Where does the Welsh news media go after Covid-19?
Ifan Morgan Jones
One of the unexpected side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic was that it also delivered something of a booster shot for the Welsh media.
Suddenly, and for the first time ever perhaps, the public wanted to know as a matter of urgency what Wales’ political institutions and politicians were doing or saying as they suddenly had an awful lot of power over their lives.
Journalists that had been covering Welsh politics for years, with little response from most of the public, found their expertise in demand, and even London-based media platforms were tuning in to ask questions at the weekly press conferences.
But now (hopefully) the threat of Covid is once again receding. Public interest in the pandemic, while not yet over, has very much been overtaken by other events – most obviously the war in Ukraine.
The Welsh media may well exit the pandemic somewhat strengthened as the result of a public that is now more knowledgeable and interested in Welsh current affairs.
But there is also a danger that the Welsh media returns to the pattern set before the pandemic of a general decline, particularly among commercial media, and faltering public interest.
With the threat that the BBC license fee could also be abolished in 2027, it may well be that the doomsday of Welsh media has been put off rather than averted altogether.
For supporters of devolution or further Welsh autonomy, and indeed anyone dependent on the existence of Wales’ institutions, this should be very, very worrying.
Welsh autonomy has broad support in every opinion poll. But nothing will be easier for ‘muscular unionists’ in power at Westminster than rolling back devolution if no one even knows that it’s being done.
For supporters of Welsh autonomy in any form, how to save and strengthen the Welsh media should be the number one conversation at the moment, and it’s very odd – to me – how little attention this topic seems to receive in the context of discussions about the future of Welsh devolution.
One sign that Wales’ establishment might be waking up to this existential danger emerges in one line in the new Plaid Cymru-Welsh Government co-operation agreement.
It commits them to: “Media financial support – Fund existing and new enterprises to improve Welsh-based journalism to tackle the information deficit.”
There have been no details yet about what kind of sums we’re talking about here or what they would do.
But I think that a conversation needs to begin now within Wales about what would be the best use for any kind of financial support from the Welsh Government if it does appear.
As someone who has worked within the Welsh media for over a decade, I know that spending money in itself is no guarantee of success. You have to spend it on the right things and in the right places.
One potential mistake in my mind would be to fund one or a large number of new news services in the name of ‘pluralism’.
Increased ‘pluralism’ is often suggested as a goal for journalism in Wales but we seldom interrogate what we actually mean by it.
The argument for pluralism is usually voiced whenever a new news service is launched. The new service will provide ‘a new voice’ different to all the other ones.
This can be the case, especially when a new news service comes from a radically new editorial direction or energises and provides a voice for a completely different set of contributors.
When Nation.Cymru launched, we noticed a gap in the market – there was no national English language news service for all of Wales, and no national news service that was not for profit. It plugged a hole with a new audience and a new business model.
But unfortunately what strikes one about most Welsh news services is that they’re actually marked not by their difference but their similarity, at least in content.
This is because they are as a general rule very short-staffed. In many cases, when they’re owned by the same company, they will literally have the same news across multiple titles, sometimes with small regional variations.
If a journalist suddenly finds himself or herself having to write across two or three titles rather than one, that can give them less time for original, investigative journalism.
And it can also lead to multiple journalists across different titles competing against each other just churning out the same stories as each other as they have two few journalists with too little time to do anything else.
By the time they’d grabbed that day’s main news – from PA copy, and the most important stories coming in from government, local and national – there is little time to leave their desks and chase stories.
And as well as duplicating journalists working on the same stories, a multiplicity of news services also multiples overhead costs – offices, news wire subscriptions, and so on.
Politicians will no doubt want to be seen to launch something – and a new news site can be the nice and shiny – but if they’re just creating a carbon copy of a number of similar sites already in existence there’s little point to that.
I would argue instead that what Wales really needs is not more news sites (perhaps it could in fact do with fewer), but rather more journalists.
I jokily asked the question on Twitter yesterday: ‘What does Wales have more of, journalists or press officers?’
The answer was obvious: press officers. And they are as a rule on much higher salaries than journalists.
Is that a healthy state of affairs for a country’s media ecosystem, when there are more people whose job it is to handle requests for information from journalists than there are people to ask those questions?
My argument should be that any public money spent on the Welsh media should go straight into journalists – training them if needed, and employing them afterwards.
The perfect model in my opinion would be something along the lines of the existing Local Democracy Service.
The journalists are employed and then asked to focus on covering news stories from particular institutions – in the case of the LDRS service, local authorities.
Such a service could be greatly expanded to cover a number of Welsh institutions and communities that are currently – because journalists simply don’t have time – largely ignored.
These could include courts, health boards, the Senedd and its committees, the Welsh Government, businesses, and also minority or marginalised communities within Wales itself.
The investigative journalism produced would then, like the LDRS service, be available to those news platforms that wanted to bring them to a wider audience or build on their services.
These journalists would not answer to the Welsh Government but rather a panel of experienced Welsh journalists and editors tasked with nurturing the best talent in those roles.
You could call it Wales’ National Bureau of Investigative Journalists – now that would be something nice and shiny for a minister to announce!
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