Wednesday 10 April 2013

Beans on Toast - Or Just Toast?

Viewers of the main BBC Wales news programme last night will have seen a man with heavily gelled and cropped hair staring fiercely at a computer screen. This was Jonathan Roberts, the new editor of the South Wales Evening Post, the paper affectionately known locally in Swansea as The Beans on Toast. 

Jonno sat in a large leather swivel chair from where, according to the BBC, he had been interacting with locals about the newspaper's role in the measles epidemic which is now sweeping the city.

It would be unfair to blame the measles outbreak on Mr Roberts, although Cneifiwr notes that it seemed to begin at about the time he left his previous post in Carmarthen to begin his new job running the Toast.

Viewers in Swansea who were expecting a grovelling apology from the editor of the paper which ran a campaign against the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s would have been disappointed. Mr Roberts began by saying that he had been contacted by people who supported the paper's original campaign and went on to waffle something about the role of the local press in keeping people informed.

Prior to taking possession of the big swivel chair at the Toast, Jonathan Roberts was editor for a very brief but dramatic six months at the sister Carmarthen Journal. The Journal had been through a pretty torrid time when Mr Roberts arrived on the scene. Circulation had been plummeting, there had been redundancies and cutbacks, and as readers of this blog will know, the paper's woes had been compounded by bullying from Carmarthenshire County Council, which continues to protest that it values a free local press and freedom of expression as it tries to root out dissent and criticism.

The newspaper's troubles with the council go back several years, and a pattern emerged of periods of conformity with the line dictated by County Hall interspersed by brief flickers of editorial independence.

Jonno swept in to King Street and broke the pattern with a self-imposed ban on anything which the council might consider to be criticism. No letters from dissatisfied residents were allowed, and stories on council matters often appeared to have been written in County Hall. A two page "interview" with the the council's chief executive which took the form of a monologue without questions was just one of the delights served up to long-suffering readers.

The Journal reaped the benefits with a generous crop of council ads, while the independent-minded South Wales Guardian was put in the sin bin and punished with an advertising ban for daring to speak out of turn. A senior journalist from another paper contacted County Hall to investigate. A stormy conversation ensued, with the Press Office telling him to stay away from the story before slamming down the phone.

The love-in culminated in a re-launch of the Journal, with the council distributing a glossy brochure describing the new-look paper along with copies of the council propaganda sheet, the Carmarthenshire News.

How much the Journal paid for this privilege, we shall probably never know, but the distribution deal neatly demonstrated the dramatic reversal of fortunes of our local press. Only a few years ago the Journal had helped the fledgling Pyongyang News by distributing copies free inside the newspaper.

The Journal was re-launched at the end of January this year, bigger and fatter than ever before. The publicity featured lots of management jargon, including promises of much more "user generated content". The "user" appeared to be the Press Office in County Hall.

Readers struggled to find their way through the new-look Journal, which had dispensed with old-fashioned practices such as sequential numbering of pages, and the Teifi Valley was treated to a weekly opinion column written by probably the only person in Cardigan who thinks that a large new Sainsbury's is just what the town needs.

No sooner had the Journal completed its re-launch than Jonno was off with a big promotion at The Beans on Toast.

Whether it is coincidence or not, the departure of Jonathan Roberts saw the sudden appearance of some green shoots of editorial independence. People outside County Hall who had not been contacted for months suddenly found themselves being asked for a quote, and articles even appeared which, ever so subtly, hinted that not everyone agrees with the council's press office on everything.

Sales of the Journal continued to slide during the last 6 months of 2012, and it will be interesting to see what effect if any the re-launch will have.

In the meantime the management merry-go-round at Local World, the corporate entity which now brings together Northcliffe Media and Iliffe News and Media, appears to be gathering pace. After the quickfire changes at the Journal and the Beans on Toast, it is now the turn of the Llanelli Star.

All of this brings back uncomfortable memories for Cneifiwr who remembers working for a once proud and mighty institution which struck the corporate equivalent of an iceberg. Like all sensible rats, Cneifiwr didn't hang about, but from the safety of his new home it was noticeable how the deckchairs were rearranged with an increasingly manic desperation as the icy waters of oblivion beckoned.

But all is not gloom and doom. It is worth shelling out 65p for this week's Carmarthen Journal just to read the completely bonkers letter sent in by that stalwart of the letters page, Sir Eric Howells CBE. Alternatively you can get it for free here.


Jac o' the North, said...

That letter is sad and, were I close to Sir Eric, rather worrying. On the plus side, it might be further evidence of the Journal's rehabilitation. Because when a newspaper publishes an incoherent ramble like that it's often to hold someone up to riduicule.

Loved the mention of "the duke losing his job". Is he redundant? Signing on?

Anonymous said...

I think blaming the Post for the poor uptake of vaccine implies that parents have very long memories and a disregard for their offspring. I am aware of a child in my own family, now adult who was apparently harmed by encephalitis after the MMR vaccine and from being a normal child, is now permanently handicapped. Compensation is difficult to get as it is impossible to prove exactly what caused the damage. MMR is not 100% effective and I am also aware of a relative who got measles despite the vaccine. As with many childhood vaccines the most serious victims tend to be babies too young to have had the jab. Its not black and white and parents are all sent very positive messages on vaccination through the NHS. However, herd immunity is just that, and its tough if your child gets a reaction.
If the government were really concerned they could have stopped the spread by giving advice to parents to keep all kids at home (except to have the jab as individuals)for the incubation period of 3 weeks and keep all children who are unwell home. As the vaccine takes 2 weeks to work if it does work, one child breathing bugs in the queue or at the newly jabbed kids' school could easily keep the whole thing going.