From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

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