I attended an interesting NUJ meeting last week at the London Welsh Association. The meeting was held to discuss some of the challenges journalists are facing at the moment and how they might be resolved.
Central to the problem in Wales and across the country is the issue of media ownership, and the meeting was held to debate the merits of various alternative models. From my perspective the current monopolies that rule the media in Britain are damaging to journalism in that they consistently limit the scope and quality of reporting. Trinity Mirror’s domination of the market in Wales has had a terrible effect on the Welsh print media. The continuing swathe of cutbacks across Wales and the UK as a whole will have a massive impact on the quality and output of Britain’s journalists. It is a pressing situation.
Though this subject is of wider importance across the whole of journalism it is particularly pertinent in relation to the Welsh media wasteland.
As discussed extensively in previous entries I believe the traditional Welsh media is in terminal decline. This being the case, I have made the argument that Wales is uniquely placed to embrace the online news revolution. Before I discuss in detail why this is the case it’s worth looking at and dismissing some of the other options.
The current economic crisis has led many to call for the nationalisation of media groups in order to save jobs. This is such a bad idea that the Chief Executive of Trinity Mirror, Sly Bailey, rejected the suggestion out of hand. You know something is up if she is ruling out the option of free money.
The problems, both ethical and financial, associated with the nationalisation of any part of the UK media are various and, in my opinion, largely insurmountable. How would such an arrangement work? What sort of influence would the Government have over media institutions if they were nationalised? Wouldn’t it all be a bit too Soviet for a modern democracy like the UK? Well yes. I think that any increased influence of government over our media institutions could do long term damage to British journalism. Our rampantly free press rightly resists any restrictions with an often inspirational vigour, and long may it continue to do so.
Unless we want to live in a nation where our media is a lapdog rather than a watchdog, nationalisation is not really an option.
But is the idea of government money completely anathema to the free press. What about subsidies? In previous blog entries I have argued that it might be an idea for the Welsh Assembly to assist with funding an online news agency in Wales. I still think this is a good idea. The trouble is that at the moment the Assembly seems only to be keen on funding Welsh language projects, which is good for Golwg, but what about the rest of us? The funding of Welsh language media is important. And, although not a Welsh speaker myself, I do understand the reason the Assembly feel it necessary to fund Welsh language projects.
My problem with this, however, is that it strikes me as fiddling whilst Rome burns.
Putting money into the Welsh language media when all around us, the more vital and widely purchased, English language outlets are dying, strikes me as bizarre. I suspect that this issue is one for another wider discussion. I do, however, honestly believe that the decision solely to fund Golwg’s online presence was a mistake when there were other worthy causes.
Welsh language projects are the icing on the cake. They shouldn’t be the whole cake.
So what should the Assembly fund?
Any Assembly or indeed European funding of print projects in Wales would, in my opinion, be entirely pointless and self indulgent. At a time when the print media across the UK is losing ground to the online realm, funding print would be waste of much needed money. Roy Greenslade, who I rarely agree with, put it very well at the NUJ meeting. Discussing whether or not to subsidise printing in the UK he argued it would be like subsiding horses and carriages after the car was invented.
The only sensible way of funding the Welsh media is to focus on online English language solutions.
Feasibly, the Welsh Assembly could fund the start-up costs of a variety of online media and news ventures relatively cheaply. And there is no reason that these projects would have to have a national focus. In fact, in most cases I would argue that small is better. The establishment of a part Assembly funded online news service which looks outwards is a vital step. But I also believe that local news should be transformed.
There is no reason why local news websites cannot be funded through the Assembly, and even local government. Web 2.0 has opened the door to lots of possibilities with regards to news websites. A community organised online news-service which employs crowdsourcing principles could be very effective. Crowdsourcing could reduce costs and ensure that local websites remain relevant. Employing social media and networking principles could also substantially reduce the need for promotional outlay.
This idea has massive potential. The continuing demise of the traditional Welsh Media is a tremendous opportunity to transform local news delivery and production. If you don’t think local news media and production need an overhaul take a look at what your local newspapers are putting out these days.
To summarise: nationalisation is not a genuine option for saving the Welsh or indeed any UK media as it would necessarily compromise the impartiality of media to the government.
Government subsidies to support the start-up of media projects are vital and must not be focussed solely on Welsh language projects.
The Assembly should investigate the idea of an outward looking news agency, partly funded with Assembly money and with a national focus, to try to encourage more coverage of Wales in the UK national press.
The most easily achievable alternative model of media ownership, that could have a real impact, is the idea of local news websites whose start up costs are funded by local government.
Using crowdsourcing principles to draw news out of the community, and using blogs and social media to grow sites, could be highly effective in a local context. This, alongside the obvious potential these sites would have to draw local advertising revenue, would make them financially viable.
It would of course be necessary to maintain the professional standard of these sites by employing paid journalists, but aside from this I would argue the sites should be run on a profit share basis. Combined with a national news agency for Wales these projects could transform the media landscape in Wales for the better.
These are, of course, far from fully formed ideas. Developments in the world of online news occur daily and who knows what might be around the corner. Suffice to say, I think it is vital the NUJ in Wales and journalists as a whole start to think creatively about how the problems of the dying Welsh media can be turned into an opportunity.
One thing that was absolutely clear from the NUJ meeting I attended was that change is coming. It is vital that whilst fiercely defending jobs in the Welsh print press, journalists also start looking for new and innovative ways to revive our flagging media.
And who knows? If it works out we could end up with a better, more representative, democratic and vital news media in Wales. ***
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