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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.