising revenue to survive, such sensationalised churnalism is very often the only viable business model.
In-depth investigative journalism takes large teams of journalists with time and money, something no one apart from a few BBC units and the larger national British newspapers have anymore.
It’s no surprise therefore that public understanding of Welsh politics and devolution are extremely poor, with one poll showing that fewer than 50% even understand that health is under the Welsh Government’s remit.
What has to be emphasised is that this is no comment on the desire for news in and about Wales. WalesOnline has 50 million visitors a month (that’s 15 visits by everyone in Wales). On Saturday Nation.Cymru, this much more humble operation, reached 180,000 unique visitors in a single day.
There are probably more people reading news about Wales now that at any point in history. And yet this need is fed with a tiny fraction of the resources that even a local newspaper would have enjoyed a few decades ago.
This is particularly worrisome at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the extent to which our Welsh Government and Senedd need a dedicated Welsh news media to function.
There has been significant policy differentiation on coronavirus in Wales, with the latest example being today’s policy of workplace social distancing. But with no mention of it in British media, how many business owners in Wales will actually know that this is happening?
One of my favourite quotes comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series: ‘Power resides where men believe it resides.’ If the Welsh Government passes a law and no one knows about it, what power do they really have?
Of course, no one wants the Welsh Government to be running newspapers. We don’t want a Pravda telling us how great we all have it under a particular government.
However with a politically independent board distributing funding, there is no reason why a few million set aside every year could not finance a much more vibrant news scene. Public service broadcasting is widely held to be a thoroughly good thing so there is no good reason to be squeamish when it comes to publicly funding digital and print journalism as well.
This is already done very successfully in the Welsh language, with several news and current affairs outlets including Golwg360, Bro 360, Golwg, Barn, O’r Pedwar Gwynt and others benefitting from public funding.
In English however there tends to have been far less public funding available, and what there has been has focussed mainly on cultural publications – with the exception of the site you’re reading at the moment!
It now needs to be recognised that English language media in Wales isn’t in much stronger a position than Welsh media and needs a similar or greater level of support to pull through.
It needs to be emphasised that there is nothing nationalist about the goal of wanting a strong Welsh media. Over the 20th century we built up a Welsh polity – a democracy and many national institutions – and now we need a vibrant public sphere so that these institutions can be scrutinised and held to account.
Of course, perhaps there are some within the Welsh Government who are perfectly happy for Wales not to have a national media calling them to account.
But that would be a mistake because ultimately scrutiny strengthens rather than weakens governments and institutions. Without scrutiny, people lose trust in their rulers and are susceptible to fake news about them.
Without a vibrant public sphere governments and institutions become trapped in their own bubble, have no real understanding of what people want, and are prone to being swept away in a populist surge.
Anyone who supports Wales having its own institutions but not a strong national media needs to answer this question: If a campaign to abolish the Assembly did find a foothold in the Daily Mail, Express, Sun and other national British newspapers, how would pro-devolution forces counter that? What would be their platform?
Wales’ commercial media has long been in decline, and the effects of that decline has been almost imperceptible but no less dangerous because of that.
But it may take the short, fatal drop of the coronavirus pandemic to wake us up to the fact that if public support isn’t forthcoming it may well disappear altogether.
“Democracy dies in darkness” is the now-famous slogan of the Washington Post. That’s just as true in Wales as it is across the Atlantic.