I have been interested in the Welsh news landscape for a number of years.
Growing up as a child in the village Gwynfryn near Wrecsam The Evening Leader would be delivered daily and The Daily Post and Y Cymro were frequent visitors to the house. I wasn’t a big reader of books but I did devour the sports pages of the papers on a regular basis.
Fast forward to the 2010’s and I was appointed to the role of overseeing S4C’s digital activities. This opened my eyes, not only to how people in Wales interacted with digital content but also to how Welsh news was presented on screen and online. I also worked closely with the press team at S4C who both created content around S4C programming for media outlets and dealt with press enquiries about S4C’s activities.
Having developed and implemented S4C’s first digital strategy I left in the Autumn of 2016 in order to allow a fresh pair of hands to evolve S4C’s digital activities and in order to pursue projects that I felt passionate about. One of those was a look at news provision in Wales.
I started to discuss online and attended some digital seminars to float some ideas around launching digital news services one in Welsh and another in English, these didn’t come to fruition in early 2017 for a number of factors, the main one being the idea wasn’t ready, it needed more research.
I spent the next 18 months researching in my spare time. Then in December 2019 went public launching a crowdfunding initiative that would allow me to dedicate a chunk of time to developing a business plan.
The initial target of £2000 was reached in double quick time and was extended eventually securing just over £5000, enough for me to dedicate 3 months full time to investigate and prepare a business plan.
The biggest piece of learning came from a visit to Berria the national Basque language news and media that serves the whole of the Basque country in print and digitally. What became clear was, to launch a service at scale it needed a huge amount of resources.
Despite complications following two major operations in March 2019, and the consequences I continue to deal with, I continued to develop the business with the support of people who funded my work through the New Media Wales patreon.
During the scoping and writing of the original business plan, it became clear that building a company from scratch and at scale would have been a massive undertaking and risky due to the composition of the Welsh news landscape at the time.
And then in the spring of 2020 along came Covid.
During the development phase, I met with the Wales co-operative centre and looked at the different models any new company could use I also met with other news organisations that had used cooperative models, this would have been the ideal solution, but with the uncertainty that Covid brought with it I looked at alternatives.
Of the two major news companies in Wales, Reach Plc and Newsquest. Newsquest had an existing network of local titles and journalists spread across Wales whose work was only published in those local titles. Newsquest also had an existing national news start-up in Scotland, The National, which was founded in November 2014.
By partnering with Newsquest to launch a new service we would benefit in a number of ways.
The digital infrastructure already existed, it gave access to over 50 journalists across Wales, access to news beyond Wales through PA News and the Local Democracy Reporting service as well as news which looked at relatable devolved matters via The National in Scotland. As The National in Scotland demonstrated, it was the first pro-independence newspaper in Scotland, Newsquest offered editorial autonomy.
It also meant it could launch relatively quickly during a pandemic.
Newsquest invested a significant sum in launching The National Wales and funded its operation for the 18 months it published. I’m not sure of the exact figure but it was well north of six figures.
Newsquest did not receive one penny from the public funding of New Media Wales, as the above demonstrates they invested and eventually lost a large sum of money.
On Friday the 19th of August I received news that the managing director for Wales, Hereford and Somerset was leaving his position with the company at the end of August, following a management restructure which saw further consolidation of Newsquest’s UK operations. Wales was absorbed into Newsquest midlands south operations in order to cut costs.
The news business in general saw a dramatic change in its fortunes following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the global economy. The National was one of its first casualties.
Subscriptions and ad revenues had grown steadily from its launch on the 1st of March 2021, by March 2022 subscription levels had reached 822 then the growth stopped and started to reverse, we were still attracting new subscribers but not enough to replace the ones who were letting their subscriptions expire. This wasn’t just the case for The National, this reverse was observed across the industry. Couple this with the more than doubling in the cost of newsprint, from £300 a tonne to £700 in the space of eight months and a decline in advertising revenues as businesses tightened their belts during the cost-of-living crisis, the writing was on the wall for The National as Newsquest looked to make savings.
The National was running at a loss, not a huge loss, but a loss. I assume Newsquest felt with the short and midterm economic outlook looking grim that they couldn’t continue to justify the losses.
Gannett Media, Newsquest’s US parent company posted losses for the first time at the beginning of August and warned of further losses, which saw their share price plummet, and two weeks later made 400 people redundant. The impact on the news industry was global.
On Monday the 22nd of August I was informed that The National Wales would cease publication on the 31st of August and my involvement with The National Wales and Corgi Cymru the Welsh language service we successfully launched in April 2022 would come to an end at the same time.
Nine days’ notice. As you can imagine the news came as a shock. I submitted a proposal that would have seen the title continue with greatly reduced costs, including ending any involvement by me. And despite a last-minute grassroots effort to have the decision overturned Newsquest had clearly made up its mind and The National ceased publication at 5:30 pm on Wednesday the 31st of August, exactly 18 months after its launch.
The news was met, in general, with dismay and many people paid tribute to the quality of its output and its efforts in improving the standard of news provision in Wales during its relatively short period of operation. It was sad to see a small section of Welsh society take delight in its demise and attempt to make capital from it, I’ve been labelled a “grifter” and even had my ongoing health issues mocked, but that is the way of the world these days sadly.
The purpose of New Media Wales was to establish a national news service for Wales, it achieved that aim. Prior to the launch of The National I posted an update on the website outlining the future direction of travel for New Media Wales. Its aim of launching a national news service fulfilled the need to develop new content, video and audio changed its direction of travel.
Within a couple of months of being on the inside of a news organisation, I became acutely aware that a problem existed with the way news was distributed in Wales, where it was coming from and how people were consuming news.
The need to address this was apparent. Whilst The National Wales developed online and for a period in print, I researched how audio and video were growing in influence, the intention was to develop this in partnership with The National.
Being involved with the launch and the running of The National Wales was a highly rewarding and valuable experience, to see its reporting have a direct impact on legislation and give a voice to those who often go unheard still gives me immense pride. Had it been given the time required it would have gone on to be a commercial success.
Every challenge provides an opportunity, with the knowledge gained from the past three years I am now in a position, with colleagues, to put in place a new business plan which will see the launch, if all goes well, of a new national multiplatform news and media business for Wales, established on a cooperative basis, that will ensure Wales has the range of news provision it deserves.
Yesterday we met with Cwmpas Wales who are advising us as we incorporate Talking Wales as a Community Benefits Society and begin the process of raising the required initial working capital.
We have a robust business plan based on a model we know will work, given the time required, which will deliver the modern range of news and information services required in the 2020s and reinvest any profits into improving news and media provision within communities the length and breadth of Wales.
This is now a full-time endeavour, so your support up to the launch is really appreciated.