Wales’ news finally goes national – but is it expansion or a shuffling of the deck chairs?
Ifan Morgan Jones
You wait ages for a bus, and then…
When Nation.Cymru launched in 2017 the main motivating force behind it was that there was a huge gap in English language national news provision in Wales.
In the Welsh language, we had Golwg360, BBC Cymru Fyw, Newyddion 9, Barn and a number of other national news services catering for a national audience.
In English however news provision in Wales had since the 19th century developed around local towns and cities, and even in the digital age post-devolution age had followed much the same pattern.
That finally seems to be changing with the launch of three new national news services in the next few days and weeks.
S4C is also gearing up to launch its own expanded online national news provision, which I understand will feature some bilingual content.
As someone who has long bemoaned the lack of national news in Wales, this sudden splurge of national news website is fantastic to see.
And not to blow my own trumpet but I would like to think that Nation.Cymru, through long years of mostly unpaid toil, played a part in showing that an audience did exist for such a service and creating the blueprint that others could follow.
In the age of print, a truly national news website was difficult because of Wales’ sub-standard transport network.
In the digital age however there’s no good reason why Wales can’t have one, or multiple news services, and I hope Nation.Cymru played a part in demonstrating that.
I would like to temper this enthusiasm however by asking some tough questions about the nature of these new sites and whether their long-term success is guaranteed.
It is, after all, one of the toughest times ever to launch news services and make them work from a financial point of view. Print sales which generated the bulk of revenue for news services have plummeted, and the global pandemic has massively squeezed advertising budgets.
Those behind these new news websites know all too well how tough it is out there. Newsquest announced swingeing jobs cuts in Wales just last year – although some of these seems to have been mitigated – and the Herald groups’ own financial issues have been well-documented in the press.
The first question I would have therefore is whether these new news website represent true expansion by those companies or to what extent they represent conglomeration.
That is, is what we’re seeing the publishers of local news services confidently expanding what they offer, or rather deciding to combine the output of those local services and re-badging them as national news services to try and reach a new and different audience?
The latter may not be a bad thing in itself but there’s a difference between a truly national news service which discusses national issues in an all-encompassing way and a site that repackages local news under a ‘national’ heading.
If you have a cat stuck up a tree in Anglesey and one in Monmouthshire, putting them both on the same website doesn’t make it national news just because of that geographical span between them.
Ultimately, it’s not new titles that are important to pull Wales’ media out of its doldrums but new staff. Wales already has a large number of titles but many of them are running on skeleton crews or increasingly dependent on the BBC’s local democracy service.
Just having new titles isn’t real pluralism if they’re largely sharing the same content as each other. Real pluralism comes from having a large number of journalists who have the time to dig up new news stories that no one else has found and hold power to account.
At the moment the staff to title ratio in Wales is very skewed towards the titles – there are some parts of Wales where one journalist and/or editor is managing more than one newspaper and news site.
I don’t know how many new staff the Herald have employed before launching Herald.Wales but looking at the site this morning, many of the bylines are familiar from their local titles.
Newsquest have advertised a handful of new posts for the National but running a truly national news service with three or four dedicated staff is a tough ask, so I presume that a lot of the content will also come from their local news titles.
This also raises questions about the geographical spread of their coverage. The Herald’s titles are currently concentrated in the south-west of Wales, around Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.
Newsquest has a more even geographical spread, but only three reporters on the titles it has in the north-east of Wales.
The danger here is that, as with the Western Mail which has long claimed to be a ‘national’ newspaper despite in reality being a regional one for the south of Wales, does national really mean national?
Will the topic covered by national or regional? And will national involve truly national coverage, or will it be skewed towards these newspaper groups’ current domains?
I don’t want to go on about negatives because, as I said, the launch of new national news titles is an altogether good thing, and I hope they go from strength to strength.
These are just questions and ones that will hopefully have positive answers.
However what I would ask is whether these new titles are representative of progress in Wales’ media or are simply a case of reorganisation and conglomeration based on the dwindling number of staff now available.
The fundamental issues facing the commercial media in Wales remain unresolved – digital, advertising-led journalism just doesn’t pay enough to employ as many journalists as print did. It’s as simple as that.
That is why Nation.Cymru decided early on to favour a not for profit, supporter powered model with some public funding. Because that’s the only way we see a national news media in Wales being sustained in the long term.
So does the sudden appearance of a number of national news services represent a newly sustainable start or a shuffling of the deck chairs?
I hope it’s the first, but we might well have to wait a few years to see.