Open Letter to Alan Edmunds, Publishing Director, Media Wales

Andy Williams
22 July 2010

We recently published a study by Andrew Williams of the decline of two Welsh titles owned by Trinity Mirror, the Western Mail and the Daily Post. It drew an angry response from the editor of the Western Mail, Alan Edmunds, who accused it of a "total lack of understanding of the Welsh media marketplace". The exchange raises some important questions about the crisis in our media and the decline in journalism as a craft. Here Williams replies to Edmunds and defends his research:

Dear Mr Edmunds

I feel I should engage with the substantive criticisms you make of a recent feature I wrote for the openDemocracy website. Amongst your ad hominem attacks were a few points on which I hope we can open a more productive dialogue.

I welcome your reference to Media Wales’ positive relationship with our teaching staff, to which I belong. But have to disagree with you about the quality of our research. The School is internationally recognised as a centre for cutting edge, inter-disciplinary research in its field.

You describe my piece is an example of “one-eyed, inadequately researched hyperbole” based not on “new insights” but on “old prejudices”. I assure you the article is based around much solid research. In broad terms it draws on a wide (often critical) literature about the local and regional news media in the field of journalism studies. More specifically, it is informed by NUJ-funded research my colleague Professor Bob Franklin and I carried out into working conditions at Media Wales and the implementation of its multimedia strategy (which, as you know, was largely based on the collective and individual testimony of your own journalists, many of whom were surveyed and interviewed in depth).

The figures relating to levels of staffing, circulation, profit, the pensions deficit, and company debt, on which I base much of my critique come from Trinity Mirror’s and Media Wales’ publicly available company accounts and have also been widely reported in the financial press.

I was particularly troubled you thought my point about re-hashing press releases was untrue, and insulting to journalists at Media Wales. Sadly, my comment was rooted in fact. Much (not all, of course) of the news that gets published these days is re-hashed PR. How do I know this is the case at Cardiff? Because journalists there have told me (both in interviews and survey responses). The research mentioned above shows that 92% of survey respondents said the use of PR copy in the news had increased in the last decade. Many lamented this fact, and complained about the other devastating effects of repeated cuts, in interviews.

The simple reason for this sad development is that staff are so overworked (84% of respondents said their workload had increased since they started out in the job). I take some personal solace in the fact that numerous current and former Media Wales journalists have written to me this week with messages of support and glum agreement. A big motivating factor in the work I do is the wish to support reporters, and my research has always received favourable comments from those working in newsrooms. To suggest my article is an attack on journalists is something of a smokescreen. Media Wales’ remaining editorial staff work very hard, often for little reward, and with an astonishing amount of good will. The reasons for poor quality journalism don’t lie with poor quality journalists, but with corporate strategies which makes such journalism the rational result of its operations.

You also say that I could have chosen to write about the introduction of the new multimedia newsroom and the success of WalesOnline. These developments did not, as you suggest, “pass me by”. In fact they form the basis of much of my previous research into Trinity Mirror. If the move to multimedia online news had been managed well it could indeed have been used to drive positive changes. Instead the company took it as a chance to further cut staffing costs (central to Trinity Mirror’s 2006 strategic review on the future of the company was the “adoption of a new technology-led operating model across the group to accelerate growth and reduce costs”). More redundancies soon followed. Journalists we spoke with quite reasonably complained of increasing workloads, a lack of adequate time to produce multimedia web content, the fact they were inadequately trained to do new work such as video journalism, and the likelihood that this would result in the new content being of poor-quality. The evidence suggests that the move online at Media Wales exacerbated, rather than mitigated, the problems I outline in my piece.

You refer in your statement to the company’s attempts to drag Cardiff’s researchers “out of the dark ages” after our last report was published. In fact neither I nor my colleague received any direct communication from the Media Wales or Trinity Mirror. Disappointingly, vociferous complaints were made exclusively to senior University managers. I’m glad we can at least discuss these issues more openly this time, and I’d be more than happy to debate these issues further in a public forum.

I hope to have answered some of your criticisms, and hope that I trust that we can continue this exchange in a constructive way.

Yours sincerely

Dr Andy Williams

NB: the specific findings referred to above made above come from a previous report entitled Turning Around the Tanker: Implementing Trinity Mirror’s online strategy, and can be downloaded here.

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