The man who built his own media empire – in reverse

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Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Every other Thursday morning, Richard Gurner loads 13,000 newspapers into the back of his Peugeot van and sets out on a 100-mile round trip to deliver them around the Welsh valleys.

“It depends if I have to take the kids to school or not but I’m usually on the road by about 8 or 9 in the morning,” he says. “There are parts where I’m driving over a mountain and it’s a little bit like Postman Pat. It’s about 100 drops; libraries, newsagents, chip shops, restaurants….”

It’s 10 years since Gurner launched the Caerphilly Observer as an online news service, a remarkable achievement given that he was then living and working 200 miles away on the coast of Sussex but was desperate to know what was happening in his hometown in Wales.

Today, now living back in Caerphilly, he has extended the website to a paper that has upped its print run by 30% and is considering further expansion. As founder, publisher, editor-in-chief and head of distribution, he has achieved digital transition in reverse. Earlier this month, the government-backed Cairncross Review on the future of UK media singled out the Caerphilly Observer as a model of hyperlocal news, noting how it has “succeeded in attracting both online and print advertising”.

Gurner’s story, and that of the Caerphilly Observer, should be an inspiration to all communities that feel they are underserved by modern media. It also offers hope to journalists who feel trapped in an industry in decline but have the motivation to go-it-alone as independent publishers.

“When I’m in the shops handing them out people come up to me and go ‘What a great newspaper’,” says Gurner. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such job satisfaction.”

A one-man mission

He was 27 when he began this project and “a little bit disillusioned” working as a reporter on The Argus newspaper in Brighton. “Things started to really change in the industry and I was getting a little bit fed up,” he recalls. “For me, being a journalist is about speaking to people face to face and getting to know your community. I was more and more stuck in the office and couldn’t get out because of work pressures.”

His thoughts turned to Caerphilly, where he had begun his reporting career, but there was an absence of news available online. “My digital skills were really bad – I didn’t have a clue about websites or Google or how SEO worked – but I thought I can’t be the only person wanting to find out online what’s happening in Caerphilly so I decided one day to launch a website,” he says. “I got my old Caerphilly contacts book out, contacted the guys in the council press office and the police – just those two to begin with – and said ‘Can you start sending me your press releases?’”

Although he was a four-hour drive away from his target audience, Gurner steadily grew his WordPress site until, after two years, he decided to commit to the project full-time and move back to Wales.

The Campaign, a local rival title owned by regional publishing stable Newsquest, had closed the Caerphilly office where Gurner had arrived to learn his trade in 2004 before relocating to Brighton. “When I was at The Campaign I had free rein to get to know the community I had grown up in and to know it on an intimate level. You walk round town and lots of people say hello. That’s the point, I think, of being a journalist – getting to know people and writing stories about the community.”

Last year the Caerphilly Observer, which now has a team of four that includes Gurner, plus a full- time reporter, a sales person and a website developer, reported that The Campaign had produced its last edition. In a farewell editorial to readers, the older title reflected that print had once been “overwhelmingly the most effective medium for local advertising” but that “unfortunately, that is no longer the case”.

Yet Gurner’s experience had been almost precisely the opposite.

From web startup to print publisher

His first two years back in Wales running his website had proved a commercial challenge. “Traffic was building but it was really difficult to sell online advertising to local companies,” he says. “Quite a lot of feedback we were getting was, ‘We love the website and the news you cover but we have always advertised in a printed product and we are not really sure about advertising online’.”

He became convinced that he needed to change strategy after having to turn down BBC Wales, which offered to buy a half-page display ad but didn’t want to take space online. “It was at that point that I thought we are missing a trick here, people are calling me up and saying they want to spend money and I can’t offer them a service,” he says. “It seemed a bit of a no brainer to launch a newspaper but it was a very risky venture because I was still basically a freelancer."

After a meeting with Caerphilly County Borough’s Rural Development Partnership, he secured a £2,500 grant to cover 80% of the production costs for four print editions of the Caerphilly Observer in May 2013. Ads flowed in from small businesses, local politicians and the town’s 10-kilometre race.

“We haven’t really looked back since we launched the print version, that’s when things have really taken off for us,” Gurner says. “Very rarely do we have anybody phone up and say can we advertise on your website, 99% of the ad inquiries we have are people saying we want to advertise in the newspaper.”

Nonetheless, the paper’s website remains crucial, with the two platforms complementing one another in news provision. “One feeds the other,” says Gurner. “If there’s a big thing happening in Caerphilly people want to know about it immediately so the website enables us to do that.”

When a toddler was saved after its pram rolled into the castle moat the story was reported online, generating feedback which enabled the paper to do a front page story identifying the teenage girl who dived into the water and made the rescue.

Local news endures

Caerphilly would not rank highly in a table of hot UK news ‘patches’. The birthplace of the late comedian Tommy Cooper, it is best known for its 13th century castle. But the county borough is home to 180,000 people and the demand for local news is clear.

On its website the Caerphilly Observer reports the success of local dance group KLA in the BBC show ‘The Greater Dancer’, while also reporting the prosecution of local ne’er-do-wells and a rise in council tax. “It’s crime, what is the council tax going to be, are meals-on-wheels going to be kept? It’s the same things people across the country are interested in.”

The Caerphilly Observer operates from a business park for startups on the site of former train sheds. When Gurner was able to hire a colleague he turned to Jobs Growth Wales to fund a reporter for six months at minimum wage before he was able to take them on full- time. At first the paper took two seats in a hot-desking scheme at the business park (supported by a grant from the Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise) before moving into an office.

“It’s all about trying to keep those overheads as low as you can really,” says Gurner. “That’s one of the problems facing the more established [news publisher] players; it’s not just the digital transition for them, it’s also a physical transition where they have got quite a lot of legacy costs.”

The Caerphilly Observer is nominated as Independent Community News Service of the Year in the Welsh Media Awards, having won that honour for each of the previous four years.

It has not been an easy 10-year journey. But every fortnight on Wednesday afternoon, Gurner puts the paper to bed (it is printed by Reach in Birmingham and returned to Caerphilly in print bundles the very same day), knowing that he has written a lot of the articles himself. “My notebook at the moment is full!” he says. “I’ve promised myself I am going to get through some stories this afternoon. That’s primarily the reason I do this – I love being a local journalist.”

Having already increased the circulation from 10,000 to 13,000, he might up the ante again, but knows that he has got this far by always being a “boot-strapped” operation. “The more papers we distribute the wider our audience and the more effective the advertising becomes,” he says. “But it’s a matter of resource – there will come a point where we will have to get a delivery driver.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell.