The future of public interest journalism in Wales

The Guardian published an article today that laid bare the precarious state of the regional news business in the UK. ‘The model is broken’: UK’s regional newspapers fight for survival in a digital world illustrated how traditional newspaper businesses have struggled to adapt to an increasingly digital world, overly relying on revenues from print sales and the advertising they carried.

As the graph below shows, newspaper circulation has fallen year on year and shows little sign of stopping.

The problem facing newspapers in Wales is even more acute, Wales has no indigenous national news titles, we are served by a network of regional titles, and the majority are operated by two of the UKs largest regional news publishers Reach Plc, formerly Trinity Mirror, and Newsquest who are a wholly owned subsidiary of Gannett Media the largest regional newspaper business in the USA.

The share prices for both companies for the past twelve months paint a stark picture, and whilst the journalists who work on their titles care passionately about public interest journalism and real news, the managers, owners, and shareholders of these companies don’t.

The value of both companies have fallen dramatically in the past year.

Ultimately, they’re businesses; the bottom line is everything and they exist to make profits. To do this, they are trying to adapt their businesses, pivoting from print to digital and failing miserably.

There are several factors at play but the primary one is the challenge of making money from digital advertising. When shifting their operations online both Reach and Newsquest made the vast majority of their content available for free relying on revenues from online advertising. Unfortunately, they failed to foresee that these revenues would be nowhere near what they were generating from physical newspaper sales and the advertising they contained.

Digital advertising has remained relatively static.

To generate any significant revenues from digital advertising there is a need to deliver a substantial number of page views. Public interest journalism doesn’t provide those numbers. Of the ten most read news stories at 13:30 today (Monday 27th of March) on The South Wales Argus website only one story is an example of public interest journalism.

Whilst journalists across Wales remain passionate about the job they have studied, trained, and qualified to do they are under pressure to deliver page views. Their often meagre base salaries are improved by bonuses linked directly to page view numbers. So, if public interest journalism doesn’t deliver the required numbers journalists are forced to write stories designed specifically to drive traffic to websites.

Public interest journalism is still generated, but the need to deliver those page views means there are fewer of these pieces written and published on those platforms that rely on page views for advertising revenues.

The Public Interest News Foundation has been developing Local News Plans and this week published a report based on their initial findings. It’s clear from this report and the research carried out in its preparation that the public want and value public interest journalism at a local level, and how it has the potential of holding democracy, at a local level, to account.

From a national perspective, the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ recent research in partnership with the Open University also made it clear that Welsh citizens wanted the same. But, and it’s a big but, converting this desire into sustainable news businesses is challenging, especially during a cost-of-living crisis on the back of a global pandemic.

Some news publishers have successfully managed the move from print to digital, primarily by replicating the print model of selling access to news stories through subscription. This endeavour often cites the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as success stories. The National in Scotland, owned by Newsquest, has successfully built up a substantive subscriber base in the thousands. The National Wales, given time and adequate resources, could and would have achieved the same

For legacy industries like the newspaper business, the shift to digital was always going to be difficult. They have failed to consider changes in how audiences access content, in their numerous forms, which meant they were setting themselves up for failure.

Moving news stories from paper to a website isn’t enough today and will likely lead to a decline digitally in the same way physical newspaper circulation has fallen in recent years.

Rather than using social media as publishing platforms, they have been utilised as tools to try and drive traffic to websites. People simply read the headline and move on. And in their efforts to generate web traffic the good public interest journalism that does exist in Wales is lost amongst messages announcing “Greggs new menu” or “You have to watch this viral video of a Welsh choir”.

Audience habits and their ability to access news in a myriad of formats have created a challenge many businesses are simply failing to adapt to.

Gone are the days when the news was only accessible the day after it had happened in a newspaper or at certain times of the day on TV and Radio. The news is now continuous and develops over time, it’s available in short form and video on social media, in long form online, in print and via podcasts.

The UK now has 40,000,000 people with smartphones, devices where they can access news via the internet, apps, social media, tv, radio and podcasts.

That’s why we’re developing a new kind of news service for Wales with a new business and ownership model.

We’re setting up as a truly multi-platform service with a multi-disciplinary team working collectively to ensure you’re kept up to date with the latest public interest news from across the whole of Wales.

Not just delivering the news, but helping people make sense of it and asking the questions you want the answers to.

We’re setting up as a cooperative which means you can own a stake in the company and have a say in its running and as a Community Benefit Society, we will be required by law to reinvest any profits made for the benefit of the community we serve. The more successful we are the more journalists we can employ, embedded in their communities the length and breadth of Wales.

If you share our passion and vision sign up for our newsletter and if you want to go a step further a contribution helps support us as we set up.


Huw Marshall

Founder Talking Wales.

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