Could 2013 be the year of the ‘news co-op’? (Perhaps Leeds should try one?)

cooperativesI was chatting recently to a learned colleague about future sustainable business models for blogs and media organisations.

It’s a hot potato which isn’t going to go away in 2013 (or any time in the following years, come to that). Just how can hyperlocal blogs become commercially sustainable? How can downsizing mainstream media organisations make some brass online to sustain their business without further cuts?

One of the best things I attended last year was a weekend in Preston at the University of Central Lancashire and the MADE project. MADE was an event which looked at creating sustainable news enterprises. There was much talk of display advertising models, sponsored posts, platforms like Addiply and affiliate advertising.

There’s a fabulous online toolbox of useful MADE tools, networks and business support which can be found here.

There’s a lot of talk in the industry about the way forward financially – which I won’t go into here but needless to say the talk considerably outweighs the potential answers – but my hunch (courtesy of MADE) is that entrepreneurial journalism is going to play a growing part in the future. There really is no single tried and trusted business model which will suddenly make everything in the garden rosey.

Experimentation and innovation is the way forward – you’ve got to try new things. Some regional press still insist on trying to apply a centuries old print business model onto an online platform – it’s proven that although there is some revenue there, there’s not simply not enough to sustain it.

One of the myriad of things I recently discussed with my colleague was a news co-op. I wasn’t overly sure exactly what a co-op did, apart from being the place where my mother used to buy her groceries as a child. The definition I’ve found was:

“A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual, social, economic, and cultural benefit. Cooperatives include non-profit community organizations and businesses that are owned and managed by the people who use its services (a consumer cooperative) or by the people who work there (a worker cooperative) or by the people who live there (a housing cooperative).”

I found this rather interesting blog on ‘co-operative journalism‘ which eloquently sets out the pros and cons.

The whole idea of a community-owned journalism outlet or model does appeal – not least it won’t be run by some of the big corporations that currently rule regional press and it seems to me at least to be an extension of the hyperlocal movement of bloggers, which is so eloquently described in Damian Radcliffe’s excellent Here and Now report for Nesta. Could mutualisation yet prove an answer?

According to an August 2012 post in Co-operative News, Local journalism co-ops are set to spread across America’s communities. The article cites the example of American journalist Tom Stites who, democratic deficit caused by the lack of local news coverage, has been working on developing a new model of community–owned journalism in the form of the Banyan Project. Stites says:

“I have had to put a lot of energy into explaining the concept of co-operatives. These are essentially plan A — save the newspapers; plan B — swap to blogs, and either new forms will save the day. I have a plan C — co-operative journalism as a community institution. Community members would be well served with reliable information.”

The first website of the Banyan project is due to launch this month. The Haverhill Matters website will be dedicated to covering news for the community of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a local news ‘desert’. He adds:

“When I showed up and started asking people if they were interested, they got it immediately. They understood that if the readers are members it would be really and truly a community of journalism; not something that is owned by someone else and called a co-op.”

So far so good, right? It almost seems like a no-brainer to go down this route – whether you’re a journalist recently laid off or seeking a new challenge, or a blogger looking to make up for the democratic deficit left by the withdrawal of mainstream media from your community.

Simply apply the co-operative model, assume people might want to pay a little something, and apply some of the different potential revenue streams from MADE. Simple? Well, not exactly. There’s been no rush in the UK to move towards this kind of funding model. I don’t have the answer, but I do wonder why this hasn’t taken off.

Freelance journalist Alex Klaushofer, one of the founding members of www.newmodeljournalism.com, a website aimed at proposing new models for the future of the media, says there’s certainly an appetite for a new media model which would share many of the elements of the traditional co-operative. She writes:

“The only new media co-operative I’ve heard of – Local News South Wales, founded in spring 2010 to cover events in Port Talbot – struggled to get off the ground. One of its directors, Mike Burrows, cites the difficulty of raising funds as a major obstacle, and emphasises the need for clear support and guidance for media co-operatives. Co-operation between journalists still seems to be a great unexplored opportunity for the co-operative movement.”

Port Talbot MagNet IS now up and running – but interestingly, in an article in the Sunday Times business section in October, they still see most of their revenue coming from print for the foreseeable future as apparently local advertisers ‘haven’t embraced’ the internet.

The West Highland Free Press is an employee-owned publication. Photo courtesy  employeeownership.co.uk

The West Highland Free Press is an employee-owned publication. Photo courtesy employeeownership.co.uk

The West Highland Free Press became Britain’s first employee-owned newspaper in October 2009, and as it moves into its fourth year of employee ownership, it still remains the only UK newspaper to have followed this business model. Again. it’s mostly print-focussed.

Paul Wood is an employee-owner and Managing Director the West Highland Free Press, a campaigning weekly covering the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. He writes:

“…we have proved you do not have to be a faceless, corporately bland giant to make a newspaper successful. What counts is well researched, well written content reflecting the needs of the community it serves and what better way of doing that through a company independently and locally owned by members of that same community? Shareholders and employees who have a real, tangible bond to their community.

“It is also gratifying to know that in difficult economic times and the overwhelming malaise of those surrounding the newspaper industry we have demonstrated as a group of employees that employee ownership is a viable model even within a troubled business sector.”

Perhaps there is hope for journalism co-ops. I’m intrigued by the possibility of setting one up in Leeds with journalists and/or bloggers. Anyone out there interested in having an initial discussion in  confidence?  Email john.baron1973@gmail.com.

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2 comments

  1. […] I wrote about journalism co-ops and how a handful have been successful across the British Isles. Could 2013 be the year of news co-ops? I […]

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