Enhancing press freedom and independence through media co-operatives

At a time when public belief that the media are inaccurate, biased and influenced by powerful people has reached historic highs, media co-operatives offer an alternative to the...


At a time when public belief that the media are inaccurate, biased and influenced by powerful people has reached historic highs, media co-operatives offer an alternative to the traditional proprietor-owned media. On World Press Freedom Day, media co-ops are celebrating how co-operative ownership enhances the independence of what the publish.

Member-supported, democratic news organisations offer a different model. There are various examples of successful media organisations owned by their staff members or by their readers. They include: The New InternationalistThe Dominion or The Hawaii Independent.

The New Internationalist has been owned by a worker co-op for the last 20 years. Press Association, one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent new-gathering, is a not-for-profit news co-operative owned by 1,500 American newspapers and broadcast members. Its commitment to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism has been primordial in the Association’s success. Since it has been established in 1971, Press Association has received 51 Pulitzer prizes.

The prestigious Le Monde Diplomatique,is another example. The French journal published every month is an independent company, part of Le Monde SA, which owns 51 percent of the shares, with the rest of 49 percent being owned by the staff and the readers of the newspaper. This has granted the publication with a higher degree of independence, helping to increase the paper’s international reputation.

Guardian writer and Co-operatives UK activist, David Boyle, argued in his pamphlet on the media crisis that co-operatives are “trusted businesses, with a reputation for fairness” in which decision makers (i.e. editors) are also accountable to their members.

Mr Isaac Oommen, freelance journalist and writer for The Media Co-op, the organisations that published The Dominion, also believes that more media co-ops could help to provide an more accurate picture of reality. “It allows for the horizontalization of media and for people to really be in control of their own media,” he said.

He argued co-operatives could provide an alternative to the mainstream media because they are less likely to be biased and can fill in the coverage gaps left by the big media trusts.

“This was exactly why the The Media Co-op was set up. From opposing the Vancouver Olympics, to fighting the Toronto G20 to on-going coverage of actions against mining and extraction, alternative grassroots news coverage is something the Media Co-op has and continues to provide”.

The Media Co-op is reader-funded and member-run. This means that it relies on the participation of hundreds of people through discussions of coverage, photography, written accounts, videos and other forms of participatory journalism. The co-op also aims to fund experienced journalists to produce high quality, in-depth reporting.

Mr Oommen said that the difference between The Media Co-op and other media trusts, which are not co-operatives, consists of a higher degree of autonomy. They can challenge the decisions of the political class and hold governments accountable because they do not depend upon state funding.

“We work very locally with each co-operative so that there is autonomy for regional coverage. Also, because of the sustained model where readers pay for coverage, we provide news that readers want that is unlike any other organisation that is dependent on foundation funding or earnings”.

According to Mr Isaac Oommen the co-operative structure – “Allows for a level of direct accountability to readers and supporters via the AGM. It also allows for horizontalising news-making and taking it away from current power structures such as mainstream news companies”.

In his pamphlet for Co-operative UK, David Boyle argues that the current crisis in which the media find themselves can also lead to more media co-operatives. 

One such initiative is the Looking for Journalists campaign [Se buscan los periodistas SBP-CA] in Spain. In light of the current financial crisis, a group of journalists from Andalucía started a journalism co-operative of media professionals offering various media services.

José Bejarano, coordinator of SBP-CA said:

"Of course there is more freedom of expression en journalism co-operatives In our case SBP-CA is not only free from economic interests that are common in media organisations that seek to make profit, but the whole structure is controlled by professionals themselves. Social economy enterprises are more transparent and democratic and also tend to cope better with the economic crisis.

"The founders of SBP-CA had decided from the very beginning that this should be the most suitable model for media organisations aiming to serve the society and not those in power. If we reached the conclusion that the crisis in which journalist finds itself was caused by the loss of credibility due to political and economic affiliations, it would be absurd to go for models in which journalisms are not in control of the organisation. We cannot see any better entrepreneurial model that can represent our interests than a co-operative."

Another initiative of this kind is The Banyan Project, started by US veteran journalist Tom Stites. After having worked for The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune,Tom Stites initiated a project aimed at addressing the democratic deficit caused by the lack of news coverage. The first news co-op website, called Haverwill Matters, will be launched this years. The Banyan model is built on the foundation of consumer cooperative ownership, with readers owning local news co-ops. The news co-ops are designed to be easily replicable from community to community. Mr Stites hopes The Banyan Project will lay the basis for a federation of journalism co-operatives across the US.

"What drew me to the co-op model is its trustworthiness.   In the consumer co-op model Banyan has adopted, the editor is accountable to the board, which is accountable to the reader/members.  The editor must thus pay deep attention to the readers' needs or her or his job would be in danger.  It goes without saying that models with this kind of direct accountability are autonomous," he said.

With the future of journalism being uncertain, media co-ops can help to bridge the gap between print and web, making online news publications sustainable, said Tom Stites.

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