Should Welsh Government intervene in news coverage decline?
Dyfrig Jones offers his reflections from the Cardiff Media Summit.
The IWA’s 2015 Media Audit, published at the Cardiff Media Summit last week, offers an embarrassment of riches for the analyst, the commentator and the policy-maker. Running to over 140 pages, it is comprehensive and broad-ranging, offering detailed analysis and precise prescriptions. It’s greatest strength, however, lies in its mutability. The “ever-changing landscape” is, by now, one of the core clichés of media policy-making; this is often how we excuse our failure to explain what is going on around us. For many, change simply happens, technologically-driven and outside our control. Not for the IWA, however. What is present throughout the Audit, and what was emphasised constantly during the Media Summit, was the idea that change is something that Wales has too little of, and to resign ourselves to be driven by external forces is, potentially, to abandon the Welsh Media to its terminal fate. Time and again during the summit we were asked to drill down into the detail, to put flesh on the bones of the policy proposals, to expand, to challenge, to revise.
In that spirit, therefore, I spent the train journey home to Bangor mulling over the debates that had been started on the day. Much of the coverage of the Media Summit has focussed, naturally, on the headline act, James Purnell, the BBC’s Head of Strategy, and the grilling that he was given by the IWA’s own Lee Waters. But there was as much to relish in the smaller, lower-profile panel discussions that took place during the rest of the day. My afternoon was spent in a fascinating discussion on the future of the press and journalism in Wales. Unlike with the BBC, there is no central authority that has its hands on the controls of Welsh print (or rather, print-and-pixels) media, and there was no single individual that could be placed in the pillory. Rather, the discussion revolved around the much more complex question of how to breathe life back into a sector that in one sense contains a level of plurality that is healthier than ever before, but that lacks long- or even medium-term stability – what might be called a precarious plurality.
One of the Audit’s most eye-catching recommendations in the area of journalism is Number 33, which states that “The Welsh government should create a challenge fund for the development of innovative local online news services, administered by the Arts Council of Wales or the Welsh Books Council”. While the Welsh Government already funds Welsh-medium journalism directly, through its grant to Golwg360, and while – as Tom O’Malley pointed out on the day – government intervenes in the news market in many other ways, the notion that journalists should be grant-funded by government is one that is at the very least marginal to the British political tradition. But, part of building our democracy is being willing to experiment with ideas that may not be part of the British tradition, but may yet become part of a Welsh one. The weaknesses of Welsh journalism are particular to our own polity, and if we are to strengthen this vital part of our media, then it is essential that we consider every option.
Accepting the need for a journalistic challenge fund does not necessitate accepting the details as mapped out in the Media Audit’s recommendations, however. While I agree with the intention of this recommendation, I feel that it slightly misses the target in three ways, and I piped up during the discussion to express this. Firstly, I feel that to restrict a challenge fund to “online news services” places too much emphasis on the medium, and should shift the focus on to the content. This isn’t a Luddite argument; I fully expect that most of what this fund commissioned would eventually make its way online, as does most news content from existing sources. But a number of the day’s speakers warned against the danger of internet “bubbles” or “echo chambers”, where news is consumed by a narrow sub-section of the audience, rather than reaching a general audience. Like it or not, traditional media outlets – from the BBC down to the local free-sheet – are far better at reaching a cross-section of the audience than more specifically online-only offerings.
I’d also argue that if we are to create a new challenge fund, then it would be better for us to use it to pay for content, rather than a “service”. “Service”, in this context, suggests to me that the fund would be used to create a new provider, funded over a longer period of time. While I can see the advantages of bringing new players into the market, I’m not sure that it is necessarily the most efficient way of strengthening journalistic plurality. My view is that a challenge fund would have a far greater impact if it was used to pay for individual journalists to work on the kind of in-depth stories that demand more time than the average newsroom can usually spare Welsh print media is particularly weak in this area, from national down to hyper-local level. Attempts to investigate, expose and understand public life have been jettisoned in favour of gossip and opinion. When HTV, the BBC and S4C all had strong current affairs strands running, it was less of an issue, but this is an area where all three broadcasters have been in retreat for many years. Creating a challenge fund that was focussed on buying out the time of individual journalists to pursue long-form stories or in-depth research has the possibility of enriching and expanding print in an area that is desperately lacking.
However, shifting the emphasis from a service-based to a content-based one would place it far beyond the competence of either the Arts Council or the Books Council. Responsibility for funding magazines and journals passed from the Arts Council to the Books Council some years ago, and while they have managed the work well, it remains outside their area of expertise. More importantly, their focus is on awarding and monitoring long-term grant funding to publications, and they aren’t set up to hand out small, short-term grants based on editorial propositions. So who should administer the new challenge fund, then? As was pointed out during the discussion, there is little point in demanding the creation of a new publicly-funded organisation in the present financial climate. However, I feel that this is an area in which we might experiment with an entirely new institutional framework.
As Tom O’Malley pointed out from the stage, public interventions in print are far more numerous and nuanced than the simple awarding of grants or the regulation of content. Government policy, and indeed government spending, helps shape the media landscape in ways that proponents of the “free market” would prefer us not to think too much about. One of these areas, again mentioned by O’Malley, is the public spend on statutory notices and other public-sector advertising. The desire to see the press discuss politics without fear or favour has meant that historically this significant public spend on commercial media has been offered without any conditions attached. Indeed, when the Welsh government, or local authorities, have suggested any changes to this generous public subsidy, private media owners tend to howl out that a new Soviet dawn is upon us.
But might it be possible for at least part of this spend to be used for the purpose of this new challenge fund, if there were mechanisms in place to ensure that it was done at arm’s length? One way of doing it might well be through a compact with a media owner’s association of some description, such as the News Media Association. Under such a compact, Welsh public bodies would agree to sustain a certain level of advertising spend for a specific period, based on their need to advertise statutory notices. In return, the owner’s association would agree to pay a set percentage of this spend back into a central pot, to be administered by an independent non-profit corporation, its members appointed by them in consultation with Welsh government. This would be the challenge fund, and would be used to commission precisely the sort of journalism that is currently absent from Welsh print media.
This is not an idea without problems, I concede. Andy Williams of Cardiff’s JOMEC argued at the launch of the Media Audit that existing news providers should be excluded from bidding for the new challenge fund, lest they use the fund to justify further sackings from their newsrooms. An alternative might be to open the fund only to those able to demonstrate that they had a costed business plan that included a commitment to retaining a set level of journalist for a set term. This may seem a bureaucratic option, but it is borrowed from an existing Welsh government scheme, Jobs Growth Wales, which pays new staff costs but only once the employer has outlined medium-term growth plans.
Another issue is how to distribute the content once it has been produced. Similar ideas that exist in the USA, such as the non-profit investigative newsroom Pro Publica, operate a multi-layered publication model. Big investigative stories are usually offered free of charge to one of their 121 media partners, as well as being published also on Pro Publica’s own website. Crucially, however, Pro Publica then work to draw out adapted versions of stories that can be tailored to specific local interests. So a feature article could be published in the Western Mail, but with adapted versions, as well as core evidence – interviews, photographs etc – being offered both to the regional and local papers to re-use under a Creative Commons license.
These are simply ideas to be explored further at this stage. My aim here is to do what we were all asked to do at last week’s summit, and look for ways to develop and drive forward the proposals of the IWA team. For all of the issues and concerns that arise from my expanded proposal, there is one significant advantage. This is a proposal that – beyond initial set-up costs – could be delivered at no additional cost to the public sector. However, what it demands is the ability to work constructively with the commercial press, and a great deal of good-will from the commercial press itself. It may be that this is the idea that tests how committed the print media in Wales is to its own long-term future.