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The National: first view of Wales' new national newspaper

Yesterday saw the launch of The National, declaring itself on its front page ‘Wales’ new national newspaper’.

The brainchild of former S4C executive Huw Marshall, what is now The National was intended to be a new, national, independent digital news service financed (certainly for its feasibility stage) via crowdfunding.

US-owned Newsquest, which has titles across the south and north of Wales, then came on board and The National (apart from three new editorial roles) has content sourced from the company’s 50-plus journalists already employed in Wales.

Produced from the offices of its Newport-based daily the South Wales Argus*, The National is an interesting proposition.

Firstly, despite the razzmatazz of yesterday’s launch, let’s make one thing clear. The National isn’t really a newspaper. It is a new Wales-wide online news service that will occasionally have a print edition.

Nevertheless, any addition to the Welsh media landscape is to be welcomed – particularly after a year in which significant numbers of journalists have lost their jobs as the big publishers (including Newsquest) reacted to Covid in the only way they know how, by cutting staff.

But what is the premise and purpose of The National?

Pre-launch, all the talk from Newsquest and its editor-in-chief for Wales, Gavin Thompson, was of filling a gap in the market for a national news service.

No doubt BBC Wales would query whether such a gap exists, while Reach – publisher of Wales Online and the Western Mail – reacted to Newsquest placing tanks on its lawn by responding in kind and launching a Newport edition of the latter, a year after its Newport Online service launched.

Meanwhile, independent publisher the Herald News UK launched its own national news service last week.

A news war has been declared in Wales.

Will the current flurry of launches and counter-launches lead to more and better information for the Welsh public? Time will tell.

There is certainly a knowledge gap and a democratic deficit in Wales because most people get their news from London-based media that rarely pay more than lip service to devolution.

But I digress. Back to the first print edition of The National. At 48 pages, it’s a meaty prospect compared to some of Wales’ regional dailies that regularly have paginations of 32 and lower.

It’s priced at £1.10 and I’ve no idea why. Surely £1 makes more sense if you’re fumbling for change in a shop?

Newspaper design is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. It is also my professional background and, while The National has much to admire – long reads broken up well with good use of pictures, sidebars, panels, and pull-out quotes – the front page is a dull disappointment.

Almost half the page is taken up with a promo welcoming you to Wales’ new national newspaper and a picture of the paper coming off the press. As a reader, I don’t really need the photo – I’ve already got the paper in my hands – or the huge welcome message. I get that it’s new; that’s why I’ve bought it.

The splash isn’t really a splash at all; more of a promo of the four pages of analysis inside of the impact of devolution on the Covid pandemic. It’s all worthy stuff but, aside from the novelty value, would that front page make me want to buy The National? Probably not.

I was surprised The National didn’t have an exclusive splash up its sleeve for the launch edition. Failing that, Wales had won rugby’s Triple Crown at the weekend by hammering the old enemy England. A picture from the game might have been a better front page visual?

The product is a good read, providing you have an interest in Wales and politics – and one would assume people buying The National would have both.

There is a good mixture of long-read opinion pieces, interspersed with some general news pages and a focus later in the book on the environment, agriculture, and tourism.

Two pages of puzzles that are syndicated across all Newsquest titles look a little incongruous and out of place.

Finally, there is a five-page sports section that looks a bit of an afterthought (the online version of The National will not have a sports section initially) but is nonetheless readable and steers away from simply regurgitating post-match interviews from the weekend in favour of feature pieces about the impact of Covid on grassroots rugby and boxing, and an interview with rugby pro turned darts world champion Gerwyn Price.

So, what to make of The National overall?

Again, I cannot emphasise enough that the launch of any newspaper or online news service is to be welcomed at any time, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.

A print product that is only on the shelves now and again will baffle or annoy some readers who bought and liked the launch edition. One wonders whether a monthly print edition would have made more sense initially to build some readership loyalty.

The real success or failure of The National will be down to the quality of its content and the pricing of its online subscription model. There is a launch offer of £1 for two months, after which viewing the site will cost you £6.99 a month. A £50 annual subscription is also available.

It is reasonably priced and yesterday was a good start.

I’ll watch its progress with interest, but I can’t help but wonder whether the real gap in the Welsh media market – a niche identified by Newsquest some years ago with daily newspaper The National in Scotland – is for a national title that supports Welsh independence, particularly as the cross-party Yes Cymru movement has seen such a surge of interest in recent months.

You can read The National here.

*Full disclosure: I worked for Newsquest for most of my journalistic career and was editor of the South Wales Argus.


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