The issue of ownership has been the absent part of the British media debate but there is growing recognition that the issue has to be on the table as the various strands of inquiry into the media resulting from hackgate start in earnest.
I’ve written 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?
Regardless of what type of outlet, there’s a set of common questions that would need to be answered. First of these is who actually can join and govern the enterprise?
It could be the employees who would elect directors who would run the outlet and get their dividend at the end of the year reflecting their share of the profits. They’d hopefully ensure that the working conditions reflected the best environment to work in to produce news, not the most cost-effective one to make profits, hardwiring ethical practice into the legal basis of the enterprise.
Alternatively, readers could own it through a subscription, much in the way in which FC Barcelona members can own the club and get a season ticket at the same time; instead of season tickets, owners would get access to the publication (there’s some interesting analyses to see whether that would be both print and online version, or one or the other). The bigger the readership, the more thought would need to go into how exactly they exercise their role as owners and the same goes for how geographically remote they are from other.
The best approach though would be one that recognized that the media isn’t exclusively a matter of concern to its writers or its readers but both. Combining the two would see guaranteed representation for readers and writers on the board and in the ownership base, and with both represented, you’d think that co-operative ownership would be able to 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, a critical governance issue will be who decided what gets written about and not. 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 would be best off being embedded into the constitutional arrangements, so whoever made these decisions was tied down to acting ethically (using the NUJ Code of Practice, for example). The editor would be accountable to the board for their performance in pursuit of that mandate, the editor’s role would have independence hard-wired in.
More radically, there’s also possibilities for ‘the editor’ to become something different; following Dan Hind’s ideas about the public as commissioning editor, these decisions could be devolved to a reading public, with the editorial staff there to manage the pursuit of the brief laid down by the public. Technology makes the operation of this more possible than ever 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 one which always seemed doomed to fail in football due to the conservative institutional culture of the game; there are also issues about whether it would actually work. But its more easy to see how internet offers the possibility for readers to become commissioners to change the editor’s job description, and 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. It won’t solve the problem of technological change, but could help navigate those changes better. Unlike models which depend variously on someone else (the state, charitable foundations, philanthropists…) funding media, they also sink or swim on whether there’s enough readers paying enough money to sustain it; in that respect, it’s the most ‘honest’ solution on the horizon.
In practical terms, it much more easy to see co-operative media coming about at local level for a 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 steps 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 receeding. That said, existing title 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.
It’s not impossible though; with 75% of the country covered by a title owned by one of 4 big groups, all of whom are engaged in varying degrees of centralizing production, more and more gaps are opening up, as either titles close or where populations become increasingly ill-served by papers eroding the trust which readers once held in them, not least through the ‘churnalism’ described by Nick Davies. In 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 whilst we know the old world will not survive, we’re not clear on what the new will look like. It’s all to play for. We can’t say that co-operation won’t be part of this landscape, but whether it is or not will depend not on grand sweeps of impersonal economic forces but on us. Any takers?