openDemocracyUK

Mutualising the media: the answer to UK press ownership?

What would employee-owned or co-operative media models look like? Could they allow for genuine public interest journalism?
Dave Boyle
28 November 2011

Who owns the news has been always been a more topical issue than how it is owned, but there seems to be a growing recognition that it has to be on the table as the various strands of the post-hackgate inquiry begin in earnest.

I've written before about why news should be produced co-operatively and why it would be more ethical, more responsive and more accountable, opening up new sources of capital in the midst of crisis and transformation in the economics of news. But how could it actually work, and what would a co-operative media outlet look like?

The first question is, who actually can join and govern a publication? This encompasses hiring employees, electing directors and creating a workplace built around producing news rather than corner-cutting and profiteering. This could mean employee-ownership, sharing the profits but with differentials in salary (as per the corporate world), or a worker co-operative, paid with reference to the contributions of each individual to the enterprise (something much easier to measure than ever before). Or perhaps the readers could own the publication, like the fan-members of FC Barcelona, getting a subscription for their money along with a vote for the board. But these first decisions only open up more questions. Would the readers run the publication with a dividend paid to them, as with traditional retail co-ops, or as a community benefit society operating for a wider good?

Perhaps the best approach is one that recognises that neither writers nor readers should exclusively control a media outlet. Combining the two would see guaranteed representation for readers and writers on the board and in the ownership. With both represented, you'd hope they would better manage the blurring of the distinction between professional writer and amateur reader that every profession is negotiating in the digital age.

In all of these scenarios though, a critical governance issue will be who decides what gets written about and what doesn't. Who shapes, controls and defines what is considered news and what isn't? What is acceptable practice in pursuit of those news values and in pursuit of the story? The key principles should be embedded into the constitutional arrangements, so whoever makes these decisions is tied down to acting ethically (using the NUJ Code of Practice, for example). Editorial independence would be hard-wired in to the governance, but so would the board's right to hold the editor to account for the overall fulfilment of the publication's ethics and mission (in much the same way that the Scott Trust relates to the editor of The Guardian).

More radically, there is the option for 'the editor' to become something different entirely. Following Dan Hind's ideas about the public becoming the commissioning editor, the decisions over what gets written about could be devolved to a reading public, with the editorial staff there to manage the pursuit of that brief. Technology makes the operation of this possible in a way that it could never have been before. There's a football analogy here too. MyFootballClub had the notion of replacing the manager of a team with the 'wisdom of crowds' where a voting public chose the team and tactics. It's an intriguing idea, which was never actually put into practice; (there are serious questions around whether it would actually work). In a media context though, it's easy to see how the internet offers the possibility for readers to become commissioners and thus to change the editor's job description. Through co-operative structures, that process can be managed equitably and within a framework where the respective role of writer and reader are respected.

Beyond that, critical to any co-operative enterprise is a community who share enough in common to see a co-operative media outlet as a solution to their problem. That underscores a critical point - co-operation, like charitable models, is not a panacea for a lack of readers nor a means to solve the problems of technological change (but it could help navigate them better). Importantly, unlike models which depend on some degree of vicarious subsidy to replace the lost subsidy of print advertising (the state, charitable foundations, philanthropists etc) co-ops would sink or swim on whether there are enough readers paying enough money to sustain it; in that respect, it's the most 'honest' solution on the horizon.

In practical terms, it is easier to see co-operative media coming about at a local rather than national level for two critical reasons: it's small scale enough to make the capital needed more achievable, and the community who will benefit is already in place and self-defining.

The next step would be to identify whether the best route is to start something new or convert something already in place; both have their pros and cons. Starting something new means you can be digitally native, instead of trying to adapt cultures and practices from an era fast receding. That said, existing titles are very sticky, with strong brands and the ability to discount and use a larger group's financial muscle to make life very difficult for a new start.

Either route is perfectly possible. With 75% of the country covered by a title owned by one of four big groups, all of whom are engaged in varying degrees of centralising production, more and more gaps are opening up, as either titles close or as populations become increasingly ill-served by papers eroding the trust which readers once held in them, not least through 'churnalism'. For the other 25%, there are many long-established titles where traditional family or group ownership will be up for grabs as new generations of owners come at the business afresh without the same love of the business of their predecessors. In other words, the status quo will not persist.

Clay Shirky has written that what defines a revolution is that 'old stuff gets broken quicker than new stuff can replace it.' He added 'the importance of any given experiment isn't apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.' That's interesting, because co-operation starts small then spreads. Whether it has a place as new stuff in the media landscape won't be because of grand sweeps of impersonal economic forces but on us, if we decide to explore it. 

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