A guest post today from Dave Boyle, a writer, researcher and co-operative consultant, and author of “Good News: A co-operative solution to the media crisis“.
He has written and lectured on sport, culture, economics and co-operation, and was previously Chief Executive of Supporters Direct, the organisation that helps fans who want to take control of their clubs.
In 2009, the West Highland Free Press was sold. The new owners – one of the big 4 groups who dominate local media – made lots of promises upon acquisition, but they soon fell by the wayside in the face of their need to make a profit of 30% to service their group debts. Journalists were sacked, and then the offices were closed, with production moving to Oban (it was close enough, the senior managers felt). Sales and advertising slumped, as people saw coverage shrink, and what remained was churnalistic cutting and pasting of press releases. The community goodwill which sustained it disappeared, and the cost of delivering it to the further flung parts of the paper’s patch couldn’t be sustained. After 40 years, the paper closed in 2012, with the owners blaming a shift in reading and advertising habits as a result of the internet.
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Of course, that’s not actually what happened. In 2009, the paper was bought by its employees, who all own an equal stake. The paper hasn’t been late once, and whilst it is suffering the difficulties that all businesses struggle with in recessions, its 2% margin does what it needs to do – pays the staff a decent wage to do what they do, and pays back the debts the employees took out to buy it. They’ll have paid those off in a few years and the paper will be able to think about capital investment, new staff and other happy things.
The Free Press, I was told by someone working for the BBC in the area, is at the base of the pyramid of news, keeping them honest and connected, making sure the media ecosystem is vibrant, and so having a positive impact on political performance, honesty and the rest.
When I started thinking about whether the co-operative movement had an answer to the problems of the local media, I was shocked by what I found. I’d been led to believe that dead tree media was failing in the face of the web, but in fact it looked more like a common or garden failing of the era of cheap credit. Local groups who owned papers sold them to larger groups, who started to treat them as lines on a spreadsheet, not parts of their communities. I’m absolutely convinced that better ownership models will give newspapers, and more importantly journalism, the resilience they need.
But co-operative models have other spin-offs too. They’d be accountable to their readers or their reporters (or both), depending on which type of co-op route they picked. The underpinning story of Leveson is that a news culture developed which was set at the top, with reporters powerless to stop it, aside from quitting. Readers had no means to affect change, other than registering their unhappiness by stopping reading. Which is actually what half of newspaper readers have done, but no-one ever thinks it might be because the news we have isn’t up to it; the media couldn’t be the cause of the media’s failings, could it? Better blame something epochal and impersonal like the web.
The beauty of co-operatives is that by being accountable to a wider public, they embody the public interest – the thing we want most from our media, when thinking about sustaining a civil society – far better than any privately owned concern ever could.
The final benefit is that co-ops can be understood as organisational software, which for over 150 years have been proven to unlock people’s goodwill, and their ability to take responsibility for the things that matter to them in their communities.
This speaks directly to the biggest challenge the media face, the genuine threat from the internet, which is destroying the advertising base that has subsidised news production, and so making the industry, like many others, newly precarious. Media outlets are discovering a social mission few had noted in the last 30 years of their activities, and are calling for state support and subsidy.
But the subsidy for cover price could be made good by people paying its true costs – or something more like it. That’s where co-ops come in. Paying more to make someone else richer isn’t a very sellable appeal; it works best as a by-product for owners of capital, not their sales pitch.
But people would be more interested in paying to own and run and support a paper they controlled, held to account and knew was in the heart of their communities. One which like the Free Press, wouldn’t need to make a profit per se, just enough money to cover its costs and build some reserves.
It’s an issue where the Scottish Parliament can go far beyond the timidity of Westminster. It could make local media companies into assets communities can register an interest in to buy, and provide loans to enable them to so, and give people tax incentives to use their own capital to benefit the community. It could legislate to ensure that whenever a newspaper office closed, people had the right to buy the title that used to be produced there, like the Community Reinvestment Act did in the US.
With imagination and commitment, you could do something quite extraordinary. And the beauty is that politicians should be on board. After all, who else is going to print pictures of them kissing babies?