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Future of Welsh newspapers in crisis, Michelle Stanistreet warns

6 July 2012

Wales has a long, strong and proud newspaper industry, but its future is in crisis, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, warned an inquiry into the Welsh newspaper industry.

Michelle Stanistreet told the inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the media in Wales:

"As local newspaper groups are bought up by large conglomerates with headquarters in London and the USA, Welsh newspapers have found they are losing their distinctive voice. The industry is being hit by the UK and worldwide crisis – in the past seven years, 20 per cent of the UK's local papers have closed with only 70 new launches.
"The blame has been put on the transition to the internet with a lot of content being made free, the drop in advertising revenue caused by the recession and falling circulations. But it is not as simple as that.
"Between the start of 2003 and the end of 2007, Media Wales's profit margins averaged 34 per cent, peaking at 38 per cent for the 12 months to the end of 2005. These profits made Media Wales one of the most profitable companies in Wales of any kind, let alone in the media industry.
"But these profits were not invested in the business. When Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror's chief executive, left the group last month year, she had pocketed more than £14 million, despite the workforce being cut by a half and a share price that plummeted by 90 per cent during her tenure."

A recent survey of reps working for Trinity Mirror titles showed that the cuts meant that council meetings and court cases are not being covered. The net effect of all this is a serious threat to Welsh democracy.

Without a vigorous press, based in the communities they serve, fulfilling its essential role of holding the powerful to account, the functioning of that democracy will be seriously compromised.

The NUJ has in the past decade identified the loss of more than 2,000 jobs in the Welsh media industry. Newspapers have sustained year after year of cuts in the cuts-for-profit model adopted by the newspaper groups operating in the principality.

NUJ members, working Trinity Mirror titles are braced for a further assault as the group has announced that a further £15 million savings are to be made.

There is speculation that within a relatively short space of time the Western Mail will cease to be published as a daily and will become a weekly paper. If that happens, many more jobs will be lost, and Wales will lose its only daily paper that seeks to take a national view of the country.

The questioning by the APPG was led by Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru spokesman on culture, media and sport at Westminster (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr); Nia Griffith, Labour shadow minister of state for Wales (Llanelli); and Alun Michael, the former First Secretary of Wales (Cardiff South and Penarth).

Michelle Stanistreet said the NUJ is backing calls for an amendment to the Localism Act that would give local papers protected status as community assets. This would prevent newspaper titles closing overnight, allowing potential new owners, including local co-operatives, the time to put together a bid for the paper.

It is important that titles should also be protected, so that newspaper groups cannot be allowed to close a paper and lock away a title that has resonance among its local community, she added.

Andy Williams, of Cardiff's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, agreed with Michelle Stanistreet that the asset stripping by newspaper groups has left readers with a service that does not meet their local needs. He said:

"The big newspaper companies made extremely high and unsustainable profits for most of the past 10 years. But they didn't invest any of this back into the product into journalists who produce the news. The companies, based in London and elsewhere, kept cutting staff as they creamed off huge profits for shareholders and bloated executive pay.
"If Trinity Mirror produced fridges or tins of beans it wouldn't matter so much, but they don't. They produce news and news is a public good, such as education and health care. We need it to ensure democratic scrutiny, accountability and to encourage informed and active citizenship.
"But the problem we have is that the market is withdrawing its subsidy, and we need to make creative, smart, sustained and targeted use of public money to save journalism… a new journalism that is non-profit, democratically run, and accountable to the workforce that produces it and the communities it serves."

The NUJ has been campaigning for a number of years for an economic stimulus plan for the media. The union supports the need for government subsidies and tax advantages for local newspapers. The NUJ has called for the strategic use of central and local government advertising and tax credits and tax breaks for local media that meet clearly defined public purposes.

Alun Michael said that, if local papers are to receive public subsidies, they need to prove they can meet a public benefit test.

Michelle Stanistreet said that would not be a problem:

"It would be easy to comply with tangible outcomes, such as a commitment to reporting council meetings, courts and providing a forum for the local community. Local papers can work if they provide news for the community they serve.
"It is no surprise that circulation falls when readers are served by reporters chained to their desk many miles down the road. The model is not bust: local papers need to rediscover their local roots, so that local advertisers know they are reaching their market and readers can see that reporters are working in their patch as a watchdog and friend."

Tags: , cuts, newspapers, regional newspapers, ownership, subsidies, parliament uk, media wales, trinity mirror, councils, court reporting, localism act, assembly wales