The Bylines Network of powerful citizen journalism platforms launched just over three years ago, beginning with Yorkshire Bylines. The Network now has ten platforms covering much of the UK. Bylines Cymru is the newest in the Network. For a group of volunteers facing practical and financial obstacles, it has made incredible strides. But it needs your continuing help to survive and thrive.
According to a 2021 Media Reform Coalition report, 90% of the UK’s print media is owned and controlled by only three companies – Reach plc, News UK, and DMG Media – up from 83% in 2019. The report also states that six companies run 83% of local and regional newspapers, with the three largest (Newsquest, Reach, and JPI Media) each controlling a fifth of the local press market. This adds up to more than the share of the smallest 50 local publishers put together.
Not the news
Reach plc was known as Trinity Mirror, once in the hands of Robert Maxwell. In the past it has run on stolen software and engaged in phone hacking. News UK is an also-hacking and democracy-warping subsidiary of the American mass media conglomerate News Corp, owned by Rupert Murdoch and family. The majority shareholder of DMG Media is Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, who has non-dom tax status and owns his businesses through offshore holdings and trusts. Newsquest is owned by the American mass media holding company Gannett, recently sued for for enabling sexual abuse of its paperboys.
That is who gives you most of your ‘news’. No wonder ex-New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan says the mainstream media face widespread mistrust. In a keynote address to the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors this week, she said: “Journalism has a huge part in making sure democracy doesn’t fall into the sea. Democracy depends on truth. Truth depends, at least in part, on good journalism.” When it comes to local (and regional) journalism, a recent editorial in the Guardian put it well:
“Local news organisations encourage people to use businesses, go to theatres or join campaigning groups. They inform people about rights and services. They promote accountability and democratic oversight – even more important when power is devolved. But they also sustain communities in less tangible ways. They make people feel part of society. They allow them to assess what they read in the context of their own experience, and encourage them to see news as a source of practical and helpful information, rather than a matter of theoretical discussion and emotional reaction.”
These huge press corporations are losing advertising revenue, making great publications and journalists redundant, turning to AI for content, while gobbling up smaller outlets. The press becomes more monopolised, homogenised, and delocalised even as it shrinks. As the press weakens in both market share, independence, and quality, democracy weakens too.
So how does citizen journalism differ, why do you need it, and why should you try it?
People like those of us at the Bylines Network are doing the profit press’s job for it in our own time, free of government control or duress imposed by offshored billionaires. A sister organisation to Byline Times in origin and values – but separate from it legally, financially, and organisationally – we seek to do what so much of the profit press no longer does. We hold up free-access platforms so that anyone at all who wants to can say what they wish, within the bounds of civil discourse.
Byline Times offers a truth-seeking, brave, and ethical version of traditional news, generally through paid professional journalists. Though having said that, they will very often take a chance on new writers desperate to say what they feel isn’t being heard, as they did for me at the start of 2022. (It changed and maybe even saved my life. I wouldn’t be writing this now, with the immense privilege of shepherding a new platform for and by the people of Wales, without that).
The Bylines Network casts its net for catching unheard voices as widely as it can. There are working and retired journalist contributors, but most are not. Some have never written before. If you have something to say, we’ll give you a megaphone. Not if it’s hateful, inaccurate, or illegible: we’re regulated by IMPRESS and our output is always to at least as high a standard as ‘traditional’ media. We help you ensure that.
Citizen journalism, also known as participatory journalism, or ‘We Media’, offers perspectives other outlets overlook. It enables getting to truths those in the pockets of governments – or is it the other way around? – cannot or dare not look at. It lets people and communities tell their own stories about themselves, instead of being ignored, misrepresented, or talked about behind their backs. Despite being warped and given a bad name by the likes of Elon Musk, it’s thriving in the internet age as print media scrambles to survive.
“The venerable profession of journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history where, for the first time, its hegemony as gatekeeper of the news is threatened by not just new technology and competitors but, potentially, by the audience it serves. Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful mobile devices, the online audience has the means to become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information.”We Media, Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, the Media Center at the American Press Institute
There are downsides to doing journalism this way. The people who most need to be heard are often the most likely to lack the time, awareness, bandwidth, or confidence to write. For example, in relation to poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has said: “falling costs of production in the new media have resulted in the development of new outlets and enormous growth in ‘user-generated content’ such as ‘citizen journalism’. However, there is a significant digital divide: many people, especially those on low incomes, are left behind and left out.”
The American Press Institute defines the role of journalism being “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” Is this something anyone can do? I would argue yes, with support. Several contributors to Bylines Cymru so far, while keen to share their stories, have been new to writing. They were unsure, couldn’t get started, held back by chronic anxiety or neurodivergence. As a midlife journalist with late-diagnosed ADHD myself, I get it. We had a chat, recorded their words, and turned them into text. There are always solutions.
“The mere act of generating content can do more than just fill a hole in the corner of a newspaper or a web page. It can improve the journalism itself, by involving in the process people who actually know about, or are affected by, the issue at hand. And it can have a beneficial impact on those content-generating users. It can make them more interested in their communities, it can demystify the political process, it can excite them about the things the best journalism strives to do: explain, crusade, call to account.”John Kelly, Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: the rise, challenges and value of citizen journalism, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
This is why I do this every day, for free, while proofreading for Argentinian psychologists to make rent. Why all Bylines Network volunteers do it. Getting emails like this one received today: “I’m no journalist, and haven’t written articles before. But I’ve recently been inspired … Please find this attached, for your consideration.”
Bylines Cymru was born three months ago. This is its 100th article. We have published superb pieces by non-professional writers from a wide range of backgrounds writing to professional standards on Welsh history, economics, politics, arts and culture, poetry, the environment, the Welsh language, and much more, sometimes in both Welsh and English. We benefit from being able to republish excellent articles by Welsh academics and/or about Wales from The Conversation. We thought up and coordinated a Network-wide day of coverage on troubling freeports, turned into a special Gazette referenced in the House of Lords. We’ve come far, fast.
But there is far to go. Because you have something to say that you haven’t written about, yet, whoever you are. You have ideas or concerns which remain homeless or ignored. And you know many others in the same boat, who have stories burning inside them, who ache to speak truth to power. Who are quietly hopeful, or fed up.
And we need your help to grow and be sustainable. We need more diverse, more local and hyperlocal, voices. The ways you can help and get involved are helpfully here on one page: read, subscribe, donate, follow, volunteer, share; spread the news, literally. Write. We love and admire our sister Byline Times, and are often confused with it, but we are not them and need your support too. This is We Media. It’s for, by, and about you, together with us. Here for you, anytime.
We need your help!
We are a not-for-profit citizen journalism publication, but we still have considerable costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to our digital Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏