Welsh civic engagement 5: The Old Lady of Horeb

Dylan Iorwerth on the importance of the papurau bro network

Below the little village of Horeb in the Teifi Valley, until recently at least, there were the remains of a little cottage. Decades back, an old lady used to live there was one of the first Welsh speaking professional journalists. If her neighbours had some news to announce, they would give her a halfpenny to take the information from place to place and from farm to farm. On the way, she would collect more news – and halfpennies.

That story symbolises one particular feature of the Welsh language media. It may also point to some principles that might help us in the communication crisis we now face. The Welsh language media have not traditionally stood apart from their audience, but rather have been a part of the social and cultural interaction.

A more modern version of the Old Lady of Horeb is the network of papurau bro – the fifty or so community newspapers that grew out of the language campaigns of the 1970s and are run voluntarily. I often ask people why they read the papurau bro with their notices about meetings of Merched y Wawr, the WI and suchlike. Members of those societies know full well who won the raffle or made the tea but still read the reports avidly. It is as if the report reinforces the cultural and social process. The papers are more mirror than window.

This is the fifth of a series of essays on ClickonWales this week exploring initiatives within the Welsh economy, environment, media, and politics. They are taken from Growing Wales’ Civil Society, published by the IWA earlier this year.

Tomorrow: Martin Shipton on why we are stuck with the media giants

Despite believing that professional journalism is a vital part of our political and civic processes, I also feel that there is a clue here to the future of the Welsh language media and, possibly, the media in Wales more generally. The trick, and the hope, will be to give that cultural and social approach a chance to survive in a field that is becoming increasingly global and commercial – bland might be another adjective.

I remember reading and hearing two prescient comments in the early days of the Internet. One was that the medium and the message were becoming closer and closer together until they would be one and the same. The other was that the information highway was accompanied by many information by-ways too.

At present, in information and commercial terms, the Internet isn’t serving those by-ways particularly well – neither their residents nor businesses. Is it possible for the Internet to do that or is it, in essence, a technology that is made for crossing geographical boundaries and one homogenous community? The creators of Apps, GPSes and the more mobile technologies seem to be trying to filling this gap. But they are doing it top down.

Many newspaper publishers seem to be taking the ultra local route. There are also reports of micro local sites making profits that elude their bigger brothers. Certainly localism seems to be the mantra in the United States. But the impetus is solely commercial, with content merely regarded a way of unlocking sources of income. We need to work from the opposite direction, creating a commercial platform that gives us the opportunity to publish the kind of content that our communities need.

The fact that many big players are going local suggests that there is an opportunity. But because they are not really part of those micro communities and cultures, they aren’t likely to penetrate very far. If we get hold of the right tools, we have a chance of doing so. But in a mobile world, where geography is disappearing, can that local appeal be strong enough?

I remember one other early, optimistic comment. The new technologies, they said, would make everyone a journalist and publisher. They said as much about desk top computers and printers too. However, the new media are subject to the same gravitational pulls as all the others. The big boys dominate the means of production and eventually commercial power will win. We can all publish material but, despite some viral successes, we can’t all publicise it. Unless, of course, we sidestep the mainstream structures.

So, I come back to my parable of the Old Lady of Horeb. In her person, technology, culture and economy were joined. It was shoe-leather technology, a social culture and a halfpenny economy. We need to create the Internet version of the the parable to give us the opportunity of creating something bigger. And, because other parts of Wales share the Welsh-speaking communities’ need for social and economic action, I suspect the solution may be relevant there too.

My instinct is that the process of rejuvenating our media is part of the process of strengthening our economies, and can contribute to it. As well as losing topical forums, the disappearance of local newspapers would mean that business communities would lose their market places. It would be an economic, as well as a cultural loss. So I would like to see public money and effort going to create the new market places – to create the opportunities and the technological infrastructure for us to build our media from the bottom up. Both technology and content. For the Welsh language’s part, this process could also include language planning.

Of course, we will always need to operate on a national level. But one of the structural weaknesses of the Welsh language press, even in its golden age in the second half of the 19th Century, was its desire for national exposure at the expense of local success. Although we must compete with their slickness and acumen, we cannot beat the big boys at their own game. We need to create a new, bottom-up model and, in doing so, might as well start with the foundations.

Dylan Iorwerth is Managing Editor of the weekly magazine Golwg

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