Online only - for now

Co-own the means of production

NEW WAYS TO save local journalism were under discussion at the February London Freelance Branch meeting, which focused on possible "mutual" and cooperative models for media enterprises. The meeting was a follow-up to the successful conference on New Ways to Make Journalism Pay, (see here for a detailed report on the conference's section on local media.)

LFB's own Martin Cloake opened by pointing out that there's a lot of talk now about teaching journalists to be entrepreneurs. The corporate newspaper groups seem to have abrogated their responsibility to cover local news of late, and some "active citizen bloggers" are now doing a better job locally than local newspapers are. Does this present an opportunity for journalists to start up their own local news enterprises?

David Boyle, chief executive of Supporters United, which finds funding for sports clubs, is also active in Cooperatives UK, which supports the development of a co-operative economy.

Photo © Matt Salusbury
A sign of the times on a closed Archant newspaper group office in North London. Titles serving Haringey and Islington have now moved to an office in another borough. Does the corporate media's abandonment of local news offer opportunities for journalists to start their own media enterprises?

In the current media industry meltdown, in which "homespun capitalism" seems to be failing, David asked why no one has tried a mutual (cooperative) model of media ownership. In much of the media, a "fraudulent cost" is being asked of consumers. The media are in fact being subsidised by something else, whether it's a wealthy oligarch or advertising. Now in media, as in football, this subsidy is in trouble, and it may be time to start asking an "honest price" for news, where the people who benefit from it pay for it in full.

Mutual models do work, says David. Mutual football club FC Manchester has 3000 members, each paying about £150 a year, and it doesn't get money form anywhere else.

Pubs, like media, are "affected by conglomeration", and in recent years, local customers have been asking why their pub was shutting when they still need to use it. Many pubs close because they're generating just 8 per cent profit, not the 25 per cent "stupid returns" that the owners want.The Old Crown pub in Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria, was bought by punters who put in £2000 each, and is run as a cooperative so successful it brews and exports its own beer.

David described three basic types of cooperative. There's the consumer co-op, like the Coop supermarket, in which instead of getting a loyalty card you get a dividend and/or a vote. Then there's the John Lewis Partnership, a "middle-class worker's co-op," in which employees (partners) get a bonus, there are no owners, and the profits go to the workforce. Then there's the model of the huge Mondragon Cooperative in the Basque Country, a hybrid which is "half ownership from the workforce, half from the customers," with structures built in to "resolve tensions between workers and customers."

"If you are freelances, there is very little reason not to look at a worker co-op," says David. Such a cooperative structure would codify relations between employees. The West Highland Free Press became an employee-owned paper last year, but David feels that the "real sell" would be a title owned by employees and readers. If a journalist-owned paper like WHFP gets into difficulties, it would be harder to appeal to the readers for help. A hybrid model - an employee- and reader-owned cooperative paper - would make it easier to "make that appeal to get people to pay the real price" for news.

But how do you do democracy within a cooperative "editorial community" that includes readers? Sometimes communities need the truths they don't want to hear told to them. So a journalist- and reader-owned coop would need to be structured in a way that "put a bubble round the editorial process, so you can't sack them (the journalists) for telling the truth."

Nearly every region has local cooperative development agency, which is a bit like Business Link but for co-ops, and these agencies would be the first step for those seeking advice on how to set up cooperative media enterprises. (See here for a more extensive listing of information resources for media start-ups, whether cooperative or more traditionally capitalist.)

The broadcasting union BECTU is currently piloting a project with Cooperatives UK to run agencies that recruit technicians as "mutuals". David added that the cooperative sector realises it "needs to generate new ideas to survive," which may mean they're open to proposals on cooperative media start-ups.

In closing, Martin Cloake observed that the media's current catastrophe is only "going to be solved by people doing practical stuff, the people who create the content." NUJ freelances have already started up the Local News South Wales cooperative, which already has a news website for Port Talbot up and running.

  • The NUJ is supporting the part of the Digital Economy Bill, currently before Parliament, that would fund three pilot "independent news consortia" to take over commercial broadcasters' public service requirements. These seem to the Freelance like ideal test-beds for largish cooperative enterprises.
Last modified: 23 Feb 2010 - © 2009 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org