March 3, 2021

Newyddion Cymru Ar-Lein : Wales News Online

Newyddion Lleol a Chenedlaethol Cymru – Local and National News for Wales

My experience working with a hyperlocal pioneer

Back at work: Gwynoro Jones

I wanted to share my experiences of coming into the media industry at the grand old age of seventy something. I suppose not many people in their seventies do get invited back to work again but as the boss keeps telling me, age is just a number Gwynoro, get up and get on.

The boss by the way is a lively old soul himself and never seems to stop working. Not surprising given that we now run 6 news sites, 5 hyperlocals, one national news site and a Talk Radio Online streaming service.

I first met Alan Evans (editor of Llanelli Online) in 2018 he was at the time involved in compiling a half-hour video on Jim Griffiths, the former MP for Llanelli and Charter Secretary of State for Wales. He came to my home, full of exuberance and ideas. His journalistic, camera work and broadcasting skills stood out immediately.

He ran the business from a small room adjacent to the kitchen in his then home in Pontyates and I was immediately impressed with his set up and know how the few times I visited him a year later, in the summer of 2019. What was also a surprise to me was that were always two and sometimes three media students helping him and ‘learning the trade’ as it were.

As we talked during the summer months I became more and more interested in his ideas and particularly taken by his determination, work rate, skills, professionalism, and vision for journalism in Wales.

I had run my own business for 20 years and knew full well what it takes and the commitment involved. Come the autumn there was a small office in John Street Llanelli where I started volunteering, not on any significant scale but more as a colleague to assist in the future planning and development of the business. At times he endeavoured to teach me some extra IT skills so that I could be of more help on the journalism and broadcasting side. At my age the lessons were hard but with Alan’s perseverance, I became quite adept and valued as a member of his team.

Young people have also benefitted from the presence of Llanelli Online. Students from a number of universities have used Llanelli Online for placement. All have gone on to do very well and moved into full time employment in the media industry. It is again testimony to the way Alan nurtures young journalists who would otherwise struggle to gain this valuable experience.

Student Lucy Fiola has been working with Llanelli Online for two successive years at university

To cut a long story short since the early spring of 2020 I have become more involved and my contribution has broadened from being of assistance with business development, dealing with press release content, and covering the Welsh language side of the by now six online sites. We also have a partnership agreement, which Alan handed me as a thank you for my contributions.

To be honest I wasn’t too much into ‘community’ news and the term ’hyperlocal’ was new to me – I was familiar with ‘hypermarket’! But by now I fully realise the importance of hyperlocal news and the value of this public news service we now provide.

Students running the show (Pre Covid-19)

Increasingly over the last five years, if not longer, hard copies of weekly local papers have been in serious decline. Indeed many have ceased publishing I daresay that the coronavirus pandemic will add further to that decline. Weekly newspapers, once so dominant in the communities of Wales, have suffered enormously and many are a pale shadow of their former selves and indeed many have gone to the wall. Even daily national and regional papers have seen their print sales significantly decrease and as a result, they have been increasingly switching to online publishing and very recently emulating Alan’s pioneering hyperlocal style.

Increasingly as the ‘bigger boys’ turn to a variant of the hyperlocal and the result is that this development places greater financial pressure and presents a competitive challenge to the original ‘community’ independent groupings. I fear that unless we’re careful it could become the same old story, as in so many other sectors of business, when the bigger companies notice something going well, developing and expanding they then muscle in.

Hyperlocals contribute greatly to community news and participation, they add to the essential task of holding authority to account, encouraging wider involvement and campaigning, giving communities a voice, covering local stories and events, reflecting cultural identity, and promoting civic life and pride. They also fill the gaps in news provision so obviously lacking even from the giant BBC.

Gwynoro using ZOOM to interview a member of the Youth Parliament.

I came across that most vividly covering the General Election 2019 from Selwyn Samuel Centre. Llanelli Online and Wales News Online in-depth reporting and live interviews on the night were of a high order. There were candidates interviewed that otherwise would never have received any coverage.

These smaller, independent, entrepreneurial businesses by now play an important part in ensuring a thriving news sector in Wales. It is vital that they are no longer put at a disadvantage because they find it difficult to access the same level of funding and support, as so often is the case when compared to the traditional newspapers and broadcast media, which can dominate and influence too much of the scene in Wales.

Early days and our mobile studio (all the rage now).

Our visitor figures at the end of 2020 were as follows at end of January 2021:

Llanelli Online: launched July 2016.Total 3,505,506 visitors. 792k in 2020 (68k per month)

Wales News Online: Launched April 2019. Total 1,114,258 visitors. 519k in 2020 (44k per month)

Ceredigion Online: Launched November 2020. Total to date 33,300 visitors

Carmarthenshire Online: Launched November 2020 Total to date 17,000 visitors

Pembrokeshire Online: Launched December 2020 and is slowly gaining a following

Swansea Online: Launched December and attracted 10,000 visitors by mid-January.

Llanelli Talk Radio: Launched mid-2020 120k session listeners in 115 countries

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and video channels also have a substantial combined following.

We have built a very successful news model for Wales and we have advised others in the industry to share our experiences openly. We maintain that Wales needs 4 regional hubs for news production and training and we see ourselves as being able to fulfill the role for a South West Wales hub.

Alan and his wife Angharad have a working day that can be up to 15 hours such is the volume of news we process. My daily input is much less in time than that. We also run a 24/7 online radio station, which has taken off and is gathering a large audience. We promote the Welsh language throughout our service. We do not have any political agenda. We maintain plurality publishing news from all political parties with no preference at all.

We process hundreds of PR’s from sources across Wales but we also actively seek out news from within each of the communities and from organisations embedded in the communities like the NFU, Cylch Meithrin, Schools, colleges, Local Businesses, RNLI stations, RSPCA. We also take content from other news agencies, former journalists, and the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Service.

Student, Lucy Fiola trying her hand at radio production

Because of Covid-19 our advertising, which was increasing in 2019, has suffered. We now face an uncertain 2021 unless we can secure some funding.

The pervasive view of businesses and those who wish to advertise or publicise is that the newspaper is the place to do so. They still get public notices, part of the NHS advertising budgets, and other notices we are excluded from They too benefit from the supply from the BBC local democracy service.

I find it intriguing that old habits die hard. The 3,000 printed copies of a local newspaper is more often than not the preference of many when it comes to advertising, even though online news outlets such as ours cover well over one hundred thousand visitors a month. What is more, advertisements appear within every news story.

We have had a modest amount of funding from the Welsh Government, which came in two tranches and was greatly appreciated by us all.

The first tranche was in the autumn of 2019 supporting hyperlocals. We used the majority of the money to fund two new members of staff and open an office in the centre of Llanelli. When the funding ended and news of the pandemic emerged it was clear that the office had to close. So using our own resources we set up a very professional studio operating from Alan Evans’s home in Mynydd y Garreg.

Alan about to ask questions to the First Minister of Wales at the home studio

Despite all the difficulties the commitment and enthusiasm that we have has resulted in us opening four new online sites in late 2020 for Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Swansea/Neath Port Talbot. In two short months, visitors to those sites exceed 60 k. The studio uses cutting edge technology and it could be said that what most are experiencing, having to work from home and interview online is something Alan was trying to persuade the media industry and the offices of public servants to do all those years ago. His operation has been described as a hyperlocal beacon by the Independent Community News Network and he was invited to become a board member of that organisation.

Despite the setbacks and the far from a level playing field we have stuck with it and adapted to make use of whatever we could to maintain a very valued hyperlocal and national news service for the people of Wales.

More journalists are now following Alan’s model and working remotely from home studios like this

Emma Meese of the ICNN recently made a very astute and revealing observation about outfits such as Llanelli Online. She said that when the pandemic stuck the prediction was that the smaller independent news outlets would close first because of the loss of advertising. Of the 100 or more titles under the ICNN only one closed and reopened while the main media players began cutting jobs and closing shop. As Emma put it, the people who had been running the independents as a public service for very little in the first place did not have much to lose other than sitting at home all day twiddling their thumbs. It highlights the sense of public service and the determination of the small independents to continue to hold those in power to account and to provide news that matters to their communities as those communities are the ones in which the local journalists live. Alas the same cannot be said for the big outlets who now churn out news for Wales from Birmingham. The quality and content of that news leaves a lot to be desired. It is then more important than ever that Welsh Government and indeed the business fraternity lend their support to media outlets like Llanelli Online.

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