A Pressing Problem

In which The Author reads his ‘local’ ‘news’paper

A Rizla-thin smidgeon over two years ago, in News? What News?, I reproduced an open letter from Wayne Nowaczyk, the former editor of the Pontypridd Observer. Mr Nowaczyk had sent it to his media contacts, asking them to distribute it far and wide. He hoped that his dismay at the planned fate of his newspaper (and the other survivors of the Celtic Press group) would reach a wider audience.
My old pal Rowland Davies, the former editor of the Cynon Valley Leader, forwarded it to me. I emailed it around, reblogged it and also posted it on Aberdare Online. I think it was the last time I contributed to what used to be my first port of call upon logging-in.
I first discovered the joys of the local forum back in 2004. My first post was a plug for a fun day in Merthyr Tydfil, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Richard Trevithick’s first railway journey between Penydarren and Abercynon Basin. I quickly got hooked on the silly banter, serious political debate, nostalgia trips, genealogical queries and daft games which made up most of the content in those days.
But the site was much more important than that. It was a bulletin board as well. If there was a show, gig, charity event, birth, marriage, anniversary, death, road accident, crime wave, shop opening, pub brawl, chance reunion, or snippet of gossip worth knowing, it would find its way to Aberdare Online. You found out far more about what was happening locally on the site than you would in the local paper.
A couple of years later, a chance conversation on the phone gave birth to the long-running saga Dodge This. Even in its early days, the other contributors and I were pushing the envelope of what was acceptable by Aberdare Online standards. The site designer and webmaster were respectively the brother and father of my old friend James. At James’ wedding party, about six weeks or so after we’d started the story, his father called me over for a chat.
‘Steve,’ he said, ‘can I have a quick word about the site?’
‘Sure thing,’ I replied, and joined him in a quiet part of the room. I was expecting him to ask if I knew of any good books on PHP coding, search engine optimization, or something similar.
Instead, he continued in an unexpected direction. ‘You know this Wild West story you’re writing?’
I nodded, feeling fairly sure that I was in for a bollocking. After all, I’d written most of it for the first fortnight or so, until a couple of my friends joined in. By the end of the first month, we’d started experimenting to see how far our warped collective sense of humour would take us. Maybe he felt that the whole thing was a bit risqué for his site.
I needn’t have worried when he asked, ‘What the fuck are you lot on?’ That was our cue to pull out all the stops!
I turned my back on Aberdare Online (along with many of its regulars) when it became hijacked by the far-right. They obviously saw it as their chance to spout their vitriol in the community. Last time I looked in, there was one bloke advocating the return of the workhouse, and someone else blathering on about bus services – the very same topics that had been ‘hot’ a year or more previously. I haven’t posted for so long, I can’t even remember my password any more.
Years ago, the part played by Aberdare Online and similar websites/forums was fulfilled by newspapers. I’ve been interested in the role played by local newspapers for a very long time. I toyed with the idea of a career in journalism for a while when I was in my twenties. I started doing the odd bit of hack work for the Leader while I was working on the Cynon Valley Profile, which is when I first met Rowland. When I was growing up, the Aberdare Leader (as it was called then) was a focal point of the local community. It had been founded in 1902 by Rowland’s grandfather, J.L. Rowlands, and had a reputation for solid journalism. It was full of relevant stories, regular columns, court reports, sports results, well-argued editorials and lively letters. The goings-on in the Council Chamber were reported impartially and no party got an easy ride from the editor, who maintained a healthy cynicism when it came to politics.
On Wednesday, after taking Stella for a nice long walk and freeing up my afternoon, I called into the library. While I was waiting for the Netbook to connect to the wifi, I had a quick glance at the Cynon Valley Leader.
When I got to about Page 8 an idea crossed my mind. Aberdare Library preserves the back issues on microfilm. In A Turn-out For the Books I told you how the Reference Section has been seriously downsized in recent months. Luckily for us, the local authority has found some cash to invest in a new reader/scanner linked to a PC. It was a bit of a fiddle to use at first, but now I’m getting used to it, and I can scan individual stories or even entire pages to my USB drive.
I asked Judith if I could look at the Aberdare Leader for 18th March 1976. I chose that date simply because it was my tenth birthday, and for no other reason. By a strange coincidence the second headline – Council services face big cuts – shows how little things have changed in three and half decades.

Paul Starling, who wrote this story, went on to work for BBC Wales, HTV, and eventually became the political editor of the Welsh Mirror before being selected to contest a Parliamentary seat in 2009. Then, as now, ambitious journalists used to cut their teeth on small town papers like ours before moving onto bigger things. And there was plenty for them to get their teeth into. The Leader was full of meaty content in those days. Just look at this inside page from a couple of weeks later:

I think it’s safe to say that there’s more real news on these couple of pages alone than you’d find in an entire edition of the Leader these days. But the advertisements are fun as well. When I was growing up, Dad was the manager of Victor Freed Furnishers in Cardiff Street, Aberdare. I found a full-page advert for the shop in an edition from April 1976:

Advertising was a major part of the paper in those days. Emrys Evans’ chemist’s shop on Victoria Square had a semi-display ad on either side of the masthead, week in and week out, for years. There are ads throughout the paper for the other business stalwarts of the town centre and its surroundings: Joseph Phillips’ Menswear, Co-Operative House, Liptons, Thoms, Sylver Star DIY, Turner’s Shoes… Towards the back of the paper, there are dozens and dozens of small ads for businesses which recognised the truth of the old dictum Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. These were the household names of my formative years. Even though our family never had to call on any of them, it was reassuring to know that had we ever needed an artexer, a kitchen fitter, or a roofer, we could have found one in the Leader.
Another ad which appeared without fail every week was the semi-display for the Rex Cinema. You can see it on the inside page I’ve reproduced above, in the middle of the ‘What’s On’ half-page. By this time, the Rex had suffered the same fate as many provincial cinemas. It couldn’t make a living from just showing the latest blockbusters or kids’ films (which were confined to Saturday mornings, Saturday evenings and school holidays.) Instead it relied on the myriad skin flicks, cult shockers, horror movies and ‘adult comedies’ which did the rounds in those days. As well as the huge lurid billboard poster which greeted bus travellers on their way up the Gadlys hill, they took a regular spot in the paper.
This particular week in April 1976, audiences were treated to a double-bill of Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Blazing Saddles. The former, one of a long sequence of low-budget British soft-porn films, has (thankfully) been consigned to the bucket of History. Mel Brooks’ sublime satire on crime, corruption, racism and the entire Western genre (another subconscious influence on Dodge This, perhaps?) is in Yahoo!’s list of 100 Best Movies.
It’s the other acts in that half-page panel which catch the eye nowadays. Sir Harry Secombe is no longer with us, of course. Unfortunately Max Boyce is still around (and probably will be forever), trotting out his dreadful ‘comedy and music’ routine about coal-mining and rugby.
Meanwhile, in the Double Diamond Club, Caerphilly, punters could enjoy the wartime revival sounds of Windsor Davies and Don Estelle. These stars of the BBC comedy show It Ain’t Half Hot Mum had had a Number 1 hit the previous summer with their version of the Ink Spots’ classic ‘Whispering Grass.’ In the spring of 1976 they were touring with their novelty act and 1940s songbook. It was probably quite exciting by normal valleys standards. Just over six months later, the 1970s would come crashing down on the inhabitants. On December 14th, the Sex Pistols arrived in the historic castle town like a nuclear bomb exploding on a town more accustomed to swords and longbows.
A third little ad in the ‘What’s On’ section is worth pointing out, if only for its modern comedy value. The Michael Sobell Sports Centre in Aberdare was hosting live wrestling the following weekend. In Granotechnology I referred to the televised wrestling of my childhood, and contrasted it with ‘the US-style Mr Gay Universe contest it’s become in recent years.’ Maybe my innocence protected me from seeing the truth behind the performances:

This must have been the ultimate science fiction fan festival – two aliens from the recent Star Trek outings vs Captain Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones from Torchwood.
It might come as a surprise to learn that the Cynon Valley was producing recording artists while the Stereophonics were still in short trousers. In 1976, a local soprano named Pamela Field had featured on a couple of Decca LPs:

The author of this article, Rhiannon Williams, was (as Rowland always calls her) ‘the grande dame of the Leader.’ Charming, cultured, and gloriously eccentric in a sort-of Edith Evans style, Rhiannon continued to write for the paper until she retired in the 1990s. The last time I saw her was in Iceland, shortly after her retirement. She and her husband were ahead of me in the checkout queue, and Rhiannon was looking for a pen to write a cheque. I took my trusty pen from my pocket, handed it to her with a grin, and said, ‘Call yourself a reporter?’
Next to the profile of Ms Field, there’s an advertisement for a mystery trip from Aberdare Station. 1976 was in the Dark Time when there wasn’t a regular train service to the town. It must have been a great day out for the people who took advantage of the offer – at the princely sum of £2.65 for adults and £1.33 for children!
Back in the body of the paper, I came across this little item:

This Private Eye-style column was a wry look at life, in the style we find nowadays in ‘Ephraim Hardcastle’ of the Daily Mail and similar diary columns. (Incidentally, Councillor Alby Davies, mentioned towards the end of the first item, is the same man whom I referred to in No Future, when I said that there was a councillor who’d seemingly been around since the days of Clement Attlee.) Cynon Eye itself is a nice pun, predicated on the fact that the spring in Penderyn where the river Cynon rises is known as Llygad Cynon – the Welsh for ‘Cynon’s eye.’
[A digression: When Rowland was at the helm during the 1980s, the column adopted a new logo.

It’d forgotten all about this until I read the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and several of Wilson’s own books. It came back to mind when I was looking through old copies of the Leader on microfilm in the library. Suddenly the significance of the Eye-and-Pyramid logo struck me. Surely, I thought, Rowland was letting the powers-that-be know that he’d tumbled their little game! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me explain:
My own internet handle, Cosmic Tigger, was almost taken from the title of Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger. It came about by accident, when I was working in Dillons. A customer came into the shop one day, looking to buy a copy. I’d already read it, and I knew that it wasn’t a regular stock item. He asked me if he could order a copy. I mistyped the title into the computer, the r went missing, and in a flash I knew what from that moment on what my Aberdare Online username would be. It was a moment of inspiration which Wilson himself, his friend William S. Burroughs, and maybe even his great hero James Joyce would surely have loved!
Rowland used to lurk on Aberdare Online, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that I was Cosmic Tigger, of course. We were in the pub one day when he asked me about Robert Anton Wilson. He told me that his sister in America had turned him onto his books, and he wondered if I’d ever come across them. In return I asked him about the eye-and-pyramid logo.
‘Oh, that wasn’t me,’ he said, once he remembered the picture I had in mind. ‘I just sent a request to the Art Department and they came up with it!’]
Elsewhere, there’s this little curiosity tucked away on one of the inside pages from April 1976:

Yes, that’s the same Edward Lear who wrote of the Jumblies, the Old Man of St Bees, and the Dong With the Luminous Nose, among others. After its restoration, the painting was displayed in the stairwell of Aberdare Library for many years. If you call in there now, you can see a painstaking reproduction of it instead. The original was ‘deaccessioned’ a couple of years ago to raise funds for the local authority’s depleted coffers. Utter nonsense!
A decade or so later, as I’ve already mentioned, I was contributing odd bits of copy to the Leader. My involvement had begun during my time with the Cynon Valley Profile. It was a local research scheme on which I was working along with Ross, Robert, Kathleen, Sue, Frank, and other assorted misfits and loonies. Robin, the project manager, seemed to have thrown every eccentric in the valley together and we all got on like a house on fire. Dad and Rowland were friends already, and so I was able to add another harmless loony to my roll-call of friends. Rowland arranged for us to do a special feature on the production of the paper, from the initial news gathering to the final distribution process.
Early in 1987 I was volunteered to cover the Welsh leg of the ‘Red Wedge’ tour in Trecynon Coliseum. As I recounted in No Future, this initiative had been organised by the Labour Party to encourage young people to vote – regardless of which party they actually voted for! My report of the gig, headlined by Billy Bragg, appeared (complete with typos, of course) on page 2 of the following week’s issue:

During Rowland’s time in the editor’s chair, the Celtic Press stringers were paid 4p a line. This page netted me £10 or so – a nice little pick-up in those days.
I mentioned the Rex Cinema earlier on. By 1987 it had closed. It lay empty for a few years before finding a new lease of life as a film set, in the Welsh-language comedy Coming Up Roses (Rhosyn a Rhith.) In the same edition as my review of Billy Bragg’s gig, I found this nice article about the film:

Debbie and Mandy, two punk girls I was friendly with, appeared in small roles, and were credited in the end titles as Ffrindiau’r Band. They were the first film stars I ever knew.
This was about the time when the Leader went over to electronic news gathering. I remember calling into see Rowland one day with something I’d put together. Their headquarters was towards the bottom of Commercial Street in Aberdare, and Rowland’s office was upstairs, overlooking the stream of pedestrians who passed by the building’s large plate-glass windows. Marion on the reception desk let me through into the business end, and I made my way up the creaking wooden staircase which led to the inner sanctum.
Instead of the usual click-click-click of Rowland’s manual typewriter, I could hear the gentle tapping of a computer keyboard. I looked round the door and there he was, seated at a shiny new terminal, his fingers flying. He looked up, saw that his casual visitor was only me, and stopped typing immediately.
‘I say, this all looks very impressive,’ I said, genuinely startled by the equipment.
‘Yes, it is, isn’t it?’ he agreed, with a wry smile. ‘It’ll be even better next week, when they switch it all on.’
I’ve been trying to track down a copy of Private Eye from that period, so that I can scan in the cartoon which used to accompany the Street of Shame column. I think the picture of the drunk old tramp slumped against a news kiosk placard reading NEW TECHNOLOGY BAFFLES PISSED OLD HACK would be a great picture to tag Rowland in on Facebook.
The Leader (like most local papers) was plagued with typos. Rowland has told me of Rhiannon Williams’ chagrin at being the victim of Printer’s Devilment, many years ago. She’d written a review of a stage show featuring a cast of ‘disparate men.’ The obliging typesetter had intervened and changed it to ‘desperate men.’ Apparently Rhiannon was appalled by this, and asked the then-editor how she was supposed to face her public.
I myself was a victim of the gremlins on several occasions, but two of my favourite typos occurred after the death of the well-known author Rhydwen Williams in August 1997. Even though he’d been born in the Rhondda Valley, he’d made his home in Aberdare, and so the Leader printed an obituary of him, with arguably the best headline ever:

I dropped a letter into the office on my way to work the following morning. I asked then-editor Gary Marsh whether Rhydwen had indeed been one of the few people left in the valley who knew how to read and write. I told Rowland about this fantastic headline many times over the years, but he’d always thought I was pulling his leg. When he was out campaigning with his son Dafydd, during the 2010 election, we met up for lunch. I’d managed to track down the original article on microfilm and presented him with a copy, just to prove it was true.
The fun didn’t stop there, mind you. At the time of Rhydwen’s death, the devolution debate was in full swing, and the letters page was filled with pro and con arguments. Rhydwen’s ghost continued to haunt the office in the meantime. Two weeks later, the artist Nicholas Evans contributed his own obituary of Rhydwen, which was printed on the letters page, directly above this unfortunate headline:

Gary Marsh had another note from me that week, pointing out that one of the sub-editors had egg on his face again.
The last time I collided with the Cynon Valley Leader was when Lorna Prichard was on the staff. She’d joined the paper after completing her journalistic training in Cardiff. By this time, Dodge This was in full swing. It was a satirical story set in the eponymous Wild West town and featuring a cast of colourful (and thinly-disguised) characters. Every Wild West town needed a local paper, of course. We often related the misfortunes of the Calamity Valley Courier, and the trials and tribulations of its editor Garfield Moss. (Geddit?) And so the stage was set for the showdown between the Leader Hacks and the Aberdare Online Outlaws.
On a mission to investigate the effects of the smoking ban on the pub trade, Lorna had called into the Conway one afternoon. She struck up a conversation with the lunchtime crowd, and Rhian had realised that we’d get on well. The next time she called in, Rhian introduced us and it turned out that she was right.
Lorna was orginally from Abergele, a fluent Welsh speaker, and had graduated from Oxford before doing her NCTJ course. She was just as eccentric and scatterbrained as that particular academic accolade might suggest. She was still living out of boxes, having recently moved to a flat in town. While we were chatting, she mentioned that she’d mislaid her mobile phone charger – just one of many phone-related problems she’s suffered over the years. I had a spare one at home, so I took it to work with me on the Friday, emailed Lorna at the Leader office, and arranged to meet her in the Conway when I got back from Cardiff.
I hadn’t been in there very long when Lorna popped her head round the door. She told me that she couldn’t stay because she was meeting the rest of the Leader staff in the restaurant across the road. It turned out that Catherine Evans, who’d served her time in the small town press, was moving on to a new job at Wales on Sunday. It was the evening of her leaving party. Lorna promised to call in after their meal and pick up the charger then.
This was a potentially awkward moment. I hadn’t met Catherine in the flesh, but I’d seen her a few times at events we’d both attended, so I knew her by sight. My first thought was, ‘I hope to Goddess Gary Marsh doesn’t come in.’ He’d been the recipient of a fair number of my Letters to the Editor over the years, after all. (See Foreword & Contents for more details.) Quite a few of them (like the ones I mentioned earlier) had taken the piss out of the paper. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been his favourite person.
Anyway, Lorna came in with Catherine after they’d eaten and joined me by the bar. Lorna introduced us, and I said, ‘We haven’t met – but you did once have a very strange email from me.’ Thus prompted, Catherine remembered the incident I had in mind.
A friend of mine had been trying in vain to interest the paper in a news story for a very long time. Eventually, the regional office in Cardiff had picked up on it and told the Aberdare office to get on the case. Catherine had emailed my friend, and she’d forwarded the email to me, wondering what she should do next.
Rather sarcastically, I replied: Haven’t they got more important things to do? Don’t they know Napoleon’s about to invade England?
I hit SEND and the email vanished into cyberspace. Except, of course, that it didn’t go back to my friend – it went to Catherine’s inbox instead. Rather confused, she rang my friend to see what was going on, and it gave us all a good laugh. When I reminded her of that, we had a good laugh about it again.
‘You do stuff on Aberdare Online as well, don’t you?’ Catherine said. ‘I know, because you’ve got a really great username. What is it again?’
‘I’m Cosmic Tigger,’ I replied, rather timidly.
‘Oh my God!’ she squealed, grabbing her friend’s arm. ‘Lorna, this is the man who writes Dodge This!’
The game was well and truly up.
‘Oh, you know about that, do you?’ I said, wondering how this was going to pan out.
‘Yeah, we’re all huge fans in the office,’ Catherine continued. ‘We always look forward to a new episode coming out.’
I decided to push my luck and ask what Gary Marsh thought of our story.
‘Oh, Gary loves it,’ she laughed. ‘He can’t believe anyone would take the time to satirise us!’
As a result of that meeting, the Calamity Valley Courier recruited a new member of staff – a bright, young, accident-prone Spanish-speaking graduate trainee named Miss Print, who bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to a certain curly-haired reporter I knew.
Lorna didn’t stay at the paper long. She moved on to a researcher’s job at BBC Wales before climbing the ladder rapidly. I see her every so often if I happen to catch the ITV Wales news in the pub. She’s living back in north-west Wales, and is the correspondent for that corner of the country.
Rowland had also gone from the Leader to better things. He worked in London as a press officer under successive Secretaries of State of Wales, gathering a wealth of anecdotes for our beer sessions. When he retired at 60, he worked for Plaid Cymru AM Mohammed Ashgar until retiring at 65. He’s now editing the Plaid Cymru paper Welsh Nation. I’m sure he’ll retire properly one day.
Part of Wayne Nowaczyk’s prediction came true in November 2008, when the Leader office closed its doors for the last time. When I told Rowland he thought I was pulling his leg again. But it wasn’t a joke. It’s the building on the right of this picture I took last spring, with the red-painted boards all over the frontage. It’s now the office of yet another Payday Loan company. (As if the valley didn’t have enough problems.)

So here we are, 110 years after J.L. Rowlands founded his paper. Yesterday, sitting in the Library, I decided to have a good look through it, instead of just the cursory skim I give it most weeks. I’ve put together a quick breakdown of this week’s edition, just for the record. Each page measures approximately 33cm deep by six columns wide, and I’ve based my estimates on those figures.

Front page:

  • Distraction burglary in Abercynon
  • David Hasselhoff visits school (including pic)
  • three previews (inc pics) of later stories
  • two display ads, one small semi-display ad next to masthead

Page 2: Letters, contact details, Code of Practice

Page 3:

  • David Hasselhoff visits school — head, 3 pics + 20 column cm
  • Local training agency plug — head + 20 column cm
  • Rest of page — display ads

Pages 4-5:

  • Distraction burglary in Abercynon (continued) — head, 10 pics + 55 column cm
  • Rest of double spread — display ads

Page 6:

  • School uniform row — head + 25 column cm
  • Court report — head + 12 column cm
  • New book about the runner Guto Nyth Bran by none other than Gary Marsh — head + 16 column cm
  • Rest of page — display ads

Page 7:

  • Bodybuilder in Mr Wales contest — head, photo + 25 column cm
  • Mayor’s charity appeal — head + 20 column cm
  • Sponsored walk — head + 6 column cm
  • Tabletop sale — head + 6 column cm
  • Rest of page — display ads

Page 8-9:

  • Proposed changes to hospital services — large head, subhead, 3 pics + 50 column cm
  • Choir seeks members — head + 5 column cm
  • Hearing aids exhibition — head + 4 column cm
  • Rest of page — display ads

Page 10: full-page ad

Page 11:

  • ASBO for hoax caller — head + 32 column cm
  • Woman moves back to valley — pic, head + 14 column cm
  • Hallowe’en fun at Talbot Green Shopping Park (not technically within the Cynon Valley) — head + 8 column cm
  • Commissioner for Older People’s visit — head + 4 column cm
  • Half-page display ad

Pages 12-13:

  • New book by disabled author — head, 4 pics + 70 column cm
  • Two half-page display ads

Page 14:

  • Woman from Treorchy (not technically within the Cynon Valley) organises charity concert — head, pic + 40 column cm
  • Half-page display ad

Page 15: Full-page display ad

Pages following:

  • Tributes to troops from Llanharan (not technically within the Cynon Valley)
  • Full-page display ad for shop in Tonypandy (not technically within the Cynon Valley
  • Feature on Coleg Morgannwg’s Nantgarw Campus (not technically within the Cynon Valley)
  • Feature on MTV’s ‘reality TV show’ The Valleys (which doesn’t actually feature anyone from the valleys, as far as I can tell!)
  • People from the Rhondda, a lad from Beddau, an attacker from Tonypandy, a man from Treorchy, a chip shop in Tonyrefail…
Well, you get the picture, I’m sure. In fact, once you get past page 13 you have to wait until page 31 to find anything else remotely relevant to the Cynon Valley itself – if you can be bothered to read that far. It’s a full-page extract from the autobiography of the acclaimed writer Elaine Morgan, who lives in Mountain Ash.
On pages 36-39 we find the Community Correspondents, a team of unpaid stringers (my old pocket money rate of 4p a line is history, apparently) who tip their readers off about goings-on in the villages throughout the catchment area. It’s a motley collection of wedding anniversaries, school activities and charity coffee mornings, more suited to the parish newsletter than a paid-for newspaper. As the pub regular remarks in Dylan Thomas’ Return Journey to Swansea, ‘All front page stuff!’
After the gossip and trivia there are pages of classified ads which bring us all the way up to page 52. I wonder how many people actually bother to read that far. I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Maybe we need to revise the old New York Herald line I quoted earlier: Doing business and advertising in the local press is like pissing into the wind seems more appropriate to me.
The sports news is in a separate supplement, which (like the bulk of the paper itself) covers almost the entire Mid Glamorgan area, from Merthyr right across to the valleys north of Bridgend. Economies of scale must dictate that it’s cheaper to print 100,000 copies of the same thing than it is to set up a separate edition for each of the papers in the group.
When I say ‘the group’, I’m talking about the Leader‘s sister papers: the Merthyr Express, Rhymney Valley Express, Gwent Gazette, Rhondda Leader, Pontypridd & Llantrisant Observer and Glamorgan Gazette. What used to be the Celtic Press titles are now produced by Media Wales, along with the Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday.
According to British Newspapers Online, these first three (along with our own local rag) are all operated from Merthyr Tydfil these days. You could have fooled me. According to the Leader‘s own contact details, they operate from the Observer‘s office in Pontypridd. Oddly enough, all the staffers listed have Cardiff telephone numbers.

Mind you, even with centralised news gathering, and having to share meagre resources ever more thinly, these local papers are still faring better than some of Media Wales’ other titles. Both the Neath Guardian and Port Talbot Guardian ceased publication in October 2009.
Not that ‘centralised news gathering’ counts for very much. In a really good week, up to half of the Leader‘s ‘content’ will consist of press releases from the local authority or Third Sector organisations. They’ll be backed up with planted letters from party stalwarts, and padded out with a well-spun column attributed to either our absentee MP Ann Clwyd, or our Assembly Member Christine Chapman (‘the quiet woman of Welsh politics’.) They will all be reproduced verbatim and printed as though they were the Revealed Word of God.
The rest of the ‘news’ will be recycled from the daily papers in the group, or else find its way in for no reason at all. (For example, there was some terrific coverage of Pentyrch Carnival last year!) It’s nothing less than what the investigative journalist Nick Davies, in his excellent book Flat Earth News, described as ‘Churnalism.’
The real content, the stories people want to read – the investigative stories, the court reports, the coverage of council debates, the human stories, the heartwarming photos of couples celebrating their golden anniversaries or greeting their great-grandchildren – have gone, swept away on a tide of officially-sanctioned puffery for the powers-that-be. I’ve no idea what the sales figures are like these days, but very few people I know still buy it. Our paper is known locally as the Cynon Valley Liar. If Rowland’s grandfather heard that, I’m sure it would break his heart.
It’s sad to say it, but if anything interesting happens around here now, the news gets around via Facebook, text messages, and word of mouth. Unfortunately, in this global village, the last place you expect to see it is within the pages of the ‘local’ newspaper.

REFERENCES

DAVIES, N. (2008) Flat Earth News: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. (London: Chatto.)
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