Last week, the National Assembly’s culture committee discussed Trinity Mirror’s role as the dominant newspaper group in Wales. It owns Western Mail, North Wales Daily Post, Wales on Sunday, South Wales Echo and the Celtic group of weeklies which serve the valleys.
Regional newspapers make huge profits, but their story is one of redundancies, strike ballots and doom-laden predictions for the future. Here’s an article I wrote before the committee meeting looking at why newspapers are making such bad news. The comments’ section has updates.
WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS
Campaigns have always been a major feature of the regional newspaper.
Helping to keep hospitals, playgrounds, post offices and schools open are key roles for the Press.
Now, though, it is the newspapers’ own places in our communities which are under threat, with analysts predicting a bleak and bitter future for Wales and south-west England.
Despite massive profits, the media companies which dominate the local press are cutting jobs to reduce costs and further increase profit margins.
The changes are not being dictated by reader demand but by shareholder power and boardroom politics, bringing bosses into conflict with unions, politicians and eventually, experts predict, with readers and the communities themselves.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has predicted 2006 will be “a constant fight to defend our members from this onslaught”.
It highlights two newspaper giants, Trinity Mirror (TM) and Northcliffe, as being at the centre of that fight. Both are essential providers of news and information in Wales and the south-west.
TM owns the largest newspaper centre in Wales, Cardiff’s Thomson House, home to Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic group of weekly newspapers. It also owns the Daily Post, the morning paper covering north Wales.
Northcliffe, the regional newspapers arm of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), owns the Bristol Evening Post, the Western Daily Press, the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea and the Torquay Herald Express.
The titles continue to make huge profits in spite of competition from the internet.
TM made a profit of £250m last year. Thomson House, alone, had a £55m turnover with a whooping 35.5 per cent profit-margin – putting the Western Mail and Echo Ltd (WME) among the top five profit-makers in Wales.
Northcliffe enjoyed operating profits of £102m in 2005, £1m or 1.5 per cent ahead of the previous year. Advertising grew by two per cent across the group and by 10 per cent in Bristol.
However, despite swelling their coffers, both companies are making cuts and axing jobs.
TM announced it was cutting 44 full-time job equivalents before Christmas. An NUJ campaign backed by senior politicians – including UK Foreign Office minister Kim Howells and Wales Education Minister Jane Davidson – later ensured none of those leaving would be made compulsory redundant and a plan to merge the editor jobs at the Pontypridd Observer and Rhondda Leader was scrapped.
The company narrowly avoided industrial action but the local chapel (NUJ branch) is still balloting its members to “underline the strength of feeling about this issue and also put down a marker for the future”.
“We are not prepared to stand idly by while faceless executives on huge salaries in London destroy jobs in Wales and wreck long established newspapers,” says Martin Shipton, of the chapel committee.
Northcliffe has been put up for sale following extensive cost cutting. In Swansea 67 jobs were lost when the printing press at the Evening Post was closed, while staff at the company’s Bristol centre are involved in a bitter dispute with the company over 36 redundancies.
The company plans to merge business, sport, features, pictures and copy sub-editing departments at (the mainly rural serving) Western Daily Press and (urban) Bristol Evening Post so that the same journalists would produce pages for both papers.
Unions say this will to “tear the heart out of two great papers”.
NUJ rep Derek Brooks says demonstrations outside the Temple Way offices have been attended by more than 100 people. “We have received backing from every section of the local community in our campaign against these senseless and unnecessary cuts,” he adds.
Journalists at Bristol voted in favour of a strike before Christmas but delayed the action as the union attempted to negotiate with the company.
Northcliffe’s Aim Higher project plans to save £30m over the next two years with further job losses expected at Plymouth and at Cornwall and Devon Media, publishers of The Cornishman, The West Briton and The Cornish Guardian.
So why are our regional newspapers in such a mess?
Dr James Thomas, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, believes part of the reason is because the large media groups enjoy monopolies on newspaper advertising in the areas they serve.
“The circulation of regional newspapers has declined over the last 20 years but, on the other hand, they are very profitable,” he states. “It’s a paradox and one which I suspect the people at Trinity and other newspaper groups have woken up to. Now they effectively want to get rid of the journalists and make money from the advertising, almost turning the papers into free-sheets relying on central news sources which don’t cost them very much.
“Their profits come from advertising and providing they can keep the circulation at a level which won’t scare away the advertisers they are happy.”
However, Dr Thomas adds, low morale combined with the industry’s low wages, is bound to have an impact on the reader.
“How journalists are treated affects newspaper content,” he says. “Effectively if the journalists are badly treated, the readers are badly treated. Readers are already being badly served.”
Regional newspapers will be the focus of much attention over coming months.
At Westminster, more than 70 MPs have signed separate early day motions stating their concerns about events at TM and Northcliffe.
In Wales, where two new dailies – one in Welsh, the other in English – are planned to launch this year, National Assembly member Leighton Andrews, a former head of BBC public affairs, has tabled a statement of opinion urging TM to reconsider its staff-cutting policies and urging Competition Commission to review the South Wales market.
This Thursday (JANUARY 19) the Assembly’s culture committee is due to hold an evidence-taking inquiry into the “role of TM in the media market in Wales”. WME managing director Keith Dye and Western Mail editor Alan Edmunds will be among those appearing.
AMs, according to committee member Lisa Francis, have “grave concerns about the future of the Welsh media”.
Political consensus on the issue was illustrated by a statement issued jointly by Plaid, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems about the TM cuts, describing the policy as one of a “company with both eyes on its profit margins rather than maintaining the excellence of its newspapers”.
The statement added: “These cuts will lead to poorer coverage of local politics and community issues, and will seriously undermine local democracy and accountability.”
However, Dr Thomas called for greater intervention to safeguard the Press. “Unless there is some kind of public intervention to pressurise the dominant commercial interest I would sadly conclude that the only way is down,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”
:from The Big Issue Cymru and The Big Issue South West, January 16-22, 2006