10 years on, 10 things I’m proud of as editor-in-chief of WalesOnline

By Paul Rowland, editor-in-chief, Media Wales

Paul Rowland

My predecessor Ceri Gould, a fantastic editor who was instrumental in making WalesOnline what it is today, had a strict rule. Listicles should never be made up of a nice, neat number.

They should be 16, 21, 11, 34. Not 10, 20 or 50. It was an old magazine cover trick. A list of 20 items makes it sound like you’ve premeditated the tidy number and thought of entries only until you’d collected enough to fulfil it. A list of 21 items subconsciously gives the impression that your primary objective was simply to collect the most worthy entries, and the number has come from counting them up when they’ve been compiled, filtered, developed and eventually finalised.

One’s about the headline, the other is about the content. Except that ultimately, the one with the best content, in practice, gains the best headline anyway.

Rules are very important. They help enforce a standard. And they can teach important lessons to those curious enough to think about their origins. But eventually, they need to be broken.

Because instead of following rules, you need to understand the reasons behind them. And if you’re thinking about that, you don’t follow a rule; you do the right thing. The right thing for any given circumstances, in any given situation.

That’s a long and overly complicated way of saying that what follows is a list of 10 things I’m most proud about from the decade since WalesOnline was first created. This month we celebrated our 10th birthday, and it’s given me cause to think about everything that’s changed for us and changed around us since we first started out.

1. The brand

Digital-only brands were something of a rarity in the regional media when WalesOnline launched in June 2008. Most newspapers saw their websites mainly as a means to reinforce and promote their print brand. Alan Edmunds, then editor-in-chief of Media Wales, was adamant that WalesOnline needed to be something different.

As a specific digital brand it could gain a personality of its own (fun, young, irreverent, challenging), unencumbered by the distinct characters of the titles (the Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday) that would initially help feed it with content.

It was a masterstroke. Fast forward 10 years, and WalesOnline is a brand full of personality that’s recognised across the nation, and comparable websites across the UK are following suit by switching from print-inspired brand names to digital ones.

2. The culture

In my more glib moments, I’m prone to saying that WalesOnline isn’t just a name, but a mission statement.

We should aim to be a reflection of Wales — what’s being done, talked about, thought about — and not just the news that happens within it. So that’s one part of the culture we’ve had to build.

It’s all to do with shifting attitudes around questions like “Is this news?” and “What’s this got to do with Wales?”. But it’s even more to do with thinking very deeply and observantly about all the ways everyday life is lived in Wales, and then trying to portray it in a way that’s recognisable to those involved, and engaging to those who aren’t.

That’s one bit of the culture we try to promote. The other is the principle that no idea can’t be improved by going through a second pair of ears. Or a third. I’d always rather a fragment of an idea than a fully-formed pitch. Because they’re the things that, through collaboration, become the very best of what we do.

3. The audience

My first move into a digital-specific role in the Media Wales newsroom came in June 2011. At that point we were attracting around 40,000 users a day, and they’d maybe get through 150,000 page views.

A normal day in 2018 would have around 450,000 users looking at around 1m pages. People can get awfully snooty about audience numbers, but I make no apology for being immensely proud of the growth that we’ve seen.

We make more noise now than we ever have. Our stories reach more people. That audience gives us influence, relevance, purpose and gravitas.

But scale for scale’s sake gets us nowhere.

We need to build an audience that wants to keep coming back and staying longer each time we do. And we try to do that in a way that combines the instincts of some very talented people with a rigorously evidence-based approach. Knowing what’s helping us achieve our goals (and what isn’t) is essential to ensuring we do more of it.

It’s basic market economics. And if you don’t think that type of thinking has its place in a newsroom, then you’re probably already having a pop at me in the comments.

It’s at this point someone will normally accuse me of putting statistics before journalistic instincts. That’s complete nonsense.

But it’s certainly true that we’re constantly working on ways to recalibrate our journalistic instincts by feeding in what the data tells us. That rarely changes what we write about, but more commonly governs how we write about it — what the headline is, what detail we include, how we lay the content out.

The journalistic impulses behind it however are always the same: what are the issues that affect people’s lives? How can we cover them in a way that make people realise their importance?

I wrote extensively for BLN a few weeks ago on this issue, so I won’t cover the same ground here, but suffice to say: I’m humbled every day by the quality and journalistic endeavour that exists in our newsroom.

4. The big stories

While the success of your original journalism is the arbiter of your strategic direction, I always think that nothing tests the abilities of your newsrooms like a major breaking news story.

After the dust settled on the horrors of the Manchester Arena bombing, I found myself thinking a lot about whether our team had it in us to respond to a similar situation in the profoundly impressive way that the Manchester Evening News had done.

It’s impossible to know — all you can do is provide the training, the direction, the structure and the resource, and hope that when the time comes, your team has the wherewithal to do what needs to be done.

But it’s undeniably true that those major stories leave an indelible mark on a newsroom — testing your mettle, challenging you to improve, and each leaving their own legacy on how you do what you do.

If memory serves, the first breaking news story we covered live was a plane crash in Aberkenfig in February 2009 that killed two teenage air cadets. Ben Glaze, now deputy political editor at the Mirror, was on the ground for us. I was running the live blog in the office. I never looked at a breaking story through print-focused eyes again.

But it was covering the tragic disappearance and murder of April Jones in Machynlleth in October 2012 that had the single biggest transformative effect on our newsroom.

The search for April Jones led the national news agenda for many days

For days, we covered this story in a genuinely digital-first way — years ahead of that phrase being commonplace in the industry. We live-blogged 24 hours a day for more than a week, and it was the first story we had a distinct social media strategy before. What we learned about how to cover major news stories had a huge impact on far less significant stories.

Some other stories that stick in the mind for similar reasons: live coverage of the horrific court case that revealed the depths of depravity involved in the child sex abuse allegations against the former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins; the 2014 NATO summit in Newport that taught us more than anything about how to cover a huge event on our patch; and Wales’s run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, which proved that sport is as much about mood and emotion as it is about on-field action.

5. The innovation

I really think that having a digital brand for so long has helped give us a culture of innovation that might not have existed with a purely print moniker. I’ll stick to one example, although I could choose any number of others. It was pure Ceri Gould.

Back at the end of 2013, socially shareable content based on collective — often regional — identity was getting huge traction for a number of publishers. Our readers were sharing it, but we weren’t doing it.

She figured, rightly, that our knowledge of our communities and the way they thought and behaved should allow us to do this kind of thing better than anyone — more accurately and more authentically, and thus more successfully.

The results were incredible. We became the first publisher of its type to put social-focused regional identity content into our DNA, and the outcome was an ability to reach huge new audiences with material that felt authentic to them, and which defined WalesOnline as a very different proposition to your standard local newspaper.

The influence that decision had on the entire industry is there for all to see. Many will scoff at this, believing “things you only know if you grew up in…” and its derivatives sum up everything that’s wrong about the regional press in 2018.

And I’ll admit there’s some pretty bad copycat stuff around — lazy, generic, under-developed. But doing regional identity content brilliantly (and it only works if it’s brilliant) relies on balancing complete local authenticity with superb wit and originality. It’s really, really difficult to do well, but is absolutely superb when you do.

6. The team

Of course, doing all these things that I’ve been boasting so ungraciously about would be impossible had we not been blessed with such a talented staff.

And our current team is about as good as it’s ever been. People who come to our newsroom often remark on how young they are, but that youth is balanced with some outstanding experience.

From where I’m standing, it’s a great balance. The mixture of interests, backgrounds, skills, attitudes makes for a really creative atmosphere, but what pleases me most about our 2018 crop is that their openness to try new things.

Over the years we’ve said goodbye to some outstanding journalists, and in a lot of cases it’s because they weren’t willing to adapt in the ways we needed them to.

I’ve always totally respected those individual decisions to move on at a point where you feel you can’t go in the same direction as your newsroom. Constant change can either be a burden or an opportunity.

A decade of recruiting WalesOnline journalists shows that seeing it as the latter is one of the most crucial characters traits they can have.

7. The alumni

It’s never nice when someone brilliant comes to you to hand in their notice. But good people will always leave, and I take enormous pride in seeing the successes that so many of our former colleagues have gone on to. It’s a dangerous game naming names in pieces like this (you end up just offending the ones you forget), but it’s amazing for me to see people not only leave us for great jobs, but have gone on to be successful and influential there.

Take someone like Jessica Best. She was part of the first WalesOnline team I worked with, before moving onto become an absolute star reporter on Mirror Online.

She’s now doing amazing things leading the audience engagement thing at De Telegraaf in the Netherlands. Or Richard Beech, who sat opposite Jess in that team, before also moving to the Mirror, where he pretty much gave them a social content strategy, before being handpicked by BuzzFeed to lead their foray into sports.

He’s now living his best life doing cool things with cars at DriveTribe. Or Alison Gow, who set WalesOnline off on the course it’s still on, transformed the digital culture in the newsroom, and is now doing something similar for all of Reach Regionals.

There are dozens of others I could name. But to me, if people are leaving us for these kinds of careers, we’re doing something right.

8. The tone

This probably seems a strange one to pick out. It’s one for the purists, but for me, what our social team Chiara Rinaldi and Steve Owens, together with our digital editor Steffan Rhys have done creating a definable personality for our social pages is one of the things that gives me most satisfaction.

Having numerous people are posting from one account, but having that account talk with a consistent tone and personality is incredibly difficult.

But it’s crucial to developing a recognisable brand identity. Back at the end of last year, our internal Trinity Mirror (as it was then) digital newsletter asked people what inspired them from other sites in the group.

Alan Woods, brands editor of Essex Live, said this: “It’s hard to describe, but the slickness of WalesOnline. Every Facebook post is so polished and perfected and oozes quality.” I think it’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about us.

9. The awards

Paul Rowland at the Regional Press Awards

It’s a bit uncool to admit caring about winning awards. But winning Website of the Year at the Regional Press Awards in 2017 was one of the most special moments in all the time I’ve been involved with the site.

After all the work over so many years by so many smart people to build something brand new and turn it into something massive, to be finally recognised as the finest site of our type in the country (after a string of highly commendeds) was amazing. Hopefully everyone who was a part of WalesOnline since its inception felt as proud of that as I did.

10. The future

So what does the future hold? Who knows. But the plan is to keep getting bigger by getting better. To bring together everything we’ve learned from the past decade — all the successes and all the failures — to keep improving in every way we can. And if we do that, I’m sure the future will be bright.

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