Wales deserves (more) new media

Wales’ independence movement can’t afford to restrict its media to a single website and a single editor.

Ifan Morgan Jones, editor of nation.cymru, has put out a New Year message in which he defends the website he runs, and exhorts Welsh independence activists to get away from ill-tempered arguments on Twitter and meet each other in person.  On the way he demands unity from independence activists, referencing the way that Welsh political projects tend to ‘split like amoebas and scatter off in every direction’.  The particular type of unity he wants is for other pro-independence media outlets not – at least for now – to exist.

Of course, amoebas reproduce themselves and increase their total numbers by splitting.  If this actually happened to pro-independence political projects we’d be independent in no time.  Especially if they really went in every direction instead of just the two that amoebas are generally held to go in.

But there’s a number of issues with nation.cymru that go deeper than simply bad metaphors.  I’m going to look here at paragraphing, the nature of local news in Wales, the alleged importance of diversity and the concept of what is newsworthy.

It may seem pernickety at first, but the length of a paragraph matters, just as the clauses of a sentence matter.  The paragraph length in nation.cymru – for every single article I have read on it – is shorter than for any other online publication I have read that’s written for adults.  The piece I’m responding to does not have a single paragraph longer than two sentences.  The two sentence paragraphs could have been made into single sentences by replacing the full stop with an alternative punctuation marker.

All the external sites mentioned in Morgan Jones’ article have greater paragraph lengths than nation.cymru’s.  This might have been coincidence, so I checked elsewhere.  A first Guardian article was the close to the paragraph length favoured by nation.cymru – but the single sentences used were substantially longer and included meaty quotes.  Maybe, I thought, nation.cymru was – consciously or unconsciously – going more for a tabloid style?

Holding my nose against history’s foetid stench, I visited The Sun‘s homepage.  The first paragraph of the first article came in at three sentences.  Now in deep distress and increasingly troubled by my conscience, I glanced at The Daily Mail‘s homepage.

Et voila!  Nation.cymru is operating by the style guide of the Daily Mail: one-sentence paragraphs; quotes excepted.

Why does this matter?

It matters because diversity is not simply a matter of people saying different things.  The way they say things also matters.  

Academics in the social sciences tend to write longer paragraphs because they are trying to be more precise; as well as to demonstrate that they are capable of thinking and expressing themselves in a joined-up fasion.  Writers of literature – who good academics and rhetoricians copy – also like to use the variation between long and short paragraphs to indicate differences of mood,  meaning and seriousness.  Traditionally, short paragraphs indicate ideas that are easy to absorb, whilst denser ones signify a greater essential difficulty that will repay some effort in unpacking.  

Anyone who operates with these literary understandings is excluded  by nation.cymru – or is having their writing hacked to pieces by editing guidelines predicated on the presumption of a less literate readership than The Sun’s.

Overwhelmingly nation.cymru’s audience is people who are actively interested in Welsh politics and culture.  They have a higher boredom threshold than Sun readers.  Because of the high correlation between Welsh-speaking and support for independence, and because being equally fluent in two languages makes you more likely to be relatively literate in both, we could expect greater tolerance again for literary style in a Welsh national publication.

Talking of which… By virtue of its name, nation.cymru has a focus on news and views related to the entire nation of Wales.  You perhaps wouldn’t suspect from this that there has been an explicit editorial decision to actively discourage local news from the site.  But there has. Here’s what you’re told if you head to the contact page:

“There are […] a number of commercial local news providers who we have no interest in competing with.”

As a Welsh nationalist, I find this pleasant accommodation with extant media in Wales shocking and disturbing.  I desperately want to know about local news in Wales from a Welsh perspective.

A Welsh perspective, preferably, that is not built solely around local papers terrified of offending – or unmasking – those who provide their advertising revenue.  A Welsh perspective rigorous enough that it forces local news organisations to compete by doing journalism.

Even if you don’t think that journalism should be about rocking the boat, local news is the way that national news happens; whatever nation you’re in.  Nations are composed of their parts – all the way down through the cities and the country and sea and hillside and to the village and the valley and the pub and the individual citizen.   

Today’s school football star is tomorrow’s Gareth Bale. And (hypothetically, obviously) a corrupt traffic warden taking a bribe in Wrexham is tomorrow’s Mail headline if there’s a stringer or journalist or photograper on hand to get the story.  Without attention to local detail there is no real national news, and no possibility of it ever happening.

Having excluded so much of what is normally considered as news from nation.cymru, it is perhaps unsurprising that Morgan Jones doesn’t see much worth covering in the Welsh independence movement.

… no faction within the Welsh national movement voluntarily produces  much newsworthy content on its own.

With the stuff that most of us call news being excluded from the site, it’s logical therefore that the biggest single category is “opinion” (52 pages), which, at the moment I write this, has twice as many pages as “news” (26).  The most frequent single contributor to those opinion pages, incidentally, is Ifan Morgan Jones.

Nation.cymru exists by virtue of the widespread desire in Wales for a news site, and yet most of what it publishes is opinion.  Because of this, the insistence on publishing a ‘diverse range of views’ serves to legitimate all of them – it turns them from views into news, even though they’re in the opinion section.  If it were to function primarily as a news site, then a diversity of views would be irrelevant – those reading to discover bias would be reading on a deeper level, and in the light of information that wasn’t already available elsewhere.

Newsworthiness itself is of course a contested idea. But primarily it is defined for most news audiences by what the news organisations they choose (or try) to trust define as news.  By setting the parameters of Welsh news so narrowly, nation.cymru has decided that most of what happens in Wales is not newsworthy – in exactly the same way that Wales itself is rarely newsworthy as far as British media organisations are concerned.

For Welsh nationalists, socialists in Wales, environmental activists, aspirant journalists and writers who want to make their living in Wales, anyone else seeking to make a political impact in Wales, and most sane people, what is newsworthy is far broader.    

If a new shop opens or bank opens or closes – or threatens to – in a rural area, it is news.  A surplus food organisation holding an event is news.  The identity of the buyer of the old Con Club in your town is news.  The line-up at the club or pub you go to every Saturday night is news.  Kids making threats to shoot their fellow school students is (surely!) news.  Landlords collaborating with social housing organisations to keep rents up is news.  If you’re monoglot, what is happening in Welsh language politics is – or definitely should be – news.  Releases of books about Wales, or by Welsh authors, are news.  Historic buildings being destroyed to make way for flats is news. A music venue in our capital being destroyed to make way for flats is news.  Councils failing to investigate breaches of minimum wage law are news.  Cities and towns where homelessness and begging are routine are news.  Elected politicians making repeated claims of a political culture beholden to lobbyists are – if anything is – news.  Massive out-of-town housing developments, anywhere in Wales, are news.  Suspiciously close relationships between councillors and developers are news.  Local bands, whatever language(s) they perform in, should be positively encouraged to send their press packs – because they’re news.

And dog shows, celebrities being spotted on a night out in Cardiff, and what colours are in vogue this season amongst the student fashion designers of Wales are news; if that’s your bag.  

All of these issues could get coverage in any major British newspaper, with the right journalist or stringer chasing the story, and an editor who felt it could be framed to the advantage of the paper’s perspective.  

But these things are off nation.cymru’s radar.  These issues are too local, too investigative, too chaotic, too superficial or too small.  They involve being interested in the “daily 24/7 grind of news”.   But nation.cymru – officially – is not interested in the kind of grind.  Apparently:

“Any kind of news that can be communicated by press release, such as emergency services news, or responses by political parties, are already well-covered by other media.”

Of course, in Wales right now, those kinds of news are not in fact “covered well”. They’re reprinted straight, or featured as near-quotations without interrogation, background or sceptical perspectives. We get state and charity-led tabloid churnalism without the leaven of competent headline writers or paparazzi. Because when your country exports its journalists and all your ‘newspapers’ are monopolies, there’s no need to do real journalism questioning the press releases. In Scotland, by contrast, it has become routine to see these kinds of stories become the basis of further stories from investigative sites, fact-checkers and a pro-independence newspaper.

These self-imposed restrictions absolutely determine what nation.cymru is like as a website. Without longform investigative pieces, the stylistic variety offered by real paragraphs, press release news, fact-checking or local news, there’s not much left to do but write opinion pieces and argue – in an excessively staccato manner – over what Wales would be like if we could be independent.

Right now, Ifan Morgan Jones is one of the most powerful single individuals in Welsh political life.  Before you scoff…  The independence movement is reading what he writes – or sharing it – and he is central in setting the limits for what it will consider to be news.  Since his September 18th editorial backing Adam Price for the Plaid Cymru leadership, it may also be possible to regard him as a kingmaker.  

Left-wingers, whether or not they are nationalists, also read in the hope of picking up a crumb of solidarity or information.  Intellectuals concerned with contemporary Wales now scan their twitter feeds for its opinion pieces – even if they find the tabloid style halting and irritating.  After all, so far there hasn’t been anywhere else to go.  But now he’s attempting to halt the creation of another Welsh media service, sneering at the poor quality that will come from abandoning the website he launched, and seeking – like all leaders uncertain of their power and seeing it ebbing away – unity behind himself.

Of course, he is a leader – he’s achieved something very important by demonstrating that there can be an independent Welsh media in English. Nor is there anything wrong with principled leadership, when it is held in check by either democracy or competition.   But nation.cymru as it is currently shaped manages to be both risk-averse and dangerously polarising: its layout forbids subtlety, its guidelines exclude real news, it has no competitors, and it is not democratically accountable.  

Were it only one of several Welsh news organisations none of this would matter. It would either prove itself, change to fit the new landscape, or die.  So I’m happy that there’s plans brewing to bring about more Welsh media outlets.  Local and investigative stories we’re now missing will have a place to go, prospective writers and contributors will not be hamstrung by patronising misconceptions of what Welsh readers can deal with; and the energy and edge of competition will invigorate both new and old Welsh independent media.  

Just like an amoeba reproducing, an independent Welsh media divided will be one with twice the life.