The second in a new series of Hyperlocal Voices looks at the Port Talbot MagNet, a not-for-profit community co-operative which has been set up to provide a local news and information service to the people and communities of Port Talbot.
Board Member Rachel Howells took time out to reflect on developments since their launch in 2010 and to tell Damian Radcliffe about some plans for the future.
1. Who were the people behind the blog?
Port Talbot Magnet was started in 2010 by seven professional journalists from South Wales who had all been casualties of redundancy or cuts in freelance budgets in established magazines and newspapers. First and foremost, we are a workers’ co-operative, but we are also a social enterprise and so we are keen to ensure we a force for good in the community. Two and half years on, we still have seven directors, as well as around 20 co-op members and lots of volunteers.
2. What made you decide to set up the blog?
As NUJ members, we found ourselves sitting in so many meetings talking about cuts and closures and it felt sometimes like the local media industry was falling down around our ears. When redundancy hit most of our local Union branch committee we decided that we would do something proactive about the situation to try to ensure good quality journalism was still a viable, sustainable career.
As we were setting up the co-operative, we heard that the weekly newspaper in the town of Port Talbot was closing and it seemed an obvious gap for us to try to fill – here was a town of 35,000 people without a dedicated newspaper and here were seven out-of-work journalists who could supply news. Making the one pay for the other was, and in many ways still is, the problem.
3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
The blog came along much later. Our first ambition was to go into print and we spent about a year applying for funding and trying to get the project off the ground in some way. The funding applications weren’t successful unfortunately, and we had a crisis meeting where we decided to change tack and concentrate on what we did best – journalism. This turned out to be a good move, because we could show what we were capable of; people suddenly understood what we were trying to achieve.
In a more practical sense, we had no capital apart from donations from the directors and so we set up a WordPress blog, paying a modest amount for a theme, and we got in touch with local companies and the council and asked them to put us on their mailing lists for press releases. Then we spent lots of time learning the patch and making contacts. Facebook has been a particularly good way to reach the online community in Port Talbot (not many are using Twitter yet), and drives about half our website traffic.
4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
We set up our own crowdfunding model called Pitch-in! which was hugely influenced by Spot.Us, although we changed the idea a bit to suit a more hyperlocal audience. I love what Spot.Us has done to empower freelance journalists and as this was at the heart of our enterprise we have been really keen to offer this as a service to our members.
5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
We would like to be more like one, I think, but we don’t have the resources at the moment. As we are so reliant on volunteers we don’t have the consistency that a traditional newsroom can offer – for example we can’t always cover local council meetings because our volunteers have other commitments as well. But I think we all believe in the principles behind traditional newsrooms and the power they have to be a force for good in the community as a watchdog or a voice.
For right or wrong, journalists can ask the questions that perhaps get ignored when members of the public ask them, and even with our limitations we are able to perform this aspect of newsroom journalism.
In future we hope we will become more sustainable so we can pay journalists and operate a more professional service, but this will always be in co- operation with the local community. We always have a day every week where people can call in to the office and speak to us, which is what all local newsrooms used to do.
6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Aside from launching the website in the first place, a successful system has been our ‘editor of the week’ rota, which has seen a team of five journalists taking it in turns to supervise the website, commission volunteers and respond to emails. This has meant there’s always been a clear point of contact every week and that things don’t get missed. Another big milestone has also been paying journalists for their skills, which we have started to do in the last few months. So far we’ve only been able to pay for court reports but we plan to do more of this as finances allow.
7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
We get a consistent 3,500 unique visitors every month now, which has more than trebled in a year. We have seen some great peaks around some of our coverage, too – notably stories about The Passion, a landscape theatre production which took place in Port Talbot in 2011 and starred locally-raised Hollywood star Michael Sheen. We have also had great responses to our coverage of protests and campaigns, crime and local elections.
8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?
The lack of funding and the lack of resources. Three of our seven directors have full time jobs, one has failing health and the other three have freelance or other commitments, and so progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow as we try to recruit or train volunteers and manage the website, finances and keep our contacts live. But we are still here, and the project continues to chalk up successes.
9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?
I think our coverage of The Passion was pretty impressive.
We had twelve volunteers covering the three days of live theatre and we produced a hugely comprehensive mix of written reporting, photography, video and audio – some of which we still haven’t had time to edit and upload to the website more than a year on.
It was a unique production that took place all over the town in both scheduled and unscheduled performances, and therefore a unique challenge to cover it all. I think our archive shows how daunting a task it was and how well we worked as a team to do it. I don’t think any other media outlet managed the comprehensive coverage we produced. I look back at it now and wonder how on earth we managed it.
10. What are your plans for the future?
There was an anniversary exhibition over Easter which commemorated The Passion and, in partnership with National Theatre Wales, we produced the official souvenir programme for it. This was our first foray into print, and we made a modest profit from advertising. It showed us that going into print would be an obvious move in the future, and so now we are developing ways we could make the website work alongside a printed news-sheet.
More generally, we would like to keep growing, pay journalists and establish a sustainable model that could benefit other communities who are facing similar ‘news black holes’ following the death of a local newspaper.
And we’d really like to persuade the local council to let us film their council meetings…