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. and might be worth a look. 


  1. In the '90s I spent time working with community radio stations that were hyper local to the areas they served. There is no way they could ever make the profits the big boys make, but that was not their purpose. Many people said then that community radio stations had no future, but they're still around and people still listen to them. For the same reasons I think, community, or cooperative, newspapers do have a role and it will be very interesting to see if they can be a way forward for the newspaper industry, especially the regional industry. Being a journalist at the moment is a soul destroying business and I keep telling myself there has to be a way forward. I spend all day working at a computer and I for one do not want to have to read my news on screen, and I don't think I'm alone in that. Also, there's something about holding an actual newspaper or magazine in your hands, being able to flick backwards and forwards, dip in and out, that is satisfying and something you don't get via computer or phone - I find the bloody things always freeze! I sound like a dinosaur, but I'm not. I refuse to believe though that print will die out - it has a role to play, we just have to realise its role has changed and find a way to make it work in our high tech world. I will definitely check out the link for more information - God, I would love to start my own newspaper!

    1. I must say the idea of starting a paper is tempting, but I believe in order to succeed they need to come from the bottom up, not from a hack, like me, not fancying having a boss.
      The technology is getting better and better all the time so the 'reader experience' is less freezy and horrible and more like actual papers.


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