Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus! Another St David’s Day, and yet another new dawn for journalism in Wales.
Just two years since the launch of The National Wales, similarly heralded as filling a gap in news provision for Welsh citizens, readers could be forgiven for wondering just how long Bylines Cymru might last. The National Wales, which was published by Newsquest – the second largest publisher of regional and local newspapers in the United Kingdom – closed down last August, 18 months after its launch on 1 March 2021.
Bylines Cymru is similar to The National Wales in that it is also part of a wider network of online newspapers, and seeks to publish stories from right across the country. But it has a very different business model: “built on citizen journalism, nurturing democracy by giving a voice to local people and holding our elected representatives to account”.
That link between the nature of the news media we produce and consume and the health of our democracy lies at the heart of the project I lead at Wales’s leading independent think tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA). And although it is by no means the only part of the puzzle, the IWA certainly welcomes the arrival of the serious and high profile outlet for citizen journalism in Wales that Bylines Cymru represents.
Citizen journalism is different from mainstream journalism because it is based on the principle that ordinary people, not professional journalists, can be the main creators and distributors of news. ‘Ordinary people’ should of course be at the heart of any solution to the crisis facing Wales’s media and democracy, because by ‘ordinary people’ we mean ourselves; wherever we are from, whatever our background.
To that end, the IWA has been working with The Open University in Wales, who share our vision – to empower, engage, and inspire people, and to be a driver of change for the better – to place the views of Welsh citizens in front of political decision makers.
Last summer we brought together a citizens’s panel, 15 ‘ordinary’ people from localities across Wales. Led by independent facilitators, the panel exchanged learning with a range of ‘expert witnesses’ and then put forward recommendations that were used to inform our report, Citizens’ Voices, People’s News: Making the Media Work for Wales, published in November 2022.
The process showed that Welsh citizens feel they don’t always know what information they can trust; that they rarely have enough information about politics and how our democracy works; and that the UK news sources they use most often are primarily concerned with matters that only apply to England.
As a result, the panel recommended a range of measures to better regulate the media in Wales, to ensure news sources can be trusted to tell the truth and better represent everyone in society. They also wanted more and better democratic and political education, not only in the school curriculum, but in communities and online spaces that people of all ages can access easily.
Crucially, they also said the Welsh Government should fund existing and new enterprises, to improve Welsh journalism and to tackle “the information deficit”. And they specifically asked for more funding to be allocated to support new career entrants from a wide range of backgrounds in localities across Wales to access journalistic training, with a specific focus on improving media coverage of Welsh matters, Welsh language provision, and addressing under-represented groups.
Bylines Cymru is well placed to address each of those central concerns. The platform is regulated by IMPRESS: The Independent Monitor for the Press, which has ‘Trust in Journalism’ emblazoned across its logo.
The aim of the Bylines Network is to publish “well-written, fact-based articles and opinion pieces on subjects of interest to people in our area and beyond”. Commitment to “holding elected representatives to account” clearly holds potential to play a part in the political and democratic education of the nation. And with Cymru in its name, there is clearly a strong desire to recognise Welshness!
Thankfully there is also good news to report about the way in which our panel’s recommendations have been received by politicians in Wales. The Welsh Government recognises the importance of the issues at stake and has committed to doing something about the future of Welsh journalism.
As part of its co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, an expert panel has been set up to look at options for greater control over broadcasting in Wales. A working group set up at the suggestion of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is also actively considering solutions for public interest journalism in Wales. Both groups are due to report soon.
At the IWA we support both these initiatives, and indeed have been involved in shaping their work. But that’s not to say we can’t go further, and faster.
We continue to urge the UK government in Westminster to give Wales more control over its own media by devolving specific powers over broadcasting. And we continue to call for the Welsh Government to set up a contestable fund for independent news of at least £1mn a year.
That’s the minimum level of investment we think is needed to allow a plurality of new and existing independent news outlets – like Bylines Cymru, the welsh language newspaper Golwg360, Nation.Cymru and our own platform the welsh agenda – to get on with the job of providing excellent journalism in the public interest.
Independent Welsh journalism currently runs on a shoestring, and a very short one at that.
Welsh journalism and democracy
As we saw with The National Wales, and as we continue to observe across the Welsh media landscape, neither the popularity or otherwise of an individual publication nor any single policy intervention will ever be enough. And with widespread market failure, public funding is crucial if the public is to be served with the good quality information we all need.
There is huge scope and space for platforming the news and views of the citizens of Wales. This St David’s Day, we wish Bylines Cymru every success.
We recognise that citizen journalism often arises in response to the shortcomings of its ‘traditional’ equivalent in the mainstream media. But we must support the important role for professional journalists in our society too. With targeted support for new reporters from a range of backgrounds and localities, Bylines Cymru has the potential to be both a great platform for citizen journalism and a training ground for Wales’ next generation of professional correspondents and commentators.
The future of Welsh journalism and democracy depends on them – on you! On us.
They say it’s darkest before dawn, and Wales’s media landscape has certainly been going through a particularly gloomy period. But this St David’s Day, the glimmer on the horizon that Bylines Cymru provides might yet be a sign that the sun is finally beginning to rise.