Good news for media co-ops

How reader-led co-operatives are fulfilling the need for high-quality local news The internet may have transformed lives for the better, but it has been bad news for traditional...

How reader-led co-operatives are fulfilling the need for high-quality local news

The internet may have transformed lives for the better, but it has been bad news for traditional print media.

Regional newspapers are currently disappearing at a rate of more than 30 a year, with over 250 titles closing in the last eight years. Circulations and advertising revenues have plummeted as local papers – once respected for their vital role in the community – have been re-located to understaffed media ‘hubs’ in industrial sheds where journalists cope as best they can with ever-dwindling resources.

In the wake of the hacking scandals which closed down Rupert Murdoch’s News Of The World, and the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, mainstream media is facing a real crisis of confidence – and growing accusations of political bias from a disgruntled public.

Alongside this, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have changed the landscape by handing power to thousands of ordinary people who can publish and receive information instantly. But the good news is that the prospects for co-operatively run media have never been better.

The idea of collective news-gathering is not new. In 1846, the Associated Press was formed in New York and remains a not-for-profit news co-operative owned by its 1500 US newspaper and broadcast members.

The Co-operative News has been in continuous publication since 1871 and is the oldest co-operative newspaper in the world. At one time the co-operative movement also published a Sunday newspaper, Reynolds News, bought in 1929 and renamed the Sunday Citizen. However, publication ceased in the 1960s in the face of growing national competition.

More recently there have been other co-op news ventures with much shorter lifespans. In 1987 the Manchester-based News on Sunday launched amid a fanfare of publicity – and was sold off a matter of weeks later to media baron Owen Oyston.

However, magazines such as Ethical Consumer have been run co-operatively for decades and New Internationalist has been owned as a worker co-operative for the last 20 years.

The internet has sparked new ways of working which have many advantages for co-operatives pitching fresh ideas against an old media world built on strong hierarchies and vested interests.

Media co-operatives come in different models, but all adhere to co-op principles and aim to ensure decent employment – with news ethics and journalistic integrity a lot less subject to being bent by unscrupulous owners or management. Reader-owned enterprises can also exercise real control over the direction their news media takes.

One leading player in this brave new media world is Dave Boyle, from the Community Shares Company. In 2012 he wrote a ground-breaking pamphlet called Good News, backed by Co-operatives UK, and a year later headed up the Make Your Local News Work project in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust, based on eight workshops with activists from around the UK.

Mr Boyle’s research found that demand for high-quality, local news was as strong as ever – and that newspaper closures did not have to signal the death of local media.

His report also called for more support to be given to local newspapers to help them adopt new ways of working, including turning papers into community-owned co-operatives in the same way that residents now own their village shops and pubs.

Mr Boyle’s interest in co-operative media was sparked during his time with Supporters Direct: “Andy Burnham was one of our co-founders, and when he became the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport there was a problem with one of the papers in his constituency. He was asked ‘what are you going to do?’ and said ‘I can’t do anything personally but maybe newspapers could be saved by readers’.

“That started a train of thought, so I started looking at things like people owning their local paper – which to begin with seemed unlikely as it looked like a dying industry. But our research showed it was a viable proposition. The problem was not mass social change but terrible ownership.”

But as Mr Boyle acknowledges, developing new models of media ownership has not all been plain sailing.

“The biggest problem we have had in pushing our agenda,” he says, “is that the media is a very different animal from community-owned pubs where many landlords are being bled dry and happy to sell. We have found you usually cannot get newspaper groups to sell a title. They would rather merge five titles into three because they want the advertising but don’t particularly care about the news values.

“However, interest is continuing to grow because people are fed up with mainstream media and are recognising there is a lot more happening out there than the traditional media is telling them. People are increasingly aware of the need for a different way of communicating – and of what is possible.”

Dave Boyle recently helped set up the Bristol Cable, a multimedia website with a free print edition which launched in November with funding from a range of sources including £3,300 from crowd funding and £1,500 apiece from Co-operatives UK and Lush Cosmetics. The core team is a collective of 10 local people ranging from university tutors, youth workers and administrators to journalists and those who are unemployed. They share the aim of redefining local media and setting a news agenda that gives local people a real voice.

The Bristol Cable team launched a consultation, speaking to hundreds of local people
The Bristol Cable team launched a consultation, speaking to hundreds of local people

Co-founder Alon Aviram has a background in freelance journalism and community activism. “In the summer of 2013, a few of us came together with the idea of a media co-op,” he says. “We hatched the idea of marrying journalism and media production with the rise of localism and working co-operatively in an accountable, sustainable and trustworthy way. We believe that an essential part of our society is to have an independent and accountable media source that reaches a wide audience. There’s this problem of local media being in decline with hundreds of local media outlets closing. They aren’t really covering the pressing issues of our time and aren’t seen as trustworthy any more.”

In September 2013, the Bristol Cable team launched a consultation, speaking to hundreds of local people and offering 35 hours of free media workshops attended by 200 people.

“We looked at different forms of citizen media, from article-writing to films and illustration, thrashing out ideas in a collaborative way. And Dave [Boyle] has been a great help with putting together our constitution, rules and financial strategy. We are now a community benefit society with multi-stakeholder community and contributor members.”

The first issue is now online and 10,000 copies of the Bristol Cable have been printed, with plans for publication every two months.

The first edition invited readers and contributors to become paid members for £12 a year, both as a way of funding the newspaper and giving themselves a voice in strategic decisions about the co-op.

“We don’t see our role as a breaking news service,” says Mr Aviram. “Our aim is to cover local investigations and the stories which often go unreported, using infographics, podcasts, photography, illustrations and films as well as feature articles.

“We are interested in looking at stories behind the daily news and more interested in exploring wider themes in a variety of media making data and under-reported stories accessible.”

A recent Bristol Cable investigation surveyed pay and conditions for local workers in the catering industry, and found numerous stories of exploitation and pay rates below the minimum wage.

“Over 35 people contributed to our first edition and we now have almost 100 paying co-operative members who get a say over strategic decisions,” adds Mr Aviram.

“As we move forward, we need to be sustainable, so the next edition will have some advertising, and we are continuing to provide workshops and training, which we get paid for.

“Our editorial structure operates on a revolving basis, with a team of co-coordinators who put people in touch with each other to make sure our editorial policy is adhered to.

“At the moment we are volunteer-led, but have made a commitment to working towards a stage where we can pay contributors. We are having ongoing talks with the NUJ and made it clear we don’t want to be another organisation that depends on aspiring journalists working free of charge.”

Co-operative ideas are also making inroads into the world of broadcast media.

Sheffield’s first digital community television station, Sheffield Live! TV launched in September following a successful community share offer which saw more than 100 pledges bringing in £95,000 from the local community.

As with Bristol Cable, Sheffield Live! TV is dedicated to encouraging its members and the wider community to get as involved in producing content as they wish. Calls for proposals are put out for anybody to come forward with ideas.

With a completely different co-operative model, England’s first local newspaper co-operative is also going from strength to strength.

Marlborough News Online’s worker co-operative is run by the staff who founded it. Launched in 2011, it has three directors who take an equal stake. One of them is former print journalist Peter Davison, who also runs his own PR company.

He says: “Some years ago I was working on a PR project with the Co-operative Futures development agency in Gloucester and I saw the amazing work they were doing. When it came to setting up a newspaper I thought ‘that’s the model I want’. They helped us through the whole process and it was good to have support from lots of people who knew what they were doing. It’s taken us four years to build and we are almost at the stage where we are earning a living, with a new member of staff who sells advertising for us. That has made a real difference.

“We came up with the idea because we had a local paper becoming less relevant to our town. They closed the local office and moved the reporter to a town an hour’s drive away. Editorial resources were being slashed and vital things like councils were not being covered and important questions weren’t being asked.”

So they decided to do something about it. “We looked at doing a print version but after looking at costs, decided to go online,” said Mr Davison. “We have kept our overheads down, work from home and are very busy on social media like Twitter and Facebook. We are now the best-read local news source with over 17,000 readers.

“Keeping it small and being a co-operative where the workers benefit from the profits generated by the business is better for the workers and better for the readers. What we can concentrate on is what we set ourselves up to do – which was provide a good comprehensive local news service for the people of Marlborough.”

West Highland Free Press has 15 staff and an editorial team of six
West Highland Free Press has 15 staff and an editorial team of six

Up in Scotland, the West Highland Free Press serves a geographical area of over 250 square miles with a readership of 8,000 covering the islands of Skye, Lewis and Harris and the surrounding mainland as far as Ullapool. The newspaper has been worker-owned since 2009 and also has a flourishing website.

Employees provided around 15% of the capital, with the remainder financed predominantly by the Baxi Partnership, which supports employee ownership, with other finance from Co-operative and Community Finance.

It is a limited liability company and shareholders are all employees with one member, one vote.

Managing director Paul Wood says: “We are not only community-based – what makes us different is that we are far more flexible in how we deal with financial operations. Our profit margins are narrow and conditions are ones traditional shareholders would not tolerate. If we have enough money to employ people, that’s enough for us.”

He added: “Our readership is steady and although advertising revenues are squeezed, we have not got that baggage of external shareholders expecting big profits from their investment.

“Because we don’t have a top-down hierarchy, we are also a lot more proactive when it comes to dealing with issues. We have 15 staff and an editorial team of six. What we have found is that if you provide a well-researched newspaper, people will buy it, and we are trying to tap into all forms of media.

“There is a niche for well-written content and a quality product. We have a board of directors and everything we do is an open book. Once a month we get together to thrash things out and talk things over. Everyone is involved.”

Nearly three years after he began his research into the possibilities of co-operative media, Dave Boyle is extremely optimistic about its future, with more projects in the pipeline in Hastings and Norfolk and interest growing all over the UK.

“As far as the established media goes, there is a crisis of finance and a crisis of confidence even with institutions like the BBC which has always been the benchmark. Existing business models are failing and there is a real appetite for new kinds of media.

“I see more and more people wanting to support an alternative media, which represents something important about our values. This is the heat underneath a pan which is really bubbling.”

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