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Opinion

Why is taxpayers’ money funding zombie newspapers?

08 Jul 2024 6 minute read
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Marc Jones

For more than a century a rich tapestry of newspapers served Welsh communities. Daily newspapers served the three big cities (The Echo in Cardiff, the Evening Post in Swansea and the Argus in Newport plus from the 1970s the Evening Leader in Wrexham and Flintshire).

In addition there were a network of weeklies operating from towns across the country that created a strong local identity and often shaped the political landscape of an area.

Initially they had a monopoly on the news. Radio and then television threatened that but never really breached the localised reach of these newspapers. Many were family businesses – including North Wales Newspapers, which operated the Leader and 14 other titles across north Wales.

Gradually that changed as the larger newspaper chains accumulated local titles and led to a reduction in their distinct identity.

Paywalls

The real challenge to newspapers came from the internet – some opted for paywalls, some opted to embrace a free service to maximise readership and advertising potential but many just bumbled along unaware that they were heading for a precipice.

Rightmove took property listings, Ebay took the small adverts, Autotrader took car adverts and so on.

People stopped buying newspapers because the news had already appeared on the internet (in some form at least) a day or two before.

Papers that once sold tens of thousands of copies a day, and were printed that day (Evening Leader in Wrexham) are now reduced to a few thousand sales. Even as recently as 2015 the historically strong Daily Post had a circulation of 24,713 and was competitive with local news- that’s now just 8,350 copies – two thirds gone.

The concentration of our newspaper industry into the hands of a handful of conglomerates such as Reach plc and Newsquest has accelerated. These two groups alone control the vast majority of the newspaper titles/circulation in Wales.

Both have overseen a drastic reduction in print journalism as weekly titles were forced to take stories from related daily titles and operate UK content hubs, thereby losing that unique community bond that made these papers so vital.

The UK-wide view of news was very visible during the pandemic where health policy and fast-moving legal changes were appearing in titles here despite not being relevant to us – as many such sites rely on a Press Association feed to backfill articles.

Worse still, we now have a number of newspapers across Wales that sell only hundreds of copies per issue – clearly not sustainable in any commercial sense.

Zombie titles

These are in effect zombie titles that presumably exist solely for one purpose: to print Statutory Notices. (Average circulation per edition stats via ABC: Glamorgan Gazette 870, Gwent Gazette 279, Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald 270, Rhondda Leader 331, Merthyr Express 388, Holyhead & Bangor Mail 220 , Cynon Valley Leader 260, North Wales Weekly News 439 etc)

These are the long, legalistic adverts that local government and other public bodies have to, by law, place in their local press to advertise everything – including changes in road signage, taxi licenses, etc.

Members of the public may encounter the legislation as well, for example if they wished to apply for certain licences.

The fact that this information is available freely to all on public websites is immaterial it seems.

Public bodies also have to continue to advertise in their local press and unsurprisingly the media conglomerates have lobbied hard to continue this outdated practice.

It’s unsurprising that my union, the National Union of Journalists, have backed that move in an attempt to save the few newspaper journalism jobs remaining on these zombie titles, but the truth is that dozens of jobs have been lost because the media conglomerates have centralised production, reducing local journalism to a bare husk.

LDR scheme

The few journalists left are often paid for by the LDR scheme funded by the BBC or by Google and Facebook.

Facebook are already backing away from their commitments to news provision, so can we really trust tech giants to have our best interests at heart?

In two years the Welsh Government alone spent over £800k on such notices and the recent 20mph policy roll out has seen a large six figure sum spent on legally required Traffic Orders. With the review into 20mph it is likely that sum will be replicated, if not higher, due to the fiddly nature of exemptions and detailed changes to road speeds across the country.

The Local Government Association, which took evidence from Welsh Councils, estimates upwards of £28m is spent per year on statutory notices across England and Wales just by local authorities.

They also report that 25% of councils told them local papers ‘charged a rate that is higher than charged for general advertising’.

So why is the print industry, uniquely it seems, worthy of public subsidy when journalism produced online is unable to access such funding?

I subscribe to quality community journalism online that gives me a real insight into what’s going on in Liverpool and Sheffield. I pay a fiver a month to Nation.Cymru and turn to Wrexham.com for local news more often than not. People have the option to pay for their news in all shapes and sizes but there is no choice when public funding is only available for these print titles.

I don’t want them to disappear – far from it. I want their owners to invest in them rather than pay out huge dividends to their shareholders while local papers decline. Are PLCs and corporate owner interests aligned with the public interest of Wales?

But although I still love inky print news, I recognise that for immediacy and increasingly quality journalism, I’ll get it online. Why should these online outlets not be able to access this public funding to promote quality journalism, especially investigative journalism that holds those in power to account?

The Welsh Labour government ‘reviewed’ the issue in 2012 and in 2017 said ‘new options should be explored’ around public notices, however nothing changed.

Tomorrow (July 9th) Senedd Members get to vote on an important line in the Finance Bill that could challenge the protectionist subsidy the legacy publishers feel they are entitled to in Wales.

This should then trigger serious wider debate on how Wales funds and protects public-interest journalism in the future.

Marc Jones started work 40 years ago as a sub-editor with the Evening Leader, then worked for the Daily Post and Liverpool Echo as well as editing Golwg magazine.

The Leader, which sold 34,000 at its height, was owned by North Wales Newspapers and employed 300 people. It’s now owned by Newsquest and sells just 1,977 copies for the Leader Wrexham edition – it doesn’t even have an office in Wrexham.


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John Ellis
John Ellis
9 days ago

Another factor in rural areas is the disappearance of traditional local village shops, many of which sold daily, weekly and Sunday newspapers. The shop in our small hamlet disappeared decades ago, and quite recently the shop in our area’s largest village, two miles away, also closed down. There’s a community drive to revive it, utilizing volunteer staff and with the aid of government money, which so far looks promising; but as yet the project hasn’t been completed and the shop remains closed. With the consequence that I only buy a newspaper on the limited number of occasions when we go… Read more »

Brad Steel
Brad Steel
8 days ago

It would be better for this taxpayer subsidy to expand the LDR scheme and supply this content to as many online media outlets as possible. Continuing to publish statutory notices in obscure publications is actively harmful to local communities because it allows many to tick the regulatory boxes knowing that most will never see them.

Ap Kenneth
Ap Kenneth
8 days ago

Have not bought a newspaper in years now but Wrexham.com and Nation. Cymru do a good job.
Why can’t a centralised site online be set up, which online sites can link to and get paid for any individual reading. Papers could get paid an equivalent amount per reader. Online sites have an incentive to report on stories with local notices and papers to up their circulation.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
8 days ago

An active, independent local news service is so important both for democracy and for giving a voice to local issues. The lack of this is said to have contributed to the Grenfell disaster as local concerns over defects had no outlet. Its why Nation Cymru is so important.
Clearly the whole issue of the press and taxpayer support needs a rethink as long as the local dimension isnt overlooked or squeezed out even further

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