Trinity Mirror cuts and the crisis in media

An exchange between a Cardiff academic and the editor of South Wales's Western Mail raises fascinating questions about how newspapers should respond to market pressures and how professional journalism can be protected when the industry is in crisis.

Andy Williams' study on the decline in circulation of two Welsh daily newspapers, the Western Mail and the Daily Post, has provoked an angry response from the editor of the Western Mail in South Wales, Alan Edmunds.

Williams, a research fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, had written in OurKingdom that the newspapers' owner, Trinity Mirror, is to blame for the huge drop in circulation. Although it's true there have been "structural changes in newspaper-buying habits, and competition from the internet", he writes, "large proportion of the blame also lies with sustained mismanagement by a company which has consistently valued the private interests of the City of London over the public interest of the readers and communities it serves."

The pursuit of shareholder profit over high-quality news, he said, has lead the company to shed staff and maintain extremely low labour costs. The consequences of this are that:

Reporters are finding it increasingly hard to do basic tasks such as get out on their “patch”, make themselves known, cultivate contacts, and gather the news. Instead they are desk-bound, passive, and reliant on resource-rich news sources with efficient public relations teams willing to feed them press releases which can easily be “re-nosed” into shallow and inoffensive news stories. Increasingly, distinctive local stories are making way for cheap homogenous UK national news straight off the agency wires and equally cheap stories about celebrity gossip.

In response, Edmunds has written an angry denunciation of the study, and Cardiff's research department, which he accuses of poor academic standards and out-of-date views. The following statement by Edmunds was published on the Guardian blog of Roy Greenslade who had covered the Williams study:

We will be taking this up in very strong terms with Cardiff University to tell them that, in our view, this is another example from them of one-eyed, inadequately-researched hyperbole full of ill-informed statements, old chestnuts, tired cliches and 1970s rhetoric.

It is almost identical in tone and line to an equally out-of-touch and quaint view published by the same research department a few years ago and shows an astonishing lack of understanding of how we have had to change and modernise to meet the fast-evolving demands of readers and advertisers.

The easily repeated barb about the regurgitation of press releases, for example, is tiresome and insulting to the first class journalists and managers in the regional media.

We are incredibly disappointed that, despite our attempt at trying to drag Cardiff's researchers out of the dark ages and into the real world following their last report, they appear to have reverted to type.

They could have written about the fact that Media Wales was the first regional centre in Britain to introduce an integrated multimedia newsroom for its online, morning, evening, Sunday and weekly titles more than two years ago, which has spawned a constant stream of visits to the centre from others throughout the industry.

This major innovation in tough economic times, and the successful launch and development of WalesOnline, however, appears to have passed them by, despite the fact that a number of their graduates have gained valuable work experience in our newsroom, with a number winning permanent roles.

It is such a shame that our excellent relationship with the teaching staff at the university's journalism staff doesn't seep through to their research colleagues, who appear to live in a vacuum.

Far from being an expert view of how the media in Wales has or should have developed, this report betrays a total lack of understanding of the Welsh media marketplace and how it is developing.

In my view it is not based on new insights into the circulation challenge that has faced the whole industry but on old prejudices.

This is a pretty strong attack and Williams will no doubt wish to defend himself from the claim that his study shows a "total lack of understanding of the Welsh media marketplace".

What is beyond controversy is that traditional forms of media are facing an existential crisis thanks to the growth of news consumption online and the consequent decline in readership and advertising revenues. All the main broadsheet titles in the UK are losing millions of pounds annually as a result of declining circulation, and are desperately struggling to discover new revenue models. Rupert Murdoch recently took a gamble on paid-for subscriptions for online content with the Times, the Sunday Times and other News International titles. The Times has suffered a 90% decline in online readership since the paywall went up a few weeks ago, if reports are to be believed, though this still amounts to more subscribers than News corp bosses had expected and matters less if, as some expect, the strategy is more about preventing the Times' print readers from migrating online than attracting more readers.

In response, The Guardian reaffirmed its commitment that it will not be going behind a paywall, parading its belief in an "open internet" to former Times readers in a somewhat smug fashion. The commitment by the Guardian to open up its content with, for example, free syndication plugins for blogs, and partnerships with amateur bloggers, just as Murdoch is bringing the shutters down, is admirable and anyone who enjoys having a plurality of sources for high-quality news will hope this is the model that succeeds. But it's still not clear how the Guardian Media Group plans to reverse its £90 million per annum losses. A commitment to an "open internet" won't be enough when revenue from online advertising is so small and will remain small even with extra readers coming from the Times.

We are experiencing a revolution in the production and consumption of news in this country and globally. The old models are dead and the new models are yet to be born and the big media groups are going to have to adapt or die. It's in all our interests that a sustainable model for the production of professional and original content is found. William's description of the sorry state of journalism will be familiar to anyone who has read Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, which exposes the rise of "churnalism" across the global media. In that study Davies refers to a conversation with a journalism graduate who had started work at a weekly paper owned by Trinity Mirror which lacked the staff to do any original reporting: "..there was just me and the two reporters who were both trainees. Then the editor left, and so I was doing his work too...We ended up lifting stuff out of nationals."

Similar anecdotes could be drawn from journalists at other titles, of course, and Davies cites many. But Williams accusation is that Trinity has not put in place any kind of long-term strategy to manage the structural changes that are taking place, sacrificing the long-term viability of the papers and the wider public good to the short-term interests of shareholders. This strategy is known in the US as "'squeezing the lemon': extracting every last drop of profit from its titles, trading on historic reputations, and reaping high advertising yields while the going is good.'

This is a charge Edmunds denies pointing to the launch and development of the WalesOnline website. But when you consider the decimation that the latest round of Trinity Mirror cuts will bring with 200 jobs lost at the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People, you have to question their commitment to delivering quality content. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists has called the cuts "Neanderthal", adding:

It’s disgraceful that against a background of making more than £70 million in profit last year and of paying millions in remuneration to a handful of Trinity Mirror execs, the company should now throw more than a quarter of its talented, hardworking workforce onto the scrap heap.

The cuts are defended as part of the transformation of the Trinity titles into light and agile multimedia businesses, but they surely go far beyond what's reasonable. Indeed, it looks massively short-termist. If the cuts go through as planned then it will surely mean the death of The Mirror newspaper, the only tabloid recognisably on the left of centre in Britain and one of a handful of papers to question the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Perhaps it will continue as some lightweight gossip mag, like London Lite or the London Paper before, like them, becoming extinct.

The Williams-Edmunds exchange raises fascinating questions about how newspapers, especially those which aren't part of a colossal global media group (the Times and News International) or supported by a  trust (the Guardian and the Scott Trust), should respond to market pressures and how their conduct should be judged ethically and politically. The compatibility of market-led models with the production of public service content has been discussed extensively in OK's public service broadcasting forum in relation to the BBC and its future at a time of budget cuts.

The most difficult challenge for those who question the huge cuts in staff by Trinity Mirror and other media groups is to suggest alternative models for how professional journalism can be properly resourced. At the moment we don't know what those models are, all we can do is speculate. This has allowed unscrupulous media executives to adopt a short-term slash and burn strategy that benefits themselves and their shareholders but will ultimately damage our democracy and public life. We can only hope that if and when new models for media are discovered there's still some journalistic infrastructure in place which stands to benefit.

About the author

Guy Aitchison was a co-editor of openDemocracy's UK section, OurKingdom, and is now a PhD student in politics at University College London.