NUJ looks to co-op model to rescue threatened newspapers

Union organiser Paul Holleran hopes the success of other media co-ops can throw a lifeline to at-risk local titles

Union representatives negotiating over the threatened closure of a series of newspapers in Scotland are considering the co-op model as a way of keeping them alive.

The National Union of Journalists is in talks with Johnston Press, which reported a £300m pre-tax loss in March, over the future of 24 titles in a bid to keep them open.

Writing on the Scottish Socialist Party website, NUJ Scotland organiser Paul Holleran said: “Drastic steps were required to keep them open, it was stated, or closure would follow within a few years for most and immediate cessation of trade for two or three of the titles.

“The union is negotiating to keep the newspapers alive, but don’t accept that closure would be a final solution.

The NUJ is in talks with Johnston Press over 24 titles including the Arbroath Herald

“The setting up of co-operatively owned structures to take over the running of these, many historic titles, has already begun.”

Mr Holleran told Co-op News that negotiations with Johnston Press were going well and there “will be no immediate threat to titles”.

But he added: “It is a matter of time before some of the weaker papers are at risk.”

The problems at Johnston are part of a pattern of falling sales and ad revenues in the newspaper industry.

One former Johnston journalist has already set up his own, independently owned, title, the Hawick Paper.

And the crisis in print media claimed its latest UK victim last week, when the 160-year-old Oldham Chronicle was closed by owner Hirst, Kidd and Rennie Ltd.

There are concerns that of a knock-on effect for civic engagement, one report on the decline of local newspapers cites studies linking the closure of titles to reduced election turnout.

In his piece, Mr Holleran wrote: “A major measure of any functioning democracy is the state of its media and anyone looking closely at the newspaper and broadcasting industry in this country would be rightly concerned about the current position of the fourth estate in particular.

Related: Media co-ops take a chance on independence

“However, the ownership of the press has long been an issue for workers and consumers and the alternative examples that currently exist are good models to follow.”

And he argued that viable newspapers were being closed because they do not make enough profit for their owners.

“While the industry is clearly in decline it is not as newspaper proprietors would have us believe, in that the papers are still profitable for their owners, but not pulling in as much revenue as they used to,” he wrote.

Now, NUJ Scotland is working in a long-term plan to develop a co-op future for papers, and has sought advice from the Isle of Skye-based West Highland Free Press, which set up as UK’s first employee-owned paper 30 years ago.

“Their view was that their title was a community asset, a cornerstone of their local democracy and a minimum target of 1 per cent profit once costs are taken out,” he said. “This is a genuinely independent media outlet paying decent salaries but not obsessed with delivering for shareholders to the detriment of the journalism.”

He told the Co-op News that, in terms of finding the right form of co-op: “The West Highland Free Press appears to be a model that works but it would be good to explore alternatives as one template may not suit all situations.”

Mr Holleran has also been looking overseas for examples of good practice, and has spoken to Prof Robert McChesney, a media expert and founder of campaign group Free Press.

Related: How reader-led co-operatives are fulfilling the need for local news

But he warned that taking a co-op approach to rescuing newspapers might not be equally as simple across the UK.

He told Co-op News that the NUJ is “certainly taking that approach in Scotland, but then again we have a big influence in our industry and a more progressive government than Westminster and that will help”.

And he stressed that supportive local authorities and other organisations are important if a local community-owned media is to thrive.

“Sustainability is normally tied into the community asset concept with local government, businesses providing support through advertising and promotion but remaining arms length to ensure editorial independence,” he said.

• 8th September 2017 update: A reference to the Hawick Paper as an example of a co-operative has been changed because it is under sole ownership.

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