Why it’s not all quiet on the ‘Western Fail’ front
Who’d be a newspaper editor in the age of Twitter eh?
In the good old pre-digital era negative feedback on the morning splash would – if you’ve really upset people – start to filter in around lunchtime.
In the brave new world of social networking, however, your offerings are barely off stone before you’re having them handed back to you in a little package marked ‘how you got it wrong – and why I’ll never buy your newspaper again.’
This morning the editor of ‘The National Newspaper Of Wales’, the Western Mail, will be getting many such digital packages.
It’s an unusual occurrence, a Welsh newspaper getting attention outside of Wales – but at 8.30am the hashtag #westernfail was trending in the UK on Twitter.
It was doing so because of a front page editorial about the Welsh language.
Now, this blog, as my three readers will have noticed, studiously avoids discussion of the Welsh language.
This is partly because I am a monoglot English speaker, and partly because I’m a coward.
There is still, even in the new more confident, more settled, post-devolution Wales a danger in taking on the issue.
It is sensitive, complicated and as one commenter put it this morning on Twitter – ‘tricky biscuits’ journalistically.
Said biscuits are especially tricky if you’re not a Welsh language speaker yourself.
Which is why it’s particularly difficult to understand the decision of the Western Mail editor to publish a front page comment article, written in what can only be politely described as intemperate language, attacking the cost of translation services in the Welsh Assembly.
The story summarized is this: Eight Welsh Assembly Ministers have proposed that the written records of every meeting that takes place in National Assembly be translated into Welsh.
The piece, by veteran Welsh political reporter Martin Shipton, cites a ’senior Assembly source’, as saying that the cost of this translation could be up to £400,000 a year.
The article is written as a comment piece and an editorial, stating with a confidence that I suspect is rapidly dissipating this morning that, ‘We say that at a time when budgets are squeezed and public services are being cut, this is a luxury we cannot afford.’
The front page, as pictured above right, also has a number of mug shots of the Assembly Members, above an exasperated headline (incidentally not used online) – ‘An astounding £400k on translation: What world are these AMs living in?’
There are a number of interesting questions that immediately come out of the article.
How accurate is the front page figure of £400k? And why was the issue handled in such a clunky way?
Rather than investigate the issue in depth posing the pros and cons the Western Mail decided it would be better to tell their readers what to think (a dangerous move at the best of times – particularly so with the Welsh), and to mock the Assembly members proposing the translation changes.
Predictably the response when the front page was Tweeted last night was in general furious – this unsurprisingly has continued this morning.
Some of the choice comments from politicians include,
Paul Flynn @Paulflynnmp
Western Mail commits commercial suicide. Nothing on the extraordinary expense of Olympics & Jubilee but gleeful on attacks on Welsh speakers.
Leighton Andrews @LeightonAndrews
Wasn’t the Western Mail editor recently campaigning to keep the Welsh Government spending public money on ads in a paper read by very few?
Alun Davies @AlunDaviesAM
I am appalled to see this morning’s Western Mail. As a Welsh speaker I do not want to waste money on a paper that attacks my language.
Elsewhere comments were equally scathing
Myfanwy Davies @DrMyfanwyDavies
What’s the point of self proclaimed national newspaper that undermines the national language? #westernfail
Jonathan Davies @jmd1004
400k spent on translators, 1.3bn spent on the Jubilee… enough said #Westernfail
The Western Mail will not be darkening the desks at Melys HQ in future. #westernfail
…and you know you’re in trouble when the weather girl gets involved:
Sian Lloyd @SianWeather
@WesternMail_Ed @Walesonline Have you lost your marbles guys? #westernfail
There is clearly a debate to be had over the cost of translation and how worthwhile a measure this would be, as Welsh political commentator Daran Hill puts it,
“Translation services always come with a cost. As a general rule I’ve always preferred that simultaneous verbal translation is prioritised over written translation if a choice has to be made.
But there is a big difference between translating obscure documents and the democratic proceedings of our national parliament.
The Committee members are not being extremist in suggesting committee proceedings of The Assembly be translated. It is a perfectly mainstream and principled position to take.”
Undoubtedly a complex issue then.
But Hill, like many others points out that the language of the article today was unusually strident, and that’s perhaps why the Western Mail is reaping the whirlwind,
“The choice of language to discuss language is both deliberate and provocative. Undoubtedly there will be consequences for the paper not just for taking this stance but also in the way it has done so.”
So why was the language so strident and deliberately provocative?
For the answer to that question you need only look at the circulation figures.
The Western Mail, once a proud well-read newspaper currently draws a dismal readership of around 21,000.
Welsh newspapers are suffering (as are all newspapers) in the internet age, but the Welsh press is on its knees – 85% of newspapers read in Wales are produced in England.
There has been steady decline in quality and thus readership aligned with a progressive cutting back on the number of journalists working at MediaWales / Trinity Mirror titles.
These newspapers are desperate.
The Western Mail is always worth a read when the Welsh are playing rugby – but the rest of the time it struggles to connect.
It is in my view at the ‘try anything’ editorial stage.
They are in free-fall and are looking anywhere they can for readers – today’s front page suggests they take their letter writers a little too seriously.
There are those who would argue the circulation problems the Western Mail has are terminal, but how the newspaper responds to the reaction and fall-out from today’s splash may well decide how quickly the patient succumbs.
In reality there are two Welsh press scandals today – but only one of them is trending on Twitter, and that’s a tragedy.
One is the Western Mail’s belligerent tacky front page. The other is the fall of yet another once proud Welsh newspaper in the rapidly unmanageable crisis engulfing the Welsh press.
Who’s to blame for the crisis is a matter of much debate.
But one can’t help but be reminded when looking at the trouble the Welsh press is in of the words of James Cameron, the last editor of the long-lost News Chronicle, who said on its closure that the paper:
‘Died of a thrombosis – a healthy circulation impeded by clots.’Tagged in: journalism, press, wales, Welsh, Welsh Media, welsh politics, Western Mail
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