We hear it so often it’s almost become a cliché: old media structures are crumbling, their business models in shreds, no longer able to serve readers and journalists adequately. The crisis is most acute in local media, though by no means limited to it, yet the need for good journalism is still there.
We’ve had a drip-feed of sometimes alarmist local paper closure stories in recent years. But many of those that remain are undoubtedly a shadow of their former selves: understaffed, under-resourced and often distantly located, no longer visibly at the heart of their communities. This parlous state of affairs was illustrated most recently by the two-week strike by members of the National Union of Journalists at the Tindle group of newspapers in north London, which produces the Enfield Gazette and Advertiser, Haringey Advertiser and Barnet Press titles. It now employs only nine full-time journalists to get the formerly award-winning papers out, and the intolerable strain this has put on staff drove them to strike, not for more pay but more colleagues.
So what do we do? The bigger corporate players in local news – Newsquest, Johnston Press, Northcliffe et al – have long operated under a debt-fuelled business model that demands absurd profit margins frequently of 20% plus, which has meant, particularly post-recession, a wave of job losses and pay squeezes to service that model with scant regard to quality. Trinity Mirror’s annual report last week revealed net debt levels of £265.9m but operating profit margins of 16%. While as we have seen the smaller companies such as Tindle scarcely operate along better lines. When push comes to shove, quality becomes expendable.
But is news inherently profitable? And is the prerequisite for profit necessarily the only way in which journalism can be funded. Can other, more enlightened set-ups work?
These issues and more will be discussed at a conference organised by the NUJ, Co-operatives UK and Goldsmiths College at the college’s New Cross campus on 21 May. Speakers include the BBC’s Paul Mason, Co-operatives UK secretary-general Ed Mayo, Granville Williams from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Goldsmiths College professor of media and communications Natalie Fenton and legal experts from BatesWellsBraithewates solicitors. The conference will be split into sessions looking at three strands – the co-op/mutual model; the role of public policy and public subsidy; and charitable/foundation trust set-ups.
The initiative follows on from the New Ways to Make Journalism Pay event held at the NUJ last year after which representatives of Co-operatives UK, the umbrella organisation for co-ops in Britain, expressed an interest in developing media initiatives, partly to pick up the slack left by the corporates’ failings to their staff and readers.
“Newspapers are in that class of business which has a social value over and above the bottom line,” says Dave Boyle, of Co-operatives UK’s business development panel and one of the organisers of Saturday’s event. “You could add post offices, pubs, football clubs and so on, but they’re all things which – while they exist in a marketplace and are privately owned – the wider community gets a benefit from their existence.
“I was reading about how local newspapers were apparently in terminal decline, but the more I discovered, the more it seemed like the problem wasn’t so much newspapers as the business model they pursued. Local newspapers exist on the basis of trust from their readers,” he added. “But when you move the production office out of town, and the phone number is no longer a local one, people start to think the paper is no longer on their side, or aware of their issues.”
Union members themselves have taken steps in this direction. In south Wales the Port Talbot Magnet, established last autumn as Local News Port Talbot, was launched by seven local journalists and is now a 20-strong co-operative, while the employee-owned West Highland Free Press in Scotland continues to offer a campaigning local voice almost four decades after its inception in 1972.
More generally, it picks up on an instinct of “sod this company, we could do a better job than this” often heard on picket lines by hard-pressed local journalists. They don’t trust their betters.
“No form of management or structure is a guarantee of success,” says Boyle, “but what this issue of sustainability really is saying is: can you run a paper without a big backer to subsidise the losses they could make? I can see no reason why not, and the harsh truth is that if communities want papers that understand their issues and reflect them, and reporters want papers that are committed to journalism, then you have to find a business model which takes power and control away from people who have shown they have a paper-thin commitment to both of these. There’s several models that look at that, so worker-ownership, like the West Highland Free Press means the staff own and run the paper. A consumer co-op would be owned and run by the readers, but I think the real challenge is to recognise that all good newspapers need good staff and loyal readers, and a co-op which has both onboard both fits the ‘vibe’ of a paper.”
Other ideas are also worth exploring – the establishment of foundation or trust-funded news, which has had some success in the US and in specific projects in the UK such as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. Is there a role for public subsidy of independent journalism? What role can readers and communities themselves play in their local media outlets?
We shouldn’t be too wide-eyed about such ideas. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Experiments with more ‘right-on’ ways of doing things haven’t always succeeded – the experience of the ill-fated leftwing Sunday paper News on Sunday in the 1980s springs to mind. There is also an historic tension between co-ops and trade unions, with members of the latter sometimes uneasy at the idea of assuming ‘managerial’ roles, while the current government’s embrace of the co-op/mutual idea in public services – if not the private sector – is regarded with suspicion by many and as a cover for cuts and the ideological rolling back of the welfare state.
“Trade union members want their union to help build the very best environments to work in for their members, and co-ops are about doing things for your members,” says Boyle. “There’s an awful lot of overlap there, and the overlap is built around workers being in control of their working lives.”
From a union point of view, it’s vital that we don’t just indulge in flights of fancy, but make staff pay and conditions, and contributors’ rights (including copyright) at the centre of new initiatives. However, we are at a moment where we have to explore all options. This conference is but one initial step. Examining such alternatives isn’t pie-in-the-sky idealism, nor merely an exercise in the sort of chin-stroking media futurology that seems to be the subject of around three conferences in any given week. Nor does it detract from the NUJ’s very urgent and very genuine need to robustly defend existing jobs and conditions, but the media is changing rapidly, and if we don’t try to change it ourselves, then it will be done for us, in ways we probably won’t like.
So join the debate, and come to our conference on Saturday.
“Can the Media be Co-operative: alternatives to corporate media ownership” takes place at Goldsmiths College, Lewisham Way, New Cross, London SE14, from 10,30-4.30. To register, go to: cooperativemedia.eventbrite.com
* Tom Davies is chair of the NUJ’s development committee and a member of its national executive, and writes in a personal capacity.