Welsh parliamentarians have urged Reach to delay its plans to restructure and cut jobs until after the Covid-19 crisis is over as they fear “potentially severe consequences for journalism in Wales” as a result.
Reach’s plans to cut around 550 jobs across its national and regional titles in the UK could include about 20 jobs being made redundant in Wales, where the publisher owns titles including the Daily Post, Western Mail, South Wales Evening Post, and Wales Online.
Ninety out of 140 journalists in Wales have been told their jobs are at risk, according to the National Union of Journalists.
Media Wales editor-in-chief Paul Rowland told the Welsh Senedd’s Culture Committee last week that closing titles in the country was “the last thing we want to do”.
But the committee’s chairman Helen Mary Jones has now written to Reach chief executive Jim Mullen asking him to reconsider its response to the pandemic. The publisher saw revenue for the second quarter fall by 27.5% with print circulation “significantly below” pre-Covid levels.
“We appreciate that the pandemic has brought enormous challenges to a sector that was already struggling,” Jones wrote. “However we would urge you to reconsider how you respond to those challenges.
“The pandemic has accelerated change for a number of businesses but we believe that long-term business decisions should be made when we are in a post-Covid situation, rather than being made in the midst of crisis.
“There is a risk that making permanent and major decisions now could have a more severe impact than would be the case if such decisions were made later down the line when we have a clearer understanding of the impact of the pandemic on the business.”
According to Martin Shipton, chairman of the Reach NUJ group chapel, the company has £200m in reserves that staff feel “could have been used to keep things going and maybe not to impose the pay cuts that they did”, he told the committee.
Jones also raised concerns that the proposals are “not in the interests of Wales and Welsh democracy”.
Jones wrote: “Given that Wales has fewer media outlets than other areas of the UK to lose in the first place, we are concerned that a reduction in the number of journalists operating in Wales will result in the dilution of Welsh content, making it even more difficult for the people of Wales to access accurate and relevant news and information.”
She said the committee believes the latest concerns “seem to accelerate” a trend in which the shift in focus from print to digital and associated cost-cutting “has had a detrimental impact on the coverage of Welsh life”.
Shipton had told the committee: “We believe that Welsh democracy is served by having a thriving media sector and that this constant chipping away at journalists and the number of journalists employed is very debilitating and is not good for Welsh democracy.”
Jones also responded to Reach’s plans to group its Welsh titles with those in the Midlands under a new structure of five marketplace publishers across the UK “owning” print titles and commercial relationships in their regions.
Reach chief operating officer Alan Edmunds told the committee last week this was for “purely operational reasons and logistical and financial” and all editorial accountability would stay with Rowland in Wales.
Despite this, Jones told Mullen the committee feared the restructure would have a “devastating impact on news coverage from Wales about Wales” and urged the creation of an all-Wales division instead.
Summing up the reasons for the restructure, Edmunds told the committee: “We are always reviewing our business and looking at what change is needed to meet the needs of our audience and customers. So, what we’re doing now… is a plan to transform the business on the issues with which we are faced.
“Because of the structural changes, we inevitably have made a lot of changes in recent years, and the next few years would be no different.
“The pandemic has accelerated change for most businesses because of the severe impact that it’s had, and then obviously changes that might have been made perhaps over a longer period across many industries are now being made at this time.
“So it is accelerating change, but the changes are crucial for many reasons, and that’s why we are transforming the business to make sure that we meet the market conditions and that we meet the demands of our audience in print and online.”
A Reach spokesperson said in response to the letter: “We are very proud of our titles in Wales and recognise the vital role they play in the Welsh community. Award winning journalism and content remain at the heart of the business.
“Media Wales editors all continue to report in to Paul Rowland, whose title has changed from editor-in-chief to audience and content director.
“Reach continues to consult with colleagues and trade unions over the proposed changes which are subject to a minimum-45 day statutory consultation period.
“The pandemic has seen significant declines in advertising, so these changes are required and are about us operating more efficiently to protect journalism in Wales and beyond for the long-term.”
Actor Michael Sheen recently spoke about living in a news gap in Wales, while it was revealed last week that Tindle’s 37-year-old Glamorgan Gem series is set to close with the loss of about eight jobs. Reach publishes the Glamorgan Gazette in the area.
Three Welsh weekly newspapers in Pembrokeshire, Camarthenshire and Llanelli were forced to close in October last year as its owner said they were no longer financially viable.