Can public-interest news be sustainable? Talking Wales has a plan

‘At the end of the day, our role, our purpose, is to try and create a better-informed society’

The wave of recent elections in the UK and around the world has shown how the role of the media in providing factual information and holding politicians to account remains vital.  

While definitions vary, it is generally accepted that public-interest news refers to news and other information produced and disseminated to the public according to high standards of ethical conduct and best practices in journalism and which provides one or more benefits to the public.

The question of how to secure the supply of trustworthy public-interest news has been the topic of many recent research papers.

For Welsh journalist Huw Marshall, the answer lies in co-operative and community ownership. Marshall is setting up Talking Wales, a community benefit society that will deliver an independent news and media service for Wales.

It all began in 2019 when he started crowdfunding before partnering with Newsquest Media Group, to launch the National Wales. The service ran for 18 months before funding was cut. One of the lessons learnt from this experience was that “public interest news, even though it’s very important, doesn’t generate big page numbers,” says Marshall.

“So from a commercial point of view, that’s why you see more clickbaits and lack of actual news.”

There was also a pushback from the public since any profits generated would have been extracted from Wales, says Marshall. This got him thinking about a new model.

“I was just thinking, well, by having a co-operative model, by having a company that’s owned by people, there’s going to be that value built into the enterprise,” he says. After looking at different structures, he decided the best option would be that of a community benefit society (CBS).

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“CBSs are for profit,” he adds, “but they’re required by law for surpluses to be reinvested for the benefits of the community. So that allows us then to have a service, but as it grows and becomes more successful, it employs more people, it creates a better service. So the success of the enterprise actually leads to an evolution that is continually expanding and the profits allow us to run a service at a larger scale.”

Marshall is working on a community share offer for launch this autumn, with support from Welsh co-op development agency Cwpmas. The original plan was to launch ahead of an autumn general election; with the date brought forward, things had to be rushed. 

“It was good because it forced us into doing something quickly,” says Marshall. 

Talking Wales aired for the first time on 2 June. It was broadcast for an hour online and it was live on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

People wishing to support the project can donate via the Talking Wales website to support the costs involved in airing the show until the share offer is launched.

Marshall thinks the model can be replicated elsewhere as well.

“I think the more of these that exist the better because, at the end of the day, our role, our purpose, is to try and create a better-informed society. 

“There are lots of communities in Wales, and all over the world that don’t engage with news, the communities that avoid those who don’t engage in politics because they don’t think it’s relevant to them. 

“So our big job is to make people realise that the boring stuff that they perceive as boring is relevant and is important to them and how we share that information. So it’s not just the case of doing it and getting it out there. It’s how we present it to people. I think that’s why having a community means that people that wouldn’t pay for news, probably can’t afford to pay for news, can have access to this information, because there’s a community funding it, enabling us to get this out to as many people as possible,” he adds.

Marshall thinks co-operative or community-owned media can play a huge role in informing the UK public ahead of elections. Some of these publications include the Bristol Cable and the Great Central Gazette (Leicester). 

“At the end of the day,” he warns, “if you want to do public-interest news, it’s virtually impossible to do that from a commercial perspective, because you have to get people to pay for it. It’s just not gonna happen. So you need to have a different model and that’s where I think co-operatives come in because people have that ownership and people invest in it because they understand the value beyond shillings and pence that there is a value to something by having these platforms.”

He thinks the model could help to have community radio stations across Wales serving communities that are currently underserved and offering a Welsh perspective, including in the Welsh language.

“In the long term, with public-interest news, I think it is going to be co-operatives that are going to be leading the way there because the major news companies, their business models are basically broken. It’s based on page views. Public-interest news doesn’t generate page views, they’re going to be focusing more on content that drives people to websites. Whereas the need for real news and public-interest news is going to be more important,” he adds.

He thinks the model can also give journalists more editorial independence compared to privately or publicly owned media.

“From my point of view, it’s really important that we have an impartial service that is willing to challenge. Sometimes it’s inbuilt in these organisations to be quiet and not say anything, because we could have our funding cut,” he says.

Marshall is currently pursuing an online part-time postgraduate course in journalism leadership and innovation at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

“It’s exciting the fact that I’m studying at the same time,” he says. “I’m in a really fortunate position because everything that I’m doing from a studying perspective is informing the development plan for Talking Wales. So it’s I’m in a unique situation and really lucky to be in that position.”

At the moment Talking Wales airs every Sunday for one hour. The content is available freely and Marshall hopes this will help the Welsh public see what they would be investing in once the community share offer is live. Marshall says the funding raised will be used to develop a new service for Wales that is more diverse and younger.

“When we come to launch, it’ll be something that people are aware of, and they know what Talking Wales is about because it is what it says on the tin. We’re just going to be talking about stuff from a Welsh perspective,” he concludes.