The success of The National and New European is a lesson for Wales
The New European newspaper has just celebrated its first birthday.
It was born from the horror felt by many after the Brexit vote last June; instead of wallowing in self-pity, a small team of people decided to launch a counter-attack with a weekly paper.
They expected it to last a few weeks, months at most, before people’s anger dissipated and made it redundant. It is still going strong.
It was a similar story in Scotland, after the 2014 referendum, when the profound disappointment of the Yes campaign was channeled into a new independence-supporting daily, The National.
With the rage about the lack of an independent Welsh media – newspapers in particular – becoming louder by the day, it is surely worth thinking about how these successful new ventures have come about, and whether there is a lesson to be learned for us here.
What follows is a section that was cut (for space reasons) from my book The Greasy Poll: Diary of a Controversial Election.
24 November 2014
In Scotland, The National newspaper, explicitly supporting independence, makes its debut this morning.
It’s very exciting, not least the idea of launching a newspaper – any newspaper – in the current climate.
Labour bruiser Lord George Foulkes describes it as ‘McPravda’; the party so religiously trumpeted every day by the Mirror and the Daily Record once more demonstrates its wooden lack of irony.
From a Welsh perspective though, it’s hard not to feel raging jealousy.
The swift arrival of The National, riding high on hope and goodwill from far and wide, just throws into painful relief our last attempt at establishing a newspaper in Wales, Y Byd, which finally coughed its last, without ever having gurgled its first, in 2008.
For a sober, painful and revealing comparison of the differing positions of Scotland and Wales, the Tale of Two Newspapers is hard to beat.
Y Byd was yet another Welsh heroic failure. The nobility of its ambition was statuesque.
Brainchild of the mercurial Ned Thomas, a gorgeous imp of a man and a towering force for good in Wales for over half a century, it was to filter the world through Welsh eyes, daily, and in yr hen iaith only.
Its sense of practicality did not quite match the ambition.
Conceived at just the time it became obvious that print newspapers were on a perilous nosedive, Y Byd was to be published daily Monday to Friday, but not at all on Saturday or Sunday, the only days on which newspaper sales were still half-decent.
From its offices in Machynlleth, a growing team of journalists and ancillary staff produced dummy issues that looked good, great in fact, but somehow never quite real.
Launch dates were set, and then set back, as the huge fundraising and subscription effort needed was taking longer than expected. All of the usual suspects dipped into their savings accounts, though it must have been with a slightly heavy heart and a suspicion deep down that they were throwing it away.
Farmers, solicitors, teachers and cyfryngi came up with £300,000, but it never really felt like the miners or quarrymen of yore chipping in their pennies for a library or stiwt. It felt like a disaster waiting to happen.
The project was reliant, with grim inevitability, on public money; by the reckoning of Y Byd, they needed £600,000 per annum.
The usual arguments erupted, and all along wearily familiar lines: on the pro side, that it was nothing less than an essential badge of nationhood and to question it was tantamount to treason; on the anti, that it was a vanity project for the crachach that would consume way more than its fair share of finite resources.
Y Byd provided Plaid Cymru with its first serious test in government, one that many party diehards believe they failed with flying colours.
The One Wales agreement, the Labour-Plaid coalition document hammered out the previous year, had been unequivocal: “We will expand the funding and support for Welsh-medium magazines and newspapers, including the establishment of a Welsh-language daily newspaper.”
Delivery of this commitment fell to Rhodri Glyn Thomas, one of the three Plaid ministers in the new Welsh cabinet. Giving Plaid the culture and Cymraeg portfolio was a smart move by Labour, for it played to the party’s obvious interests, whilst also being the very hottest of political potatoes, especially when the funds are not there to match the aspirations.
When Thomas announced that his total budget for supporting Welsh language newspapers and magazines was a paltry £200,000, it became clear that political will had drained away from Y Byd.
It committed ritual hari-kiri shortly afterwards, leaving an empty office suite, dozens of disgruntled subscribers and a stink that still lingers years later. Yet it never produced so much as one daily edition of the bloody newspaper.
In Wales, we had managed to turn something positive and hopeful into a dead end, sectarian mess.
In Scotland, almost the precise opposite has happened. Independence campaigners’ profound disappointment after the referendum result has been turned outwards, and channelled into getting a pro-indy paper off the ground.
It has happened with remarkable speed, and a great deal of winging it. The focus was always on getting out a newspaper, and this they have now done.
It will be its own promotional material; the signs look good for its natural growth. Top down, versus bottom up.
No contest, but what a contrast.