A cooperative future for the UK's local media

Updated: May 10, 2020

There was some thought-provoking discussion at the NUJ/Cooperatives UK/Goldsmiths College event Can the Media Be Cooperative? at the weekend. I’ve been thinking over the discussion since then, and these are a few thoughts.

Much of the value of the event was in setting out the political challenges that need to be taken on. The practical stuff is happening on the ground as producers of media experiment, but for those experiments to lead somewhere the political battles need to be won. In short, the purpose of those political battles is to challenge accepted thinking. If we accept traditional media business models and traditional concepts of value and worth our attempts to build an alternative will fail.  

Many of the speakers talked of influencing the upcoming Communications Bill. But I agree with the speaker who said this is a waste of time. I’ve always been suspicious of outright oppositionism, but the fact is that any Communications Bill put forward by the Coalition is going to favour the very corporate interests which have failed us so far. Our effort needs to go into creating and incubating new models.

Talk of coops invariably elicits a dismissive response – it’s all a bit woolly and unrealistic, isn’t it? At least, that’s what we are encouraged to think. But the coop itself is in rude health and cooperative businesses such as John Lewis are extremely successful.

Dave Boyle from Cooperatives UK’s investment board talked of a ‘second wave’ of coops emerging. The first were the original coops, rooted in 19th century Rochdale, which addressed basic needs such as shelter, heat and food. Now we’re seeing a second wave of coops covering things such as pubs and football clubs, stuff which could be described as the icing on the cake of life but which is still a vital part of what makes us what we are. He said it had always struck him that the media, and particularly local news, was ripe for a cooperative model.

For those who would poo-poo this, it’s worth considering how the corporate model’s business plan stacks up. Cardiff University researchers examined Trinity Mirror’s titles in South Wales between 1999 and 2009. The research showed that Trinity kept the level of profits up by cutting costs, making fewer journalists to more work for less money. This meant that quality went down, which meant that readership went down, which meant that in the end the papers died. Hardly an inspiring business model.

The void the corporate model left behind is being filled by community based groups. The Lichfield Blog is now almost routinely cited as an example of what can be done, and in South Wales a group of recently redundant journalists are putting together a news hub, the Port Talbot Magnet, to fill the gap and to create a cooperative media model that properly serves its community. Across the country, a community-based media is moving into the space vacated by the corporates whose business model failed.

For many of these initiatives to succeed, the value of what they produce needs to be defined not just by the money they create, but by the service they provide for the community. Taken to a wider level, a genuine challenge to the corporate media model would provide the opportunity to strengthen civil society and confront the democratic crisis we currently face.

There will be plenty who doubt any of this will ever get anywhere. But a combination of factors means the ground may be fertile. Upheaval in the media industry means many media workers are looking for work and for new ways to make journalism pay. Technological change has opened up the means of distribution and removed much of the gap between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ journalists. Communities at local and national level are becoming more aware of the role the media can play in holding power to account. And there’s a deep disillusion with the political class.

None of that leads inexorably to a media of the people by the people. Indeed, there are some very real issues that were skirted at the conference, such as what happens if a community decides a story should not be covered rather than that it should in the crowd-sourcing model alluded to by a number of panellists. And there are still some pretty major questions about raising funding to start-up to confront, although the Coop movement does have funds available to invest in and incubate projects that have been properly thought out.

What was clearest to me was that this is the only discussion that is looking at what news should be and could be, rather than engaging in sterile arguments about whether news could or should be made to pay. All over the country, projects are being planned. Today’s networking landscape means experiences can be shared in order to more rapidly advance the speed at which the people running those projects learn. And the political arguments which need to be won in order to create the space for those projects to succeed are starting to happen.

Far from being woolly, the cooperative example offers a positive path to the future based on renewing the contract of trust between the media and the people. And that offers much more than the doom-laden picking over of bones which the industry has been obsessed with for years.

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