Ifan Morgan Jones on leaving Nation.Cymru after six years
Ifan Morgan Jones
As I say farewell to Nation, this might therefore be a good opportunity therefore to reflect on our journey so far and anything I’ve learnt from the experience!
In 1945 E. Morgan Humphreys tried to put his finger on the difference between the Welsh language press in Wales at the time, which was national in character, and the English language press which was more regional.
The difference at the time, he said, was “enormous”.
“One was local but at Y Genedl [The Nation – the newspaper he worked for] the atmosphere of that office was national in the true sense of the word,” he said.
“The interest in the paper was wide and we on the staff felt that we had our place in the life of the nation, that we had a message that was worth telling and work that was worth doing from a national perspective.“
The role of Nation.Cymru was from the very start to try and bring some of that ‘national perspective’ that remains the guiding principle of the Welsh language press to the English language media.
My feeling when I decided to launch Nation.Cymru in 2017 was that our national political institutions like the Welsh parliament and government had more influence on our lives than ever before.
But what we lacked was a national public sphere that would act as a means for the public to discuss and scrutinise what was going on within those national institutions.
Nation.Cymru was launched based on the principle that there is a difference between a news service that reports on news from all over Wales and a national news service.
A national news service tackles issues of national significance, not just news of local relevance that happens to take place within the geographic boundaries of a nation.
Looking back, I think Nation.Cymru has been a success in sticking to that original vision, as set out at the time in its welcome message.
And I feel (and hope!) that since that launch in May 2017, the discussion of national issues in the media has become more prominent.
Just one example would be the issue of second homes and holiday lets. I remember approaching the coverage of this issue with some trepidation when we launched in 2017. The last time it was brought up as an issue, some 20 years ago, those voicing concerns were accused of racism and the debate was shut down quite quickly.
Today, the Welsh Government is introducing legislation on the issue and it is, probably rightly, recognised solely as a matter of fairness in the housing market.
It’s hard of course to tell whether Nation.Cymru played any kind of seminal role in influencing a shift in perspective towards what might be called a ‘national public sphere’ in Wales.
At the very least, however, it has been part of a general trend in Welsh news media towards the development of this kind of uniquely Welsh national perspective on the news.
Perhaps it would have happened eventually anyway as a new generation grew up for whom devolution was the natural order of things rather than a bold experiment.
But we’ve led the way on covering a number of issues that have not just attracted a large audience but influenced other, larger news sites to follow our lead in covering them as well.
One note of caution however would be that any national public sphere that does now exist is still fragile – and almost certainly too small.
It feels at the moment that about 25% of the population is more energised by our national conversation than ever before while most of the rest are almost entirely excluded.
The contrast between the celebration of our identity at Qatar, where we proudly sang that we are ‘Yma o Hyd’ on the world stage, and the census results a few weeks later showing that both Welsh identity and the Welsh language were in decline was rather stark.
A national conversation should never become an (albeit bucket hat-shaped) echo chamber.
Having said that, I think that one of the main things I learnt from working on Nation.Cymru was actually not to listen too much to those who contacted us to give their opinion on the news service.
That sounds counter-intuitive for a news site set up to reflect the national conversation.
But what I eventually realised was that those who went out of their way to tell me what they thought – both good and bad – were usually those who were very engaged with the Welsh political and cultural sphere already.
They were ‘inside the bucket hat’, so to speak.
They would cry ‘clickbait!’ when we covered stories that our own numbers showed were extremely popular with a wider audience.
And they would cheer when we covered issues that even they themselves, as far as our numbers showed, weren’t bothering to read.
One advantage internet journalism does give you is that you know exactly what issues your readers are really interested in – and not what they say they’re interested in if you ask them.
I’m not talking about issues such as misleading headlines, celebrities or the Royal Family and so forth. Even if they had sent our hits through the roof, we never had any personal interest in covering them.
But, for instance, Nation.Cymru’s readers are almost remarkably and unexpectedly interested in trains and public transport in general – issues you might think were quite boring! One article about reopening a Victorian tunnel for a bike route alone was read by 60,000 people.
At the same time, some articles about hot-button political issues that seemed to be discussed ad nauseam on social media like Twitter kindled barely a flicker of interest amid a wider audience.
Because when you looked in detail you realised it was a handful of accounts within a Welsh politics echo chamber creating a lot of noise.
One other related issue which struck me during my time on Nation.Cymru was the increasing importance and difficulty of safeguarding journalists’ mental health in a hyper-critical environment.
When I started my career working in print I would have a vague idea of what the readers thought of some of our articles through emails and letters sent to us, but those were quite few and far between.
Today the response is instantaneous and whatever the merits or lack of merits of individual articles the responses you do get (because usually only people with a complaint bother to post) are usually negative.
Whether in the comments or replies on social media, journalists have to put up with an endless flood of direct complaints and abuse towards them and their work in a way no other profession probably has to put up with.
E-mails saying you should be hung for being part of a Covid conspiracy may seem laughable at first. But however thick-skinned a journalist may be the constant drip-drip of negativity does have an impact.
One thing I certainly hadn’t experienced before Nation.Cymru was there are a few people out there who seemed absolutely filled with bile towards the very idea of the site itself and acted on that by relentlessly and personally attacking those involved in it.
How we as a journalism industry tackle the issue of online abuse going forward is going to be difficult, especially when it comes to safeguarding younger journalists who are used to living their lives online and who will find it harder to draw a dividing line between a professional social media profile and their own identity.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the information age is always to know what information to take in and act on and what to ignore, and journalists are at the cutting edge of that daily battle – both professionally and, unfortunately, psychologically.
It’s fair to say therefore that running Nation.Cymru has always never been an easy task for anyone involved.
In fact I must admit that there have been moments when I personally regretted starting the site at all! Working on it on top of a full-time job as a lecturer at Bangor University, completing a PhD, and a side gig as a novelist was quite often a monumental slog.
A news site isn’t something you can put together and leave to run on its own. It’s more like a sandcastle that’s destroyed by the waves every day and you need to rebuild from scratch.
Week by week, day by day, on weekends, on Christmas day, on birthdays, when you have a pile of other things that need doing – hours of daily work needs to be put into laying the tracks in front of the Nation.Cymru Express Train.
You can’t even prepare a large bulk of news beforehand for the obvious reason that you don’t know what the next day’s news will be. When a story breaks, you have to be there to cover it.
Despite all these myriad challenges, Nation.Cymru has succeeded beyond anything I and others had hoped for when it was launched.
In six years it has grown from little more than a kind of blog posting 2-3 opinion pieces a day, to a site publishing 20-30 news articles.
What started as a website attracting around 100,000 readers a month now brings in between 1 and 1.5 million.
That’s a huge amount considering Nation.Cymru only covers Wales. Scaled up to the size of the UK as a whole and it would be one of Britain’s most popular news websites.
The launch and subsequent closure of The National Wales after a year – backed by a billion-dollar business in Gannett Media – demonstrates that there was nothing inevitable about this success.
So what kept it going?
Well, one added ingredient that has made Nation.Cymru a success has been the fact that it was never a commercial venture. The point was never to make money for anyone. If it was, it would have lasted six months rather than six years and counting.
It isn’t a financial reward but rather a belief that the site was essential that has kept it going. Most of those have contributed their news and opinions to Nation.Cymru have worked for free and those who have been paid have generally earned far less than they deserved.
Thousands of you have also supported us financially because you supported and continue to support the idea behind what we’re doing.
That desire to deliver a news service by the people of Wales, for the people of Wales is the fuel that has kept Nation.Cymru going since the start and will keep it going in the future.
In that regard, the site couldn’t have kept going without a team of other people who saw the potential in Nation.Cymru and whose support I’m extremely thankful for.
My thanks, in particular, go to Mark Mansfield who stepped in as a CEO soon after the service launched, and who I’m confident will keep Nation.Cymru purring along long after I’m gone. It’s fair to say that Nation.Cymru would never have functioned as a company without the daily, thankless and unglamorous grind that he has done and continues to do behind the scenes.
A big thanks too to our culture editor David Owens whose sharp instinct for what our readers would be interested in was and is absolutely priceless. His unfailing good humour and kindness are all the more impressive for having survived many decades in one of the most jaded industries on earth.
One of the highlights of the last six years was definitely his 2022 Sports Journalist of the Year award for his work on the site.
A great deal of thanks also goes to Gareth Ceidiog Hughes who was the news editor for a year and a half and fed me stories long before that, and who had that same innate instinct for what political news would turn our readers’ heads, but in the political sphere.
Sarah Morgan and Jon Gower’s weekend culture offering also massively enriched and elevated the site above the kind of daily political mud-slinging I was happiest covering. If today’s Nation still exists in some form in 100 years I suspect it is many of those articles that will continue to shine timelessly like gems hidden amid the long-out-of-date daily chip wrapping.
We’ve had a lot of highlights on the site in terms of drawing attention to previously ignored issues, stories we felt did genuine good, and stories that drew hundreds of thousands of readers, but a lot of the best moments have been based around the camaraderie of the team we built to work on it.
But perhaps the biggest thanks however goes to my partner Llinos and my four children who have shown extreme forbearance for the fact that so much of my time outside of work has been taken up by plugging away at Nation.Cymru.
My nickname in my family is ‘dad dau funud’ because whenever I’m asked to do something around the house or with one of the kids my answer is almost always ‘dau funud’ (two minutes) because I’m in the middle of writing or publishing an article.
Although said in jest, at some point you have to realise that the kids will be going to university soon and that working two jobs is probably not in their best interests – or your own.
Thanks for all the fish
Wales is a nation and a nation needs its own national news service.
But like nations themselves, news services reinvent and reconstruct themselves as their leaders, their thinkers, and challenges and events, come and go.
Nation.Cymru has been an all-consuming part of my life for six years. I won’t be the same without it. Nation won’t be worse – it may well be better – but it’ll definitely be different.
I’m excited to step back and see what comes of it.
Whatever it is, its continued survival however depends on your continued backing. Directors and editors will come and go – if Nation is to survive, it’s the readers who have to keep it going.
So if you want to see Nation.Cymru keep going strong, and continue growing, please become a supporter today.
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