Opportunity or exploitation? Let’s recognise the boundaries of work experience for student journalists

Work experience has an obvious value to people intent on spending the bulk of their lives making money through legitimate channels.

In journalism though, because of the ultra-competitiveness that still characterises the field of aspiring professionals, it has always been regarded as not so much advantageous as absolutely essential.

Having been both the work experience boy and the journalist-fixer who meets and greets in the foyer (though by the time I left journalism foyers were being phased out), I like to think I have a fairly accurate grasp of how these arrangements play out. There’s always been good, bad and plenty in between – on both sides.

Let’s start with the good.

Young hopeful turns up on time, appropriately dressed, is polite, well-spoken and makes a point of showing a willingness to get stuck into anything that comes his/her way. Without going overboard and volunteering to be duty editor, that is.

The journalist baby-sitter and his colleagues make every effort to keep this temporary acquisition occupied with plenty of tasks and the opportunity to get out and about to events when possible. Feedback is provided, even if only brief and verbal, on everything the impressionable cub produces.

A work experience situation at the BBC

The bad? A somewhat dishevelled teenager rocks up with a grunt, spends most of the time reading newspapers and checking social media, keeps his/her head down, disappears for a two-hour lunch break and is largely left to rot by a disinterested and over-worked staff.

The in between probably runs on a sliding scale depending on which newsroom you happen to be in, the point being that a successful work experience posting is gold, an unsuccessful one a regrettable waste of everybody’s time.

A large body of research, such as that undertaken by Little and Harvey (2006), Lucas and Tang (2007) and Blackwell et al (2001), provides us with evidence that work experience has a positive impact on skills acquisition and the nurturing of personal characteristics valuable in the field.

More recently a Liverpool University study by Hazel Barrett (2015) found that irrespective of whether participants had positive or negative work placement experiences, all believed time on placement had been personally significant. Short work placements could provide intense, complex and multidimensional learning experiences for individuals distinct from their university courses. 

Having moved into higher education as leader of the BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, I’ve been wearing the hat of the educator extolling the virtues of time spent in the workplace as a game-changer.

University of South Wales’ BA Sports Journalism course is based at the atrium in Cardiff

Two modules on our degree, in years two and three, specifically centre around work experience and the building of a portfolio of published journalism to go alongside the confidence-building and behavioural enlightenment only the big bad world can provide. Undergraduates must complete a set number of hours across the academic year and present an agreed number of stories across a range of platforms in a final portfolio.

Our practical modules also offer students the chance to see work published on the course’s own sports news website exposport.co.uk, with conduct and professionalism a critical ingredient in Wednesday afternoon live reporting sessions spent covering the universities’ teams at the Treforest Sport park.

However, it is our external partners and contacts, developed and maintained expertly by course creator Julie Kissick, that make the real difference to students in this sphere.

Time spent with media organisations, professional clubs’ media departments and press operations at established sports organisations, over and above what the university requires, is what will set students apart in the quest for graduate jobs fought over with all the ferocity they ever were.

And so, we reach the crux of this reflection (we got there eventually) ; just what constitutes a great work experience opportunity for a student whose priority has to remain completing a degree to the best of their ability?

Any invitation to environments like those mentioned above is valuable, but there have to be certain caveats. Potential employers are courted by individuals and higher education institutions, but we should never lose sight of the bedrock principle of work experience – that it’s mutually beneficial. The guest gains experience, new skills, contacts, confidence etc etc, the provider hopefully gains not just an extra pair of hands but also enhances its reputation as a great place to work, somewhere the best up-and-coming talent would see as an exemplar of the job they are striving to do.

An example of this was an opening flagged up to me by the Football Association of Wales this summer. They wanted someone to assume media and social media responsibility for parts of their women’s and age-group competitions. It was made clear the post would be voluntary, but expenses were offered and the commitment was estimated at no more than six hours a week. Reading between the lines it was clear they regarded the role as ideally suited to a university student.

The Football Association of Wales logos

My feeling was that it represented more or less the perfect opening for everyone studying with us. It was an amazing opportunity to make a mark and become manifestly more employable in the near-future, but it was also realistic and fair in the demands it was placing on the successful candidate. Here was something that could be dipped in and out of, something that could be done very well without placing unreasonable demands on students’ time and commitment. Nobody was going to get rich overnight, but nobody was going to be out of pocket.

It was gratifying when one of our students landed the role and I’ve not the slightest doubt the benefits of it will quickly accrue.

But it contrasts sharply with some of the other ‘great opportunities’ I’ve seen aimed at sports journalism students.

Last month Birmingham City FC advertised a ‘voluntary’ vacancy in their media department. The EFL Championship club said the chosen person would “gain valuable experience working in content and media creation within a professional football environment” and “have the chance to apply their academic knowledge within an applied setting”. 

There was a catch. Numerous catches to be precise.

The role would be full-time for a calendar year – September 2021-2022 – and offer expenses only. Worse, the list of responsibilities was mind-boggling for a voluntary position.

It encompassed professional match-day media coverage, club communication, press conferences, video planning, filming, editing and publishing, web and match-day programme article composition, social media content creation, audio capture, player interviews, coverage of women’s, Under-18s and Under-23s games, PR and engagement activities, media marketing campaigns, club events and product launches, assisting other departments with projects where required, and any other specific duties as defined and agreed during setting development objectives.

The club were rightly condemned by voices in the media industry and higher education, and by their own supporters for what amounted, in crude terms, to a complete piss-take.

It begs the question: when does a ‘great opportunity’ become exploitative and deserving of a two-fingered salute?

There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s a balancing act.

Last week Scottish League One outfit Falkirk FC received some social media criticism for advertising a role similar to that offered at Birmingham, but there were mitigating factors.

They were asking for between five and 10 hours a week of a student’s time, the job specification was far less extensive. Furthermore, there’s the difference in financial reserves to factor in, if you’re so inclined.

There are those who would argue – not unreasonably – that professional profit-making organisations should not expect free labour under any circumstances. I’d contend student journalists need to adopt a more flexible outlook.

I’ve had enquiries from several clubs in the Cymru Premier and Cymru North and South leagues (the top two tiers of Welsh football) about the prospect of our students helping them with media/social media activities on the understanding that no money will be exchanging hands.

If I was to adopt a brutal outlook, I would tell them that if they can afford to pay players hundreds of pounds a game (and plenty of them do even at these levels) then they can afford to shell out, let’s say £100 a month – money that would make a real difference to a student – to have their publicity taken care of.

But to do take that stance would be unnecessary, self-defeating and short-sighted. Truth is, many of these opportunities ARE worth taking up, salary or not.

There’s barely a journalist out there who got where they are by not being prepared to work for nothing in their formative years. And there is no worse a trait among media students than false entitlement.

Newcomers to our USW course are made aware from day one they’re expected to have a go at everything, that journalists can express preferences only when they have earned their stripes in the eyes of their peers and superiors, and never before.

There’s an innate sense of fairness in all of us, and I suppose it’s that which we must turn to in these situations. Employers, or providers, must be prepared to limit demands on unpaid aspirational recruits, who must themselves understand that career progression in journalism is about playing the long game. Humility is key, so is a preparedness to go the extra mile for rewards that may seem a very long way off.

That’s as long as work experience arrangements remain within the boundaries of fairness – and the best people, the best organisations, know where those lie.

Let’s have a definitive code of conduct for sports journalism – we’ve waited long enough

About 20 minutes into a long overdue garage clear-out last week, I found a box buried under a pile of junk in one particularly dark and cobweb-plastered corner. Its contents instantly made me smile.

By the time I’d sifted through them all and overcome a particularly vociferous bout of sneezing brought on by a million disturbed dust particles, I’d counted seven bags of various shapes and sizes, two crumpled fleece jackets, four baseball caps, a couple of beanie hats, and enough USB sticks, pens, keyrings, mouse-mats, notebooks and desk diaries to open a small stationery shop (the diaries were out of date, but you can’t have everything).

My surprise was two-fold – firstly at the volume of stuff accumulated and secondly the fact I’d obviously, at some stage, taken the trouble to neatly store them all in one place.

All the merchandise had one thing in common – logos.

Lloyds Bank, RBS, Under Armour, Guinness, Magners, HSBC, EDF Energy, Heineken…I even found items stamped with Rockport (remember them?) and, wait for it, Invesco Perpetual (a personal favourite for reasons I can’t explain).

These names will prompt knowing, nostalgia-filled nods of recognition from ex-colleagues. But to those less familiar with the ownership of clothes and personal property branded by banks and multi-national drinks companies, let me explain…

What I’d unearthed was the loot (or some of it at least) acquired from years of working as a rugby writer treading the circuit of matches, tours, press conferences and launch events. In a word, freebies, bestowed on members of Her Majesty’s Press by sponsors presumably looking to curry favour with anyone in a position to unleash the power of the pen.

This was the stuff I once-upon-a-time took home, like a kid leaving a birthday party with a goodie bag. The stuff I would never leave lying around while interviewing for fear some dastardly rotter from a rival publication might surreptitiously swipe it to give to one of their mates. Or their dad.

The kind of fleece you might be given at a press conference (if you’re lucky). This was not in my garage!

Come to think of it my own dad was, several times, the grateful beneficiary of a judgement I’d made that something was surplus to my requirements. Even now, on a cold winter day, he enjoys nothing more than parading around in a three-quarter length padded jacket advertising Irish cider.

Considering much of what I harvested over the course of 20 years I never wore or used, considering it ended up gathering dust, mould and dead leatherjackets in my garage, it didn’t half assume absurd levels of importance at the time.

Not that I was alone. Far from it. My recollection is of work pals dispatched on assignments generally being given one overriding instruction by half the sports desk: “If there’s anything decent on offer bring us one back”.

Invariably, as the contents of the box proved, a laptop bag was the gift of choice – and some perfectly serviceable ones there were too. Pity the snob in me saw them doomed to a lifetime of concealment.

My point in all this? Well, after stumbling on the gear and remembering stories like the time one poor colleague turned up at a press conference to launch RBS’ backing of the Six Nations wearing a jacket emblazoned with ‘Lloyds TSB Six Nations’, I got to wondering, with my lecturer’s hat on, whether ethically I should ever have accepted so much as a sheet of A4 paper boasting the EDF Energy crest.

Before going any further, not for a second did I ever feel compromised as a sports journalist because I had a Guinness keyring in a drawer at home. It never impacted the content I sought or produced. It never entered my head.

Press conference time at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

I’m fairly confident – make that totally confident – that all those who were in the same position as me would concur. Technically though, journalists who accept anything for nothing leave themselves open.

The various codes we study on the BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, which regulate the industry, confirm this.

Or do they?

There is nothing in the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Editors’ Code of Practice that deals specifically with this matter. Ditto the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct, which has been in existence since 1936.

However, the BBC Editorial Guidelines do address it. Section 14 stipulates “…people working for the BBC must not accept gifts or hospitality from anyone who might believe it will give them a business advantage”. And why would Guinness fork out for a job-lot of heavily insulated coats if they didn’t see it as giving them some kind of ‘business advantage’?

Obviously much of this is down to individual judgement. Accepting products like those mentioned above, in circumstances that are open and transparent, is overwhelmingly harmless. Furthermore, you’d like to think a good journalist possesses an accurate in-built gauge of when they might be in danger of crossing the freebie line.

Let’s hope so, because in the UK there is no established, credible industry-recognised code to guide sports journalists in this or any other form of behaviour in the course of employment.

At USW the go-to regulatory reference points on law and ethics modules are those mentioned above, which cover journalism as a whole. Academic theories, such as those bound up in a 2017 charter by Ramon and Torrijos, are also analysed and discussed. All have huge relevance, but a code that serves as an industry accepted template for the coverage of sport remains conspicuous by its absence.

Some sports journalists would sniffily dismiss the need for a formal charter, but theirs is a specialism that throws up all kinds of ethical dilemmas rarely encountered by media professionals in other spheres. So drilling down from IPSO’s catch-all guidelines to a more tailored code of conduct to which sports journalists feel accountable is something that should have happened some time ago. You wonder, is it something the respected Sports Journalists’ Association might care to consider?

Certain countries do have documents solely relating to the particular moral compass required…Germany, France, Serbia, Puerto Rico, and Cameroon among them. Some however, are narrow in their scope and overtly culture-specific.

The one code which caught my eye as being potentially a blueprint for UK professionals was drawn up by the US-based Associated Press Sports Editors, which lays claim to being ‘the most important and most prestigious sports journalism organisation in the country’.

Yet if this code was introduced to the UK sports journalism industry tomorrow, I guarantee 99% of those falling under its jurisdiction would either be pleading for a clean slate or sticking two fingers in the air.

On inspection, the APSE document immediately highlighted conflicts:

Clause 1: ‘The newspaper pays its staffer’s way for travel, accommodations, food and drink’.

Reality: We’re fine on the travel and accommodation part (he says), but if an event organiser neglected to provide free food and drink I know some sports journalists who’d consider including it in the intro of their copy for the back page. Others would be contacting union representatives.

Clause 2(b): ‘(Sports journalists) should not write for team or league media guides or other team or league publications’.

Reality: So many have, and do. Myself included. Scribes writing for club/country match programmes is common – and comparatively lucrative. All parties gain. There’s the kudos and extra pocket money for the journalist, the profile for his or her regular employer and the top content for the commissioners. Just for the record, I never felt compromised doing this.

I once wrote a regular column for the Cardiff Blues match programme. Alas, the arrangement lasted no more than a couple of months. After one critical article too many for the South Wales Echo, the then Blues chief executive Bob Norster pulled it. I also wrote intermittently for Wales rugby international programmes, which I always saw as a privilege. That too came to an abrupt end, coincidentally around the same time as Warren Gatland decided I was a wrong ‘un.

Clause 6(a): ‘Sharing and pooling of notes and quotes should be discouraged. If a reporter uses quotes gained secondhand, that should be made known to the readers. A quote could be attributed to a newspaper or to another reporter’.

Reality: Ahem…a bit late for this. On most tours I’ve been on, and following some formal top-table press conferences at home, sharing quotes has been standard practice. If 10 newspaper journalists attend the same briefing, why would all 10 write out the quotes? My experience has been that if a session lasted 20 minutes, four people would be tasked with transcribing five minutes apiece and circulating the material to the group. The next day it would be a different four, and so on. Similarly if we ever ran into logistical problems, or distance made attending an event impossible, it was always an option to ask a colleague to furnish you with what was said later on via email, on the understanding that the favour would be returned in future if needed. And when the story went to print or was put online, there was certainly no asterisk at the foot of it explaining that the quotes came courtesy of a writer employed by a different newspaper.

A typical article by a journalist in a Wales rugby match programme

Sports journalism has long since ceased to be the office ‘toy department’ or the ‘little brother’ of serious news. It now tackles issues of profound social importance – racism, mental health, corruption, sexual abuse, bullying and gender discrimination among them.

It is therefore rightly subject to the same level of scrutiny reserved for any section of the media. Sports journalists are now expected to display a level of expertise once assumed the preserve of news correspondents.

And sport itself has long since commanded the kind of prominence on every communication platform that once upon a time seemed inconceivable. We live in an age of daily sport pull-outs, bumper sport sections, millions and millions of daily clicks on sport stories online, and radio and TV channels devoted entirely to sport. Engagement with sport on social media so often displays the best – and sadly the very worst – examples of human interaction.

Sports journalism has come a long way. It matters. More than ever.

So it’s high time it had a code of conduct. Which matters. More than any other.

And yes, even if that means buying your own laptop bag.


Training journalists for the scourge of the digital age….is it time to do more?

Social media abuse has become the scourge of the digital age. Disturbingly, no solution appears in sight.

So much so that training in how to deal with being on the receiving end of it is being formalised in more and more areas of the workplace. For anyone whose job involves public service or public expression, or the requirement to stick your head above the parapet and state a position, or voice an opinion, you could mount a strong case for such training now being imperative.

I found myself this week contemplating what position journalists occupy in the grand firing line now overseen by trigger-happy trolls on a daily, make that hourly, basis.

If scribes, broadcasters, presenters and pundits aren’t in the first row alongside high profile footballers, outspoken column-writing celebrities, attention-seeking politicians and Boris Johnson, then they’re fairly close to it.

With that in mind then, should a sports journalism degree like ours at University of South Wales (USW), which inevitably places emphasis on engaging with, and exploiting the promotional opportunities and news-gathering potential of social media, focus too on the psychological demands of doing just that? It’s something hardened hacks would doubtless dismiss as “part of the job”, but is it now enough to be so flippant?

A report just published in the Journal of the Association for journalism Education concludes that social media abuse of journalists is becoming ever more vile, ever more regular, and ever more impactful on the emotional wellbeing of the targets, particularly younger ones.

“Opening up conversation during journalism training is therefore vital to prepare students for what they might face,” said the study carried out by Jenny Kean, who leads the MA Journalism programme at Leeds Trinity University, and Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Abbey Maclure.

You wonder whether “opening up conversation” goes far enough. Should behavioural and emotional guidance form an intrinsic part of a specific degree module?

Apart from the obvious pros and cons of social media as they relate to core journalistic fundamentals, instruction in navigating this increasingly toxic area of cyberspace at USW focuses on advising students, quite forcefully, that once they become a journalism undergraduate there is no excuse for having an imprint on any platform that isn’t professional. The ethical requirement of being beyond reproach encompasses this, students are left in no doubt that personal accounts should be devoid of whatever childish nonsense they may or may not have embraced during their school years, even if that means an unexpectedly intense audit.

Year one in an undergraduate’s journey is year zero on the social media spectrum. For the first time in students’ lives they absorb the concept that the profession they aspire to is one which will grant them a platform at first difficult to comprehend, and that as journalists they are one minute scrutinisers, the next scrutinised.

This is a straightforward concept to teach because it is based on tangible facts, but how do you teach a thick skin? Is it even possible? If it is, it’s probably beyond the pay bracket of most journalism trainers.

The advice for tackling social media hate? Keep personal and professional accounts separate; report abuse to management and go through established protocols; switch off out of work hours; talk to family and friends if you’re taking flak; remind yourself that all forms of abuse are unacceptable; tell yourself it would be a thousand times worse if you didn’t matter enough for the haters to hate you….the list could go on.

Yet none of the above prepares a human being for the first time you switch on your screen and people you have never met are calling you names, using foul language, ridiculing your professional status, making you question your own ability, undermining your confidence and, worst of all, making you feel as if they speak for the majority.

Throughout more than 20 years of journalism I got off reasonably lightly, not least because it was only in the second decade of my time that social media became an option and then a necessity.

One particularly nasty period was at the height of a so-called civil war between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four regional teams. I won’t bore you with much more detail other than to say during a timespan of approximately 18 months I became a regular twitter target for people who disagreed with what I wrote as rugby editor for WalesOnline. I was, in their view, any one of a joke, an embarrassment, pathetic, biased, corrupt, dishonest, plus various other unprintable tags depending on which derogatory term came into their heads first. In other words, the usual stuff from that mammoth group of observers who feel qualified to pontificate on “terrible journalism” or “lazy journalism” despite never having done the job themselves.

Did I know how I should, as a professional journalist, respond? Of course – stay above it, reply with facts if accuracy was questioned, don’t respond to foul language or any other ugliness, block and mute – but only in moderation. Was I able to restrain myself in such a manner at all times? In a word, no. On one or two occasions the insults and the goading got the better of me and I fired back using terminology and tone I later regretted.

Did it get to me mentally? You bet. Some journalists do a damn good impression of people who couldn’t care a jot what comes their way, but there’s not a single one who doesn’t, to some extent, allow social media to get under their skin. Do some have the capacity to be relatively indifferent and nonchalant, to revel in their notoriety at the same time as allowing engagement to disproportionately affect their mood? Undoubtedly. Yet many others live on twitter, taking the consensus of a vocal minority as gospel and fretting over the loss of three followers as if it represents the total ruination of their reputation for good judgement.

Younger journalists are more vulnerable. It isn’t at all patronising to suggest they give greater credence to social media because they’ve never known a workplace without it. Furthermore, their professional confidence is in its formative stage which isn’t helpful when so much abuse directed at them centres around bogus attacks on their competence and credibility.

I’ve known young journalists talk themselves out of writing a piece, or pursuing a specific news line, in anticipation of a negative reaction on twitter. I know twentysomethings in the industry already so weary of trolls they seek solace in intermittent twitter shutdowns lasting anything between a week and two months, despite the value of the site to their day-to-day activity. Such decisions suggest there is an effect on mental health that trainees need to be made more aware of, not to mention greater provision and awareness of coping mechanisms.

Female journalists too are located at the eye of this storm. A survey fielded by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found “misogyny and online violence” to be a threat to women wanting to enter journalism and the communication industry in the digital age. It even went as far as to label it a “freedom of expression crisis”.

We live in an age of intolerance, of cancellation, of twitter mob-rule through synthetic outrage, and we live in an age where the lectern of social media has put what were once pub conversations onto millions of screens in homes and offices. Once upon a time we never even knew what our critics were saying, at least very little of it. Now it’s nigh on impossible to escape it in a world of amateur publishers.

Qualified journalists, however, retain their privileged platform, and they are up there to be shot at as much as they ever were by those who resent it. Social media just makes the artillery heavier and fires it in permanent as opposed to transitory form.

Are we then doing enough by simply making this part of some wider and more frequent conversation? Could we go further in helping journalism students to understand where social media abuse emanates from, why it is ultimately worthless and what techniques – mental and practical – can be used to nullify its intended effects before they take up meaningful residence in the mind of the recipient?

The evidence suggests journalism educators need to do more. Now is maybe the time to debate what “more” should be.


Courts are journalism amphitheatres – dwindling coverage is not an inconvenience, it’s a crisis

As a sports journalist – and blowing my own trumpet is absolutely not my intention here – I witnessed some of the most momentous finals, showdowns, shootouts, deciders, mouthwatering clashes…you get the gist.

Whatever hyperbole was used to ham up the occasion, there I was, best seat in the house, taking in the atmosphere that only being physically present could provide.

Even though the job description demanded neutral detachment, hacks are only human. Myself included.

While watching the drama and emotion of elite sport unfold all over the world I’ve let out gasps, muttered expletives, bitten fingernails and clenched buttock cheeks with the best of them.

And yet none of the above compares to the experiences I’ve had in the one journalistic amphitheatre that has always, and will always, offer up the best stories of all – court.

To therefore digest the findings this week of a report by journalism academic Richard Jones of the University of Huddersfield, which suggested public funding may be needed to safeguard court reporting in the UK, was alarming.

Jones’ study concluded that regional media organisations like Reach and Newsquest are shouldering the resource burden of covering events at courts – magistrates and crown – virtually alone.

The ongoing contraction of the journalism workforce – not exclusive to these two companies – makes this situation unsustainable, Jones asserted. Some have suggested solutions such as expanding the Local Democracy Reporter scheme or forcing the likes of Google and Facebook to contribute financially. My money would be on the former before the latter.

Two further concerns present themselves.

Magistrates court proceedings

The first is the current vogue for job creation to centre around digital, technical audio-visual and social media skills. This is inevitable given the changing requirements of the industry but if we needed a reminder of just how important traditional core fundamentals and basic professional competency remain, perhaps this issue is it.

Twenty years ago entering the paid ranks of journalism meant starting with general news before exploring any ambition to specialise in sport, business, politics etc. And starting with general news meant going to court. Not every day, but very possibly every week. It was an invaluable way to learn, but so few rookies now get the opportunity.

Secondly, there is the unfeasibility of any gap in court coverage being plugged by hyperlocal, so-called citizen journalists, unqualified in media law. The former audience, as Dan Gillmor christened them, has admirably taken up the fight to preserve community news but clean, legally safe copy from a rape trial can never be part of their remit.

Journalist representation in court has been declining for years. When warned of the dangers of this, media company bosses largely agreed but shrugged their shoulders and spoke about contracting economic realities.

Yet findings such as those of Jones, together with other factors cited above, help focus minds on just how close we may be coming to a tipping point.

It needs averting as a matter of urgency. Not just because of the oft-quoted fact about a transparent justice system being the bedrock of any democratic nation, but also because court reporting retains immense value to journalism itself, and subsequently to readers, viewers, listeners and subscribers. That’s an economic reality right there, you just have to be prepared to play a longer game to see it reflected in profit margins.

Standing or falling on a court assignment is also a development tool for journalists worth its weight in gold. From a human resource standpoint, there is no better investment. Going to court and producing stories rightly remains a key component of our BA Journalism course at University of South Wales, led by a course leader in Craig Hooper who could write a book about his escapades in front of the beaks while an agency man serving the London-based nationals.

It demands (from a legal as well as ethical perspective) accuracy, fairness and balance. It challenges reporters to build contacts among court personnel, it develops confidence in trainees to engage with, even challenge, judges, magistrates and barristers, and also to approach defendants, victims of crime and their relatives for interviews when cases conclude.

There is nothing like court for a journalist. Nothing.

I’d contend all journalists should at some stage have seen the inside of a court (for work purposes). You’ll certainly be very hard pushed to find one who has, and does not believe their career was aided and enriched by doing so.

Most will have a favourite story to tell, most will concede that there were times when they felt as though they were among a select audience at the premier of some cliffhanger film, a film they then quickly realised was for real.

My own introduction to the judicial circuit came at about 10am on a grey morning in October 1996.

As a Gwent Tertiary College student hoping to gain the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ pre-entry certificate I found myself among a class outing at Newport Crown Court listening to a defence lawyer pleading for leniency in the case of a young man, no more than 21 if he was a day, who had become embroiled in a nightclub fight and struck an assailant with a glass bottle.

Newport Crown Court. Pic: WalesOnline

From the appearance of the defendant – who sitting in the dock looked contrite and petrified in equal measure – and his worried-sick family sitting white-faced behind us, this carried all the hallmarks of an otherwise law-abiding, respectable chap having acted wholly out of character in drink.

When the judge returned from a brief adjournment myself and fellow aspiring scribes anticipated at worst a suspended sentence of some sort, along with a fine and a severe warning as to future conduct.

What we got was stunning, in the purest sense of the word.

An 18-month jail sentence was rather pitilessly meted out, and if I used every conceivable word known to man I could never do justice (no pun intended) to the sense of shock and despair that took over that room as his honour explained why he needed to be seen to take the toughest stance possible over such crimes. I can still hear the wails and sobs of the lad’s distraught mother to this day.

It seems callous and indulgent to reflect on such moments as electrifying drama, but of course that’s just what they are to journalists whose job nevertheless is to remain dispassionate whether sitting in a media gantry at a packed stadium or on a press bench in Court No1.

Thereafter, trips to court in my formative years in the job always – always, always, always – yielded the best stories.

Within the first 18 months of my traineeship at the Gwent Gazette in Ebbw Vale, I’d reported on a murder case which followed a teenager being struck and killed by a lorry, a teacher who’d been done for making nuisance phone calls, a bouncy castle operator guilty of abusing children and a council leader who’d assaulted his girlfriend.

My old newspaper, the Gwent Gazette, leads with a court story.

Not even a ticking off by the chairman of the bench at Abertillery Mags for reading The Guardian during one tedious interlude put me off.

The murder case I mentioned saw the defendant eventually get four years for manslaughter, a sentence which enraged the victim’s family. It was deadline day for the Gazette, a Monday, and I remember running out of Cardiff Crown Court and dictating the copy from a phone box to a sub-editor at Thomson House. No mobiles in them days…

Tucked in with that showpiece lead story would have been any number of smaller reports on more trivial cases, from drink driving to non-payment of a TV licence.

I just remember that day in Cardiff, especially, being a win-win-win scenario.

I got my job satisfaction and another piece for my cuttings book (which I’ve still got somewhere), the readers got their story, and justice – notwithstanding the dissent – hadn’t just been done, it had been seen to be done.

If this sequence of events is becoming ever rarer then it’s time lawmakers and the industry itself viewed it as not so much an inconvenience or a consequence of different times, but as a crisis requiring urgent action.


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: oldrugbyshirts.com

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: stuff.co.nz

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.


Warrior Alfie’s leadership is more important now than ever

“I WISH I’d never agreed to do this bloody book, I don’t want anything else to do with it”, he yelled down the phone. And with that, he hung up.

This was Gareth Thomas, circa November 2007, after the autobiography we had collaborated on had been finished and was about to go to print.

I’d called him during a break at work on the South Wales Echo sports desk, the intention being to arrange with him a schedule for promoting the long-awaited tome via a press conference and various other media appointments.

‘Alfie!‘, the title of Gareth’s life story, had already been delayed a year. After the furore over Mike Ruddock’s messy departure from the Wales coaching job in February 2006 had died down, Gareth Jenkins had taken over on a permanent basis ahead of that year’s summer tour to Argentina – and Alfie, as he is universally known, asked for the book’s release to be postponed to avoid any disruption to the new boss’ early months in charge.

Publishers Mainstream reluctantly agreed but now, with Wales having returned from the 2007 World Cup in ignominy after a pool stage exit at the hands of Fiji, and with Gareth having effectively retired from Test rugby as Wales’ first cap centurion, it was time for the presses to roll.

The book which me and Alfie collaborated on

The extent to which the former Wales captain had got cold feet about the book was an indication of his inner turmoil. His fear – he didn’t actually admit this but it was obvious to me at the time – was that in publicising the work, in inviting journalists to highlight a presumably comprehensive account of his life, he would give them implied licence to investigate the well established tittle-tattle about his sexuality. Worse, to go ahead and reveal his sexuality on their insensitive terms.

And so there was no press conference. There were no signing sessions in shops. The book hit the shelves and sold well, but Gareth kept his head down. Ever since, I’ve barely had a conversation lasting more than a few moments with him, usually when our paths have crossed on the media circuit and we’ve exchanged the standard benign pleasantries. He’s barely ever acknowledged even doing the book, as if it’s a part of his life he has no wish to revisit.

So, why do I recall such turbulent times here? Well, Gareth’s involvement in BBC Sport’s superb package of content marking LGBT+ history month put me in a contemplative mood.

In a typically candid interview, the dual code international speaks about dispelling myths around living with HIV. He revealed he is living with the condition in October 2019, years after receiving a diagnosis, also disclosing that he’d had no choice about doing so after a journalist had informed his parents, Yvonne and Barry, unforgivably doorstepping them at their home in Sarn near Bridgend.

Seeing and listening to Gareth talk with such confidence and passion about the discrimination and stereotyping which members of the LGBT+ community still face, very often through the lens of his personal story, always reminds me of two things; the vital importance of people like him in the ongoing battle against the type of bigotry mentioned above, and the sheer distance Gareth himself has travelled since those torturous days of a decade and a half ago.

In the twitter video he posted to reveal his HIV, Gareth said: “I want to share my secret with you. Why? Because it’s mine to tell. Not the evils threatening to tell you before I do.

“Now, even though I’ve been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight, to educate.”

While nobody should be forced to reveal their sexuality, or information relating to their health, Gareth has always spoken about the liberating power of taking control of each situation. This power has enabled him to be a force for untold good in the lives of countless others who have faced, and still do, a battle for acceptance in sport and society in general on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

It’s a subject that each academic year is discussed and studied as part of several modules on our BA Sports Journalism degree course at University of South Wales. It is always topical, it matters enormously, and students always approach it with enthusiasm and critical enquiry.

Gareth’s journey truly has been long and remarkable in its transformation.

During that 2007 World Cup in France, which I covered for the Echo, a depressing pattern began to emerge in the build-up to each Wales game.

A rumour would surface somewhere in the press corps that one of the national tabloids was planning to imminently reveal his homosexuality.

By then I had developed a close working relationship with Gareth. He never specifically told me he was gay, but he knew I knew. And I knew he knew I knew.

On a couple of occasions during that tournament I spoke to him on the phone about the likelihood, or lack of it, of him being outed in print on the morning of a match. He was understandably distraught at the prospect, which mercifully never actually happened.

It was difficult then, as it is now, to comprehend how he could possibly have functioned effectively under the pressure not just of leading his country on the biggest stage of all, but of living in constant fear of the judgement and persecution he believed would come his way if his sexuality was ever made public knowledge.

Gareth and wife Jemma in 2004. Pic: WalesOnline

Again mercifully, by the time Gareth decided to come out in December 2009, even the macho world of rugby union was sufficiently enlightened to treat what was already a bit of an open secret with appropriate indifference. It was news of course, but the overwhelming reaction was one of admiration for Gareth. I never encountered anybody, in rugby circles and beyond, who wasn’t pleased that he could finally live his life on his own terms.

The reaction, as far as some were concerned, made all the years of secrecy seem unnecessary. But in the two years or so after the World Cup, Gareth had his estranged wife Jemma to consider in any decision to go public.

In January 2005 I visited the couple in Toulouse, where Gareth was then playing his club rugby, to begin work with him on the book. I stayed two nights in their home after he had point-blank refused to entertain the idea of me paying for hotel accommodation.

Cliche it may be, but he and Jemma appeared to be, if not the perfect couple then something very close to it. I remember on the journey home thinking such was his domestic marital harmony that rumours he was gay couldn’t possibly be true.

A few months later, when Gareth was temporarily back in Wales on international duty, I went to see him at his house in St Brides Major in the Vale of Glamorgan. I felt writing his book meant I had to at least ask him about the rumours simply because they were so widespread and long-standing.

Given what I had experienced in Toulouse my expectation, naturally, was that if he was going to talk about it at all it would be along the lines of how hurtful in its untruthfulness such gossip over so many years had been. Anyway, feeling distinctly awkward, I asked him…

“Load of bollocks, butt,” he replied, before emphasising: “I don’t want that in the book”. He blamed an old team mate for spreading lies and couldn’t have been more dismissive of the whole business.

Ultimately this, his first autobiography, was published without reference to his sexuality. It contained a vast amount of detail about his playing career and personal life, but bears no resemblance to his 2014 collaboration with Michael Calvin, Proud, in which he holds nothing back about who he really is, or subsequent books he has worked on for Penguin.

The cover of Gareth’s 2014 book

By the time these were produced, Gareth had of course retired as one of rugby’s genuine all-time greats. His achievements and longevity as a player speak for themselves, but in a sport which has always celebrated so-called hard men it gets forgotten just how tough Gareth was. Is.

Perhaps the best indicator of his granite core was the fact that at a stage of his career when he should have been held together with sticky tape, he played a season in Rugby League’s Superleague – arguably the most physically demanding oval-ball arena of them all – with the now defunct Crusaders.

Now, as he continues to be a standard-bearer for LGBT+ interests, particularly in the world of sport, it is his mental resilience which so often comes to the fore. He is, thankfully, not alone.

The ongoing battle against discrimination and stigma in sport is being led on so many fronts at present by high profile stars who are either still playing, or once did.

Footballers like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are confronting racism and too many sporting icons to mention have ensured mental health is part of an ongoing social conversation rather than the taboo it once was. Meanwhile, Gareth and the likes of Wales women’s football legend Jess Fishlock, remain central figures in a quest for LGBT+ equality in sport that has ever-increasing relevance as we head deeper into the 2020s.

I watch Gareth’s impact on the latter front with fascination and -perhaps an apt word – pride.

When rugby went professional in 1995 he used to skip training with Cardiff RFC to mess around playing tennis at the David Lloyd centre with team mate Leigh Davies.

He went on to become the most unlikely rugby hero, someone who not only played the game brilliantly but who led, warrior-like, by example. Nobody foresaw the player and the leader that he would become.

His heroism extends away from the field these days – and nobody foresaw that either. Furthermore, the impact he is now able to have on so many lives is much more profound. The importance of that impact should never be taken for granted.

Too many spheres of sport remain sullied by culturally embedded social ignorance and entrenched prehistoric attitudes. Extinguishing those requires campaigners to be in it for the long haul.

Progress will never happen quickly enough.

But Thomas, through sheer force of personality and will, provides so much of the energy needed to maintain the momentum.


New Welsh media outlet is welcome, but spare us the pompous narrative

MARCH 1 will, as ever for Wales, be a day for upbeat commemoration of our patron saint. For the country’s media, though, there will be a reason beyond St David to feel buoyant in a fortnight’s time.

That’s because the start of spring this year will coincide with the birth of a new “national newspaper and news service”, in the form of The National Wales.

It is being led by Huw Marshall, a former S4C employee who, according to the host website New Media Wales, the company who launched the project, possesses an “in depth knowledge and understanding of the UK and Wales media landscapes”.

The plan is to provide ad hoc print editions to mark important Welsh occasions and events, which will complement a website that “delivers quality content, one that can lead a national conversation about the future of Wales”.

The mission statement continues: “We will be above all else for Wales, with content relevant wherever you live in Wales, from Amlwch to Chepstow, Pembroke to Prestatyn”.

The National, among other things, intends to provide us with improved coverage of Senedd affairs, “open a frank discussion about independence” and “inform young people about how Wales works”.

Welsh regional daily newspapers. Pic: BBC

It is going to do this via print, audio and video platforms and there’s going to be exclusive content and access to special discussions for people willing to subscribe to the site.

Bring it on. Media plurality in Wales has been declining for years, to the point where some observers now fear an existential threat to our democratic process.

For example, we are now down to five daily regional newspapers – The Daily Post, The South Wales Evening Post, The South Wales Echo and The South Wales Argus, and The Wrexham Leader, the first three of those owned by Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) – and not many more than 25 established weekly titles.

The Western Mail remains the only national daily title, even though it is not acknowledged as such by Mr Marshall (more of that in a moment).

The National Wales, therefore, would seem to be a desperately needed addition to the landscape. Its success is without question in the interests of Wales and especially the democratic accountability of its government and public authorities.

And yet from what I can see there are troubling aspects to this brave new dawn.

The first few of those show themselves in that ambitious and idealistic New Media Wales introductory statement (which for the record contains several grammatical errors and instances of word-for-word repetition).

It opens with the sweeping and somewhat pained observation that “Wales is remarkable within a European context in having no national newspaper and news service”.

That is simply false. WalesOnline, in tandem with its Western Mail print product is firmly established as a bonafide national news provider. Whether Mr Marshall rates it as such or not, is frankly neither here nor there.

WalesOnline political editor Will Hayward questions First Minister Mark Drakeford

Let me declare an interest; I worked for WalesOnline – or Western Mail & Echo as it was and Media Wales as it is now – for 20 years, from the days (circa late 90s) when the website was an after-thought right through to the days when, if anything, the newspapers were the after-thought.

Like all media organisations, it has its faults. It has cut its workforce rapaciously over the last two decades and contracted to the point where, despite protestations to the contrary, it has been unable to keep touch news-wise as it once did with the communities it claims to still serve.

But in this it is no different to the juggernaut news operations which serve other regions of the UK such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle.

And in comparison to its Reach stablemates like the Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Newcastle Chronicle, WalesOnline has very much been THE success story of an increasingly expanding portfolio.

By the time I left in 2019, the growth of the online offering since former editor-in-chief Alan Edmunds made the pioneering decision in 2008 to amalgamate the editorial operations of The Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday and place WalesOnline at the forefront of everything, had been literally phenomenal.

The facts are these: WalesOnline attracts 2m page views a day. It draws in 1m unique users a day. Its monthly traffic figures dwarf those of the BBC Wales news website section. In March 2020 it pulled in 65m page views. Despite forced redundancies last year because of the crippling effects of Covid, WalesOnline still employs 34 news journalists and has five local democracy reporters feeding into its output as well. On top of these it has a nine-strong team of content editors directing strategy, aggregating news, checking and refining journalistic artefacts and monitoring social media etc etc.

Former WalesOnline boss Alan Edmunds

In terms of the Welsh media landscape therefore, WalesOnline is a behemoth.

So why, with his “in-depth knowledge of the Welsh media landscape”, isn’t it so much as mentioned by Mr Marshall?

“Our long-term aims are highly ambitious,” he states. “We want to create more choice in Wales, an alternative to Radios Wales and Cymru, LBC, TalkRadio, Radio 4 and 5live.”

Why does The National Wales view broadcasters as its chief rivals when it isn’t going to be one itself? Why no mention of the one outlet that is clearly going to be The National Wales’ main competitor? Why no mention of the one outlet that provides digital journalism via the same platforms as the fledgling Marshall plan anticipates using, and with a scope to which it must surely aspire?

Hopefully this absence of recognition has no relation to the kind of sniffy, naive and outdated perception of WalesOnline I’ve seen and heard harboured by some in the Welsh media fraternity.

Traditionalists who rail against the trivialisation of the news agenda underestimate the extent to which web analytics have changed everything. In an era when resources must be maximised, WalesOnline’s output is governed by what data tells them people want to read. It’s an economic reality that so many within the profession simply don’t seem to be able to grasp. Sure, such data leads them periodically to listicles covering the latest barbecue fads and viral social media commentary about incidents that are inherently inconsequential. Yet the coverage of, for example, Welsh politics – no better exemplified than in the work of political editor Will Hayward throughout the pandemic – is also more comprehensive than critics are ever prepared to acknowledge. Politicians themselves in Cardiff Bay have complained about a lack of media coverage, but audience data around Senedd stories points to a lack of public appetite for what goes on in the building. And the responsibility for that lies with Members and their party apparatus before media organisations.

Web analytics have changed the digital journalism landscape

WalesOnline’s triumph has been its data-informed editorial strategy and its focus on specific metrics that support its business model such as page views, audience growth, returning visitors, when and where people look at its content and which social media platforms direct them there. In short, there is vast experience of digital journalism at Six Park Street. What happens there on the sixth floor is not to be dismissed, least of all ignored.

The National Wales has teamed up with Newsquest, the second largest regional publisher in the UK, in order to fund the staff that will be on board for their March 1 kick-off – two digital reporters and an audience and content editor.

On February 4, Gavin Thompson, Newsquest regional editor for Wales, said this to Times Radio: “We believe there is a gap in the market for a quality national news platform that serves all of Wales. We aim to provide original and in-depth reporting packaged in an engaging way which provides value for readers and reaches new audiences.”

He added: “Newsquest already has dozens of journalists based right across Wales and we will harness their skills and give their work a national platform.”

In other words, the National Wales website will feature repackaged stories already available on Newsquest’s other Wales-based sites and in their Welsh newspaper titles, which amount to 17 and include the Argus, the Wrexham Leader and provincial weeklies like the Barry and District News and the Powys County Times.

Those overseeing this launch will know they are under pressure to offer something news consumers in Wales cannot get elsewhere. If they don’t, The National Wales will not gain the traction it needs to survive. Mr Thompson emphasised the political neutrality of the forthcoming outlet, pledging it would be “pro-Wales”. I’ve yet to encounter a Welsh-based news service that is anti-Wales.

Newsquest bosses will know that the worthy pursuit of deeper Senedd coverage isn’t going to help them achieve the grand objectives outlined by Mr Marshall.

Furthermore, Newsquest has no track record of leading in digital journalism.

Years after WalesOnline embraced the website-before-print mantra Newsquest was still playing at online, holding back content in the mistaken belief doing so would protect print revenue.

It still lags significantly behind Reach in the digital environment – as any comparison of user experience will show. We know too that Newsquest will not hesitate to bale out if profits don’t accrue as they expect.

So we await The National Wales with some intrigue. I wish it well. Nobody who cares about Welsh journalism would say otherwise.

But from what I’ve seen thus far, the whole project looks like it might be in for a rude awakening.

Those behind it might help themselves by dispensing with the false and pompous narrative of filling a national news service vacuum and the lofty promises about starting a new pan-Wales conversation.

Very soon those claims are going to be subject to public scrutiny.

Good luck to everybody whose job it will be to back them up.


Marcus Rashford can be tech giants’ nemesis in battle against social media racism

THE abuse, depressingly, was nothing new. The reaction? Potential dynamite in the quest to find a solution not just to the racist online trolling of footballers, but to the even wider problem of hate crime on social media in general.

“Humanity and social media at it’s worst,” concluded Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford after receiving racist bile from anonymous Instagram accounts after his team’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal last weekend.

“Yes I’m a black man and I live every day proud that I am,” Rashford continued in a tweet. “No-one, or no one comment is going to make me feel any different. So sorry if you were looking for a strong reaction. You’re just simply not going to get it here.”

Earlier in the same week Chelsea defender Reece James and West Brom’s Romaine Sawyers also received racist abuse via social media. In Sawyers’ and Rashford’s cases, the police were contacted and are investigating.

There is no textbook for dealing with faceless cowards who attack people based on the colour of their skin, but the eloquence of Rashford’s turn-the-other-cheek reaction resonated in the most powerful manner. This 23-year-old has already shown what can be achieved when a driven high profile sports star intervenes in a social issue. His campaigning for the provision of free school meals has not just embarrassed politicians but forced tangible policy changes. If anyone can finally make a difference to the ongoing disgrace of incidents like those mentioned above, perhaps it’s Rashford.

Calls for tech giants to do more to clamp down on racist hatred are obligatory in each and every aftermath and the pattern remains the same; the initial chorus of disapproval quietens and we return to a state of latent abhorrence… until the next time.

Is the fierce criticism of facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube and other digital platforms justified? Are they indeed allowing racial hatred to perpetuate in a climate of complacency, hand-wringing and even denial?

It has become nigh on impossible to mount a case for their defence. In fact, studies have shown complacency – at the lower end of the spectrum of charges against these companies – to be a malignant influence in the perpetuation of racism in UK sport, football especially.

In the last decade Fifa has, risibly, claimed racism to be ‘on the decline’ thanks in part to its own campaigns. In 2012 Premier League representatives told a parliamentary investigation into racism in football that arrests were at a record low, prompting the following from then PM David Cameron: “If everyone plays their role then we can easily crush and deal with this problem.” The Culture, Media and Sports Committee spoke about how the atmosphere at football grounds had ‘changed hugely’ since the 1970s and 1980s.

Marcus Rashford in action against Anderlecht. Pic: rscanderlecht

Such claims have since been shown to be short-sighted and ill-informed, placing as they did undue emphasis on diminishing levels of overt racism. The monkey chanting and banana throwing may have gone – though recent documentaries have shown the former continues to rear itself – but the extent to which racism is culturally embedded in British society never went anywhere. Studies have shown that when it manifests under football’s banner, it is a reflection of attitudes that prevail among a section of the wider public – including those who don’t care two hoots about the outcome of any sporting contest.

Racism in football has simply been herded from the stands and terraces to other outlets that 20 years ago were not available. Before the explosion of twitter, racial abuse on internet message boards was described as ‘covert’ by some scholars. Its progression to platforms with millions of account holders rather than niche followings of diehards has directed the malignancy full circle. There’s been a regression to the dark days of 40-50 years ago. What gains were made have been eroded.

What can be done? Certainly more than IS being done. Facebook, twitter and youtube operate a ‘report and take down’ strategy to deal with hateful content. In other words, they rely on the public to do their dirty work for them, outsourcing their moderation responsibilities at zero expense. It is time large scale investment was made in the creation of entire departments of staff whose job it is to proactively search for racist and other hateful material, to remove it and identify those responsible. Punitive fines should be built into legislation for failing to remove offensive material in a timely fashion – there are numerous historical examples of such failure.

In this way, the tech giants can bear the brunt of the investigative workload rather than the police. Why should taxpayers money be wasted on resourcing time-consuming police enquiries? If football clubs have to pay costs for the policing of matches, why should those who provide online community platforms expect the same safeguarding for free? Prosecutions are essential, but in instances like the one Rashford flagged up the leg work of monitoring, identifying and tracing should be the duty of the tech firms before publicly funded law enforcement.

Social media companies are secretive about the level of resources they direct towards monitoring and removing inappropriate content. Why?

“We do not give out numbers for the simple reason that someone, somewhere would say that it is not enough,” twitter employee Nick Pickles told a Home Affairs Select Committee in April 2017. Simon Milner from facebook told the same committee: “I would suggest that there is not necessarily a linear relationship between the number of people you employ and the effectiveness of the work you do.”

Assurances have been given to parliament that new technological systems are being worked on to make possible the increased internal vigilance disgusted members of the public are rightly demanding, but progress has been indefensibly slow. Research by the Alan Turing Institute and University College London in 2018 showed just how many digital breadcrumbs twitter users, for example, leave behind. ‘Associated metadata’ in the study allowed the identification of every account holder in a group of 10,000 with a 96.7% degree of accuracy.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that instagram owners facebook, and twitter, both issued statements in the wake of the Rashford incident condemning racism and pledging to work tirelessly to eradicate it. The high profile nature of the victim, and subsequent media storm, clearly triggered some urgent crisis PR management.

Yet we’ve seen this film before. Facebook in particular has form for being more responsive to complaints about offensive content once they are highlighted by the media. In the 2017 parliamentary report mentioned above, members criticised the reaction of social media companies to complaints from those without the kind of platform Rashford commands as being ‘opaque, and inconsistent’. Some, it claimed, were ‘ignored altogether’.

It is four years now since MPs called on the likes of facebook and twitter to publish quarterly reports on their efforts to tackle hateful material. “Transparent performance reports, published regularly, would be an effective method to drive up standards radically and we hope it would also encourage competition between platforms to find innovative solutions to these persistent problems,” was the advice given. “If they refuse to do so, we recommend that the Government consult on requiring them to do so.”

That necessity came some time ago. We’re getting nowhere on current evidence, which is why hope springs that a figure of Rashford’s gravitas may make the difference.

Of course, he shouldn’t have to, but it might just be that he, and others such as Manchester City star Raheem Sterling, opt to spearhead a battle which is everybody’s to fight – outside of the anonymous misfits who punch away at lonely keyboards.

The likes of Rashford and Sterling have their day jobs. They have already gone above and beyond what they should ever have been expected to do in calling out racial discrimination.

But their intervention, as past inaction has shown, is vital. They have an influence on public opinion that terrifies politicians and chief executives and so hopefully more and more elite athletes will follow suit.

And the more that happens, the more social media companies will realise the futility of mealy-mouthed pledges on racism and hate, and the necessity of effective quantifiable intervention.

They’ve sat on their hands and abdicated responsibility for too long. So long that the tolerance threshold of society has already been breached.

If tech giants don’t act now, it may not be long before lawmakers do.