Closing offices threatens those who are the future of journalism

THE feeling of bewilderment I can still remember vividly.

A harassed looking reporter had come down to reception at Thomson House to greet me on my first day of work experience at the South Wales Echo, circa 1995. Up the steps we went, through the double doors, turned right, walked past the library hutch and then….

Given it was still only 8.30am I was expecting to see office life unfolding as I’d always imagined it would at what, to a recent university graduate, was still something of an ungodly hour. You know, a few early arrivals hanging up coats, computer screens still largely black, blinds flapping at an ajar window, kettle boiling. In short, the sights and sounds of a workplace wearily cranking into gear.

Poor naive fool. I can only equate crossing the threshold into the newsroom to walking off an aeroplane on arrival at a tropical destination, the blast of heat symbolising the level of activity across crammed desks buckling under the weight of stored newspaper copies and stained tea cups.

What a buzz. You had designers shouting for ‘a string of nibs for page 12’ mixed with journalists frantically trying to gather information by telephone to meet the 9.30am ‘off-slate’ deadline. Everywhere you looked there were correspondents punching away at keyboards with facial expressions that suggested they were actually trying to decode an explosive device about to blow up half of Cardiff (now that would have been a story!)

Immediately I felt like the sap on an army training exercise who oversleeps, misses breakfast and turns up on parade bumbling and dishevelled.

And yet without having even sat down, without having even exchanged awkward introductions with preoccupied hacks or desk bods already on their third coffee of the day, I had learned something.

This was how a newsroom functioned. This truly was work experience.

Work experience remains vital

A quarter of a century later and the Trinity Mirror title that gave me such a precious schooling in the realities of coalface journalism is now under the umbrella of a company – Reach plc – proposing to close dozens of newsrooms across the country, even after the Covid crisis is over, and to require just 25% of its workforce to be based in an office.

Reach will divide its human resources three ways; those who will work permanently from home (primarily production staff), those who will divide their time roughly 50-50 between home and the office (journalists predominantly) and a few hardy souls (telesales for example) who will still need to commute every day.

The company points to a staff survey which reveals many are perfectly happy with the arrangement, and the few ex-colleagues I have spoken with seem to be on board too.

Reach is keeping open office ‘hubs’ in most of the larger cities where it has a presence. The Media Wales HQ at Six Park Street in central Cardiff – Media Wales now occupies just one of the building’s six floors – is being kept open.

But while investment will be needed to facilitate a formalised remote working environment, the opportunity to slash the costs associated with high street site occupancy is the overwhelming attraction for the UK’s largest publisher.

It has not been difficult to see this coming. In terms of working from home the pandemic forced upon us a situation that in ordinary times was looked upon by many company strategists as unnecessarily radical. So now we know it works, those once skeptical have asked, why go back?

Media wales in central Cardiff

The economic case is as robust as it could possibly be. As far back as August last year a third of media organisations in one study were predicting revenue hits of more than 35%. By the time a post-Covid world genuinely becomes a reality, who knows by how much such projections may have worsened?

In an industry as much bedevilled by uncertainty as any, where Reach have led, others will surely follow.

Yet with all upheavals come winners and losers. While bean-counters high-five, journalism must protect its future – or die.

Like any industry it is nothing without a conveyor belt providing people able to do a wide cross-section of jobs, and do them brilliantly.

At University of South Wales, journalists of the future benefit from the expertise of practitioners and academics who can give them a grounding in core fundamentals through a variety of tailored courses and modules.

But if would-be employers demand students be ‘industry-ready’ by the time they graduate – and USW bases its approach on that very assumption – then there must be a recognition that industry itself has to continue to play its part.

The University of South Wales atrium in central Cardiff, where the journalism courses are based

Work placement modules are critical to our students, not just in honing skills and opening eyes to real world challenges but also to building confidence, developing contacts, instilling the highest standards and nurturing collegiate etiquette that can only come with being in people’s physical presence.

Remove the opportunity to spend time in an office, engaging face-to-face with journalists and members of the public, interacting with those in whose footsteps you wish to follow by sitting next to them and seeing at first hand how the job is done, and you strike a hammer blow for the personal and professional instruction youngsters absolutely must be given.

Striving for the best degree possible remains a fundamental staging post on the road to becoming a journalist, but in a fiercely competitive world meaningful work experience on a cv is as much a game-changer in an interview as ever it was. It’s a message, too, that is relentlessly conveyed to each and every USW cohort.

Already, in the last extraordinary year, finding high quality placements in the world of work for our students has become a significantly tougher task, with potential providers, treading water in a world of Zoom meetings, either reluctant or unable to offer anything they – or we – regard as suitably meaningful.

Are we therefore looking at a future that sees students shadowing journalists virtually, or even spending a day sitting alongside them in their converted lofts as they scour social media and dip into Google Hangouts? Is such a scenario even feasible or worthwhile? Do we even need to prepare the journalists of the future for environments that will cease to exist?

As things stand, such questions are almost imponderable.

Work experience, by definition, is something that is supposed to prepare you for the world of work. The South Wales Echo did just that for me 26 years ago.

If the confidence, the social skills, the industry insight, the contacts and the best practice I could only have picked up at Thomson House are one day no longer available, no longer even deemed necessary, then we’ll be entitled to ask: what has the world of journalism become?


Blue Monday ends a doomed 18-year search for new identity

FOR an idea of just how uneasy the relationship has been between the words Cardiff and Blues you have to go right back to the birth of regional rugby, to the launch of the region’s first home jersey – which was white.

Fittingly (no pun intended) there was a hurried and botched feel about the press conference called to unveil it.

In the words of Max Boyce, I was there, as the South Wales Echo’s chief rugby writer and, like most of my colleagues and cynical friends, still half-expecting the like-it-or-lump-it Welsh rugby revolution engineered by then WRU boss David Moffett to come crashing down around the outspoken Aussie’s closed ears.

Canadian veteran Dan Baugh had been chosen to model the new shirt, shorts and socks, catwalk-style, as Blues officials mingled with intrigued but sceptical journalists and assorted hangers-on.

“Not much blue in it,” Baugh quipped. To which came Arms Park chief executive Bob Norster’s eye-rolling reply….”thanks Dan”.

The first ever Cardiff Blues home jersey. Pic:

For the record, there was actually some of the famous Cambridge blue – which had always been a feature of the Cardiff RFC side the Blues were now replacing – visible on the new design. But it was in the form of token thin hoops with an even thinner black trim.

There was no point sugar-coating it; Cardiff fans already irked at having the word Blues affixed to the name of their club would also have to get used to the predominance of a new colour when their heroes ran out of the tunnel to do battle. Quite why this had happened, nobody in the press corps could fathom.

Fast forward to March 2021 and the Blues hierarchy were on Monday this week – Blue Monday if you like – announcing a rebranding which will see the “club with regional responsibilities” be known as Cardiff Rugby from the start of next season, the irony being that previous debates around the identity of Cardiff Blues had always centred around the potential changing of the first word rather than the second.

In order to embrace 100% the regional concept, in order to win the hearts and minds of the support-base outside of the city and its immediate surrounding areas – such as there ever was a support-base of any substantial scale – it was frequently argued that Cardiff should be the word scrubbed out.

So in doing the opposite to the Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons who have all ditched the geographical prefix to their brands, the soon-to-be defunct Blues are swimming against the tide.

And yet the decision is not a surprise. Those in power at the Arms Park have always guarded zealously the Cardiff heritage, arguing that the power of the old club’s global resonance was too valuable a commercial weapon to relinquish.

At times there has been an element of sniffiness about such an outlook, a sense it emanates from people stuck in the past, misguidedly clinging to historic entitlement that has diminishing relevance in the fast-changing world of the professional game.

The new Cardiff Blues badge unveiled this week

It is hard, however, to mount a case against the ditching of the Blues moniker for one overriding reason: it has never really meant anything to supporters or, critically in these financially stretched times, corporate stakeholders.

Rewind to that somewhat farcical kit launch 18 years ago and Baugh’s jokey aside looks ever more like a classic Freudian slip. Why exactly are we calling ourselves the Blues, Baugh’s sub-conscious probably asked, when we can barely even get blue onto the home jersey?

And yet here’s another irony; if you’d turned to Norster back then and asked him ‘why Blues?’ it’s doubtful he would have come up with anything of greater relevance than it being a nod to the blue which at that stage had been in existence as one of the two club colours for 127 years.

But that’s just it…one of two. Cardiff pre-2003 were the Blue and Blacks. There was no more affinity among supporters for blue in isolation than there would have been among fans of their great rivals 14 miles east had they been re-christened Newport Ambers.

Studies of group identity theory reveal the importance of emotional significance in sports fans’ allegiance to a particular team. Loyalty derives from factors such as relationships an individual has with larger social networks surrounding the team, and also the city in which it operates. Research also suggests that the highest degree of fervency and commitment towards teams is found in people who see that team as an extension of their own community. It’s a concept covered by the promotion and marketing modules on our BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, and it’s something students who see their future as part of clubs’ in-house media teams take an especially keen interest in.

In short, attracting support then maintaining and increasing it is about far more than people’s association with a collection of athletes and a coach. Geography matters, studies have shown, contrived branding far less so.

Blues always was an adjunct, and hindsight has exposed it in the Cardiff context as an insipid marketing tool. In 2003 there were inevitable comparisons between the name of the new Cardiff entity and Auckland Blues, the New Zealand franchise which was then one of the most successful in the fledgling history of the Super Rugby competition – and which incidentally did away with the Auckland part of their brand in 2000. What’s good enough for a crack Kiwi outfit, so some opined, will be good enough for one of what were five new Welsh sides in a slimmed down professional tier designed to mimic that of the best rugby nation in the world.

Cardiff Blues players take a breather during a match against Munster

It was a spurious connection. At least the Auckland version of the Blues could lean on the fact that their identity captured the team colours of two of the franchise’s original feeder provinces – Auckland and Northland. The theory went that this would create a strong team identity, that it would unite provinces that had hitherto been hostile towards one another.

Even that rather tenuous logic was absent in the Cardiff namesake.

A glance across other changes to sports teams’ names – or proposed changes – reveals more meaningful motivations.

Crusaders, originally Canterbury Crusaders, toyed with the idea of changing their identity in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings of March 15, 2019, which saw 51 people killed. It was felt the name was linked too closely with the medieval crusades, a war between Christians and Muslims that spanned hundreds of years. After careful consideration franchise bosses announced the name would stay but the 25-year-old logo – of a medieval knight and sword – would be replaced by a Māori motif.

Closer to home Exeter Chiefs have come under pressure to rid themselves of their Chiefs identity from some who view it as offensive to the Native American community. Ultimately they resisted the pressure, insisting that the club’s connection to the word Chiefs was more than a 100 years old and therefore carried high importance to the rugby community in Devon. They also claimed their own research had confirmed the name was ‘highly respectful’.

No need for any recourse to social issues in the case of Cardiff Blues. No need to look for something that’s patently never been there.

The old Crusaders crest (left) and the new logo (right). Pic:

The trumpeting of a new brand name back in 2003 always had an Emperor’s New Clothes feel about it, as if the new Cardiff region had to chuck something onto the table to show it wasn’t simply the same old Cardiff RFC alongside other new-fangled creations. Especially when those creations were born out of the destruction in status of some of the Welsh game’s biggest names.

Blues was never held in any affection by Arms Park supporters because it never carried any meaning.

The pandemic, and the economic crisis it has brought to the Welsh game, appears to have focused minds and acted as a catalyst for change.

The Blues have woken up to the futility of trying to please people by being something they are not. They’re going back to being what they always wanted to be, what, had circumstances surrounding their inception been less febrile, they might have been from the very start.

They may well lament that it’s taken them nearly two decades to shed what was always a completely pointless part of their identity.

No wonder the overwhelming majority of their supporters are glad to see the back of it.