Thursday, 20 June 2013
Are community-based cooperatives the future for newspapers?
Newspapers are all wallowing in Shit Creek and Paddles R Us has gone out of business. The Internet has murdered print media, punters read it on the phone and advertisers no longer see the point. Right?
Not exactly. Not according to Carnegie UK Trust and Co-operatives UK.
This week they ran a meeting designed ultimately to inspire the creation of community-owned media.
Interesting. A paddle-packed cargo ship steaming to the rescue? Maybe.
Local newspaper offices are closing, staff being laid off and those remaining working from central hubs. And circulations and advertising revenues are tumbling almost as fast as standards of literacy.
But there really isn't much point in sitting around with our heads in our hands bemoaning the glory years and trying to work out who to blame for the current situation.
As it goes, I don't think the media is doomed, merely in a state of hysterical paralysis and almost complete transformation.
People will always want news and therefore there's a need to collect and present it. The public will always be prepared to pay for something that meets a need. Businesses will always want to use this interaction to sell more things. What we drastically need is an understanding of how this will work and, crucially, how to make it pay.
Writer and consultant on co-operatives Dave Boyle presented a compelling argument for things community-based, insisting they are now authentic and cool and no longer "care in the..." or remotely tie-dyed.
The jewel in the crown of community is that it "changes the nature of viability". Which means that something that grows out of the community in order to serve that community doesn't need to make wads of profit for shareholders and the like.
It also means that the objective of a community-owned newspaper would necessarily be finite. A paper for the people of, say, Oxdown would have no interest in spreading to surrounding towns. Empire building is so last century.
Dave even bandied the notion that readers would pay for quality content. Gasp. They would invest and support too. Wow. Heady stuff.
And it does work. Of course it does. Paul Wood, managing director of the ground-breaking West Highland Free Press, (WHFP) talked us through the employee buy-out and subsequent success of the paper.
But before you highly trained and experienced journalists rush away from your PR jobs or leave the lifeboat queue at your office to start a co-op it's probably worth a wee think.
If you build it, they probably won't come. It doesn't matter how good the reporting and writing, a newspaper (or other media for that matter) will not simply draw consumers who will be dazzled by the brilliance of it all. Does anyone remember the Scottish Daily News? Journalists have something of a habit of overestimating their importance in the everyday lives of individuals.
Likewise journalists are somewhat inclined to disregard any other aspect of the business. They are not interested in advertising sales, circulation people, marketing, distribution and so on. No one, in their eyes, is more important than the hacks. (Go on, look into your soul and tell me this isn't true.) However, it's a huge mistake. Whatever the structure of the media, the ends must meet and the product must sell.
A news organisation (or any other business) must meet a need. Look at the (WHFP), it thrives in an area with a complex set of possibly unique challenges - by helping solve them.
While print isn't dead... yet. It would be wise to, ahem, "think across the platforms". The forward-thinking news organisations know that people get their news on their smartphones, at their desks and tailor what they're doing accordingly. Actually, it's not really a point for consideration - it's a cold hard fact. Get online or give up and go home.
So where does that leave those flailing around looking for paddles? Hopefully inspired, but sensibly cautious. Oh, and if you're interested there is help to be had. www.uk.coop/innovation and http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/ might be worth a look.