For The Towns With No Newspaper, Online Upstarts Try Filling A Gap

A TV producer, a rugby club and and a university are the latest players to try filling a content gap in Neath and Port Talbot, the south Wales towns left without a local newspaper when Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) folded its Neath and Port Talbot Guardians in 2009.

FYI-Neath, the latest in what is now several budding replacement efforts, is due to be launched by former content head Marc Webber’s Dipping Bridge consultancy together with local independent TV producer Telesgop and Neath Rugby Football Club, supported by UTV’s local Swansea Sound and The Wave radio stations.

FYI-Neath, which counts four “staff” from across its partners, will trade on curating content it hopes locals will contribute, rather than producing much of its own. “We’re not trying to own the content – we’re trying to create an umbrella,” Webber tells paidContent.

The site will include articles written by council clerks, local politicians and stringers who once submitted their material to the Guardian, and will pull planning applications and council minutes from Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council.

We picked Neath precisely because the Guardian closed down,” Webber says. “There is a void there, because of the the lack of a paper which had 22 correspondents and was 80 pages big. I don’t think the people of Neath have given up on wanting to know what’s going on their communities.”

Although Northcliffe’s South Wales Evening Post goes on covering Neath and Port Talbot within its wider central south-west Wales patch, the towns specifically are now lacking dedicated providers. But FYI-Neath is not alone in attempting to fill online the gap left by the Guardian in print. Others include Neath Ferret, Neath Community News, defunct council-funded newspaper Community Spirit, now-redundant Port Talbot News (launched by a former Guardian photographer), the Port Talbot aggregator and

Another, Port Talbot Magnet, was launched in 2010 by a voluntary, 20-member co-operative comprising four eight professional journalists operating as a social enterprise, Local News South Wales Ltd. One of those is Rachel Howells, a PhD student who has been funded by Cardiff University not just to research the effect on a town of a newspaper’s disappearance but to actively try building a digital alternative.

“We started the limited company co-operative first (before the PhD),” Howells tells paidContent. “Then the Guardian closed, and it seemed like a vacuum we could try to fill. We spent a year trying to get funding, failed, decided to do what we do best (journalism) and launched the website.”

Where FYI-Neath wants to take on content through syndication and voluntary submissions, Port Talbot Magnet promises freelance journalists a “fair fee” for contributions – something which places greater onus on finding a working commercial model. What all the sites have in common, however, is a focus on magazine-like, sports, entertainment and features content above hard news exposes or investigations. But how can such things be funded? Howells greets the question with laughter…

“So far, it is largely by donations from individuals, mainly the directors, who tend to bung in some money. We have mainly all got day jobs now. But we have made some small commercial gains by selling footage to outside news organisations, selling advertising and encouraging people to join the co-operative as members.

“We recognise that for us, like many charities and social enterprises, funding is likely to come from several different strands, and that we will have to be adaptable and entrepreneurial in bringing in revenue.”

As well as donations, Howells is asking between £30 ($46.9) and £50 ($78.19) per month respectively for side and top web banners and claims to finally be making some gains after six months of selling, but still intends to apply for funding.

Webber wants FYI-Neath to be ad-funded, too. If it works, he hopes the “FYI” prefix can be deployed for a series of local portals in future. But the history books don’t bode well despite years of well-intentioned “hyperocal” hyperbole. Little commercial opportunity is apparent in the space; it appears operators must scale down commercial expectations in order to succeed…

We know there’s a way to make money because the costs are low,” Webber argues. “But commercial opportunities are not the priority at the moment.

“It can work on both content and commercial if people are realistic. If FYI washes its face in the first year, we will consider that a success. If it makes £20,000 ($31273.27) profit within two years, we will consider that a success. This is a small market – we have to first get the will of the people to access that content.”

To do that, Webber says “we’re going to be pounding a lot of shoe leather” and establishing local “silver surfer sessions” in Neath’s town centre, to show former Guardian readers how they can browse the web. Telesgop will be recording Neath’s local rugby games and other video for the site.