I’m not winning any Pulitzer Prizes and it’s still a group of sites focused on niche interests, but I’ve been surprised at how many people do read it (around 50,000 page views a month for Senedd Home alone).
I was saving this for a future 10th anniversary, but with recent syndication deals and the potential for more to come, I thought now was as good a time as any to give you a “behind the scenes” account of how the site is produced and try to answer some of the other questions you might have….and to stop me having the same conversation twenty times over.
From the beginning….
The Welsh political blogosphere used to be a radically different place.
There was proper gossip from Assembly and Welsh Government insiders (Chris Glamorganshire, Miss Wagstaff) and many journalists, potential journalists, AMs and potential AMs had their own blogs. This was around 2006-2008 when it looked like Labour were about to be ousted by a rainbow coalition. That didn’t happen, but around the same time I started taking a more serious interest in Welsh politics.
The blogosphere has contracted since them, but there was lot of high-quality stuff being written, mainly but not always from nationalists – Syniadau, Ordovicius, Miserable Old Fart, Guerilla Welsh Fare, A Change of Personnel, Wales Home (a precursor to Nation.Cymru) and others who are still going or have since started like Dic Mortimer, Jac o’ the North, Y Cneifiwr, Carmarthenshire Planning, West Wales News Review, National Left and Borthlas.
I left comments on some of the sites, but these comments were becoming worthy of their own platform so I decided to start Oggy Bloggy Ogwr around the time of the 2011 referendum and 2011 election.
Hardly anybody read it. Months later some of the speculative stuff was picked up by the people behind Wales Home (Adam and Duncan Higgitt). I started to get more views but things didn’t take off until I did a series on the Welsh economy in autumn 2012…. a few weeks later I won an award.
I set out from the start to publish everything under my own name. I could’ve set up another anonymous attack blog and done nothing but publish polemic but I wanted to do something different and more impartial as there was a clear gap – particularly in terms of coverage of the Senedd. That decision probably cost me a larger audience, but it’s kept me out of arguments I didn’t need to get involved in.
My political background
People might assume I’ve got loads of insider contacts at the Senedd but nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve only ever met four AMs in person – the former Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) and, more recently, Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) and David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon). In 8 years I’ve only been to Cardiff Bay three times.
I’m probably the only person in my family interested in politics and used to dabble with the far-left back in the day, though I’ve “matured” – some might rightly argue, sold-out – into a more pragmatic/moderate political position now (apart from the whole wanting to rip the UK apart thing).
I didn’t care much about the Assembly or devolution until the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked, as well as the introduction of individual policies such as tuition fees (despite the outcry at the time they made university seem affordable compared to now). Instead of a largely benevolent union serving mutual interests, I started to look at the UK in a different light. Wales had been battered by the Tory governments we never voted for and we were now getting battered by an arrogant Blairite Labour keen to hang on the coattails of the Americans. Wales was noticeably doing things differently to a certain degree and it begged the question as to why we shouldn’t do our own thing all the time?
Obviously, there’s a lot I agree with when it comes it Plaid Cymru policy but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole me as a Plaid supporter just because I support independence; there’s always been something about the party’s internal politics that puts me off.
On a policy-by-policy basis, prior to the Cleggocalypse I would probably have been closest to the Lib Dems and I’ve voted for several different parties and individuals in the past (including Plaid, Labour, Lib Dems, Independents, Communists and Greens).
While it’s fairly obvious I’m on the left, I even hold some Tory AMs in high regard, particularly Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) and Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.).
The only people I don’t have time for are those who would undermine the Senedd or treat it (and by extension us as the Welsh people) with blatant disrespect. No prizes for guessing who that might be referring to.
The evolution of the site
For the record, I don’t consider myself a journalist and it’s a matter of opinion whether the work I do counts as journalism or not.
My professional background is in science, so I’ve had to learn journalistic techniques by trial and error mostly – which sometimes shows – taking me eight years to learn what an undergraduate journalism student might learn in one semester and I still haven’t perfected it.
While the number of blogs has fallen, the quality and professionalism of what’s left has improved and people’s expectations have changed. Sites not only have to look the part but sound the part and you can’t really get anywhere without a big social media following.
Wales Home (defunct), Click on Wales and Daily Wales (defunct) have either been supplanted or joined by the likes Nation.Cymru and popular podcasts like Desolation Radio. I’m sure everyone’s taken inspiration from what’s happened in the Scottish media with the likes of The National, Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia and think they can replicate that here. It’s proving a bit of an uphill struggle, even for some of the bigger sites.
Oggy Bloggy Ogwr, by comparison, was a bit of a mess. I decided to dedicate a site to each of the three main themes of my work (Bridgend hyperlocal, Senedd, independence) and change the format so the commentary, in-depth analysis and polemic are separated from the more impartial coverage, therefore allowing greater breadth. After a rocky start, it’s been the right decision.
Getting things done
Each weekly update of Senedd Home starts the weekend before with me going through the forthcoming committee and plenary schedules to decide what I’m going to write in the days ahead. I put it on a spreadsheet so I can keep up to date and properly spread the workload out:
As of September 2018, I’ve also used the schedule to decide what video clips to use. Again, they’re plotted on a spreadsheet so I can keep track of what I’ve done.
I tend to choose clips based on what I think will be useful in later updates. I
wing it use a “technique” where I flick forward through a video until I find something said which is concise enough to make an “interesting” 1 to 2-minute clip; it’s a hit and miss process.
Videos are captured using OBS Studio and rendered using Shotcut. The process used to take up to 40 minutes from start to finish using different programmes but it’s down to around 10-12 minutes now.
I’ve made a conscious effort to keep videos gender-balanced wherever possible and whenever someone speaks Welsh, the policy is to use subtitles; I use the audio translation into English to write them down and then add them manually in Youtube.
As for the written articles, simultaneous transcription has been a God-send. Every time AMs speak, it’s usually transcribed, translated (where applicable) and published on the Record of Proceedings within an hour.
I can read the transcript in about 10 minutes and probably have a post done within 35 minutes – so turnaround is pretty fast. AMs do have a tendency to give flowery over-researched speeches and I’ve developed a knack over the years of summing up three paragraphs of speech into one or two sentences. Nevertheless, it’s very hard to turn what might be 6,000-8,000 words of text (of a single debate or ministerial statement) into a 600-700 word post. I average around 12,000 words a week on Senedd Home.
Previously, I had to actually watch the debates. That meant sitting through an hour of video, taking notes and doing a draft – a two to three-hour process – which meant I had to be very selective about what to cover. Realistically, that meant a maximum of two or three posts about the Senedd per week. Since the change in format in 2017 and again in 2018 I’m now averaging 16-18.
I only do three or four posts a week “live” (or nearly live): First Minister’s Questions and ministerial questions (which I only started covering last September).
Everything else is either written the evening or morning following a plenary session once the transcript is updated – sometimes meaning very early starts (5-6am), but only for one or two days a week when the Senedd is in session (36 weeks a year or so).
Committee reports are done whenever I have some spare time and can sometimes be written days in advance. The shorter Lobby posts only take about 5 minutes each and are based mainly on reports published elsewhere – they’re chosen as something I can backlink to (such as ministerial questions or a committee report) as an explainer.
I use templates for articles, infographics and videos to ensure consistency and to save time. I also have a cutoff point that if something isn’t published, done or said by Wednesday evening I leave it until the following week.
If there’s a big debate on a controversial issue I’ll try to at least get the recorded vote done the same day (though that might mean waiting till 7-8pm sometimes).
I use Grammarly to check the spelling and grammar….but it doesn’t always work, particularly if I’ve spelt a word right but used it in the wrong context.
There’s enough flexibility in my schedule that I’m just about able to fit everything in – so while I can get a large volume of work done, it’s usually spread out and not much is actually done during normal 9-5 work hours. The only thing I have to do during the day is schedule the posts and publish them on social media.
Because Bridgend Council reports and planning applications are usually very short, Oggy Bloggy Ogwr stuff doesn’t take any time at all – I can usually get three articles done in an hour and most of it is done over the weekend.
State of Wales is carefully pre-planned and some of the work takes months to do, with an hour or two here or there when I have some spare time, again usually at the weekend.
So, effectively, I have a seven day week but on part-time unpaid hours (if that makes sense). Even when I’m on a “break” I’m still working on it. I only get maybe one or two weeks a year when I’m not doing anything related to the three sites – usually around Easter, Christmas and mid-August.
I’m crap with computers, so all the graphics (vote infographics etc.) and technical work are done by my brother, Ross – I give him an idea of what to do, then he makes it look professional.
I do listen to feedback and take it on board.
I changed the appearance of Senedd Home based on complaints about the garish purple colour scheme – which was only supposed to be a temporary placeholder as I wasn’t expecting Senedd Home to last more than a few months, to the point where I only re-registered the domain at the last minute.
Another instance of feedback resulting in changes revolved around the recorded vote infographic, which has been altered to take into account colourblindness (and I’m gradually rolling out the same for all infographics).
What I don’t cover and why
There are some things I won’t touch, namely items like annual reports and accounts from various Welsh Government sponsored bodies. Regulations are another one skipped over unless they’re proposing something that’s genuinely revolutionary or relevant to the public. The weekly business statement has effectively become an extension to FMQs where AMs ask for a statement but in practice just make a speech about something. I tend to pass over debates which are too technical, a repeat of another debate or those that deal with an obtuse subject that would be hard for me to explain.
90 second statements are great for AMs but don’t make particularly good articles. While I’ll usually cover emergency questions regardless of topic, I only cover topical questions where they’re genuinely topical (i.e. a controversial issue), aren’t a repeat of something asked in another session (like FMQs), have a national context or have been in the news a lot.
I can usually tell which backbench question(s) to cover during FMQs and other question sessions by the number and range of follow up questions from other AMs. While I’d like to cover more questions, the party leaders/spokespeople + the best of the rest is a format which seems to work.
You’ve probably noticed I don’t do a lot of “gossip”. Firstly, that’s because I don’t get told any – as said I don’t have any insider contacts and I find most political party “gossip” petty and vindictive to be completely honest. Also, as far as I’m concerned, unless it directly affects their jobs, the private lives of AMs are out of bounds as well. I’ll leave that to other people.
I spend enough time doing the monitoring stuff that I can’t really do investigative pieces unless I have all of the evidence in front of me.
While recent syndication deals have increased the income I generate from the site by several times over, prior to that I’ve effectively been working for nothing.
I spend around 10-12 hours a week on Senedd Home alone, add another 10-12 hours a month for Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and State of Wales and (prior to syndication) I was earning the equivalent of about 60-70p an hour from the site – about 9% of the living wage. It’s increased since then, but there’s absolutely no financial or commercial incentive and if I had to do this to put food on the table it would’ve been scrapped after a couple of months.
I’m not eligible for grants such as those from the Wales Books Council as this is counted as “vanity publishing” by their rules. It’s also not a viable business other than as a digital cottage industry/side employment.
Until I started asking for donations in 2017, I had to self-finance everything. The costs of running and maintaining the site aren’t that massive mainly because there’s no official labour cost. At the moment, I raise about £45 a month in donations from 16 or so regular donors across PayPal and Patreon (with the occasional one-off donation) and it peaked at around £70 a month. If you don’t believe those figures, look at the Patreon page.
Some people have decided to pull out – but for even donating anything in the first place I’m extremely grateful. Even if I’m not making mega bucks I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many have been willing to put their hands in their pockets – and continue to do so.
There’ve been some people on social media who’ve insinuated I’m getting finance from somewhere in order to push an agenda but not only is that completely laughable it’s punch-in-the-face worthy considering I’m doing this on a relative shoestring. I suppose it’s a backhanded compliment and I’ve taken it in that spirit – others would be less kind.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought about stopping. The worst period was around the end of 2016 where I really wasn’t sure if I’ll be coming back after Christmas or not.
People might not fully appreciate the strain doing this puts on your mental and physical health and you’ll only know what it’s really like when you do it yourself, I suppose.
If you want an example, last October I had a really bad ear infection to the point that I had to (try to) sleep sitting up – I still dragged myself to the computer to do Senedd Home and the economy posts on State of Wales. Hardly anyone read the latter after about 9 months work.
Not only is there the pressure of doing what is for all intents and purposes an unpaid white collar job, you have to worry about whether people are actually going to read it, you notice mistakes after you’ve hit “publish” which you think will impact people’s perceptions of the quality of the work and most of the time you’re dealing with very depressing subject matter and mountains of grey literature.
Hate mail is very rare, but down the years I’ve been accused, or subject to innuendo, of being (as said earlier) some sort of paid government shill, of not writing my own work or being part of a conspiracy, of being a member of the security services, a “left-wing idiot”, a fascist, of not being a proper Welsh nationalist, a Tory (that particularly hurt), accused of scaremongering and causing general offence.
I don’t enjoy doing this at all to be completely honest but maybe that’s a sign I’m taking it as seriously as it should be taken.
The “good news” is I’ve got into a rhythm that suits me and able to maintain. As long as there’s continued support I intend to keep going until after the 2021 elections at the very least and I can see myself working into the Sixth Assembly too.
I think that answers everything….