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It’s not too late to revive local media

Bristol Cable newspapers

© The Bristol Cable

In the midst of increasing coverage of media co-operatives sprouting across the country, one crucial element has been underappreciated: the co-op model’s potential to challenge the way mainstream media operates.

Contesting the monopolization of media ownership through social mobilization is not new. Back in 1932, representatives of a cross-section of Bristol’s business sector and civil society came together to found and become directors of the Evening Post (now the Bristol Post). Large-scale investments in small shares by lay people showed the popularity of a publication that could challenge the Evening World, part of Lord Rothermere’s media empire, which had recently become the single major publication in the city after a national deal with another baron of the media industry.

Fast forward to today and the Bristol Post has itself become the epitome of a shrinking local media, the only week-daily print publication in Bristol.

The decline in local media can be pinned in various corners, from the rise of web-based competition from self-publishing blogs and the use of social media as news aggregators, to the lack of financial sustainability due to falling circulation and advertising revenue.

Yet the media co-op model, such as The Bristol Cable’s, addresses a core issue: the concentration of media ownership. This phenomenon largely affects local media, with five of the largest owners controlling three quarters of the market. An apparent paradox of this corporate set-up is that their financial powers fail to sustain local media in both availability and quality. Between 2005 and 2012, 242 local titles faced closure, whilst only 70 new publications have been launched.*

The current degradation of local journalism is a direct consequence of media outlets being seen a sole commodities, deprived of its fundamental value for the public interest. Belt-tightening restructuring is synonymous with journalist layoffs, relocation of offices to the outskirts of cities, and, often, the centralization of production. As a result, local newspapers are removed from the heart of communities they vitally deliver information for. Cutting staffing costs impacts directly on journalists’ ability to report on a breadth of issues, let alone do the time-consuming investigative work of covering stories behind the daily news and kept from the public eye.

Flicking through local media outlets, the publishing of press releases or sponsored content stuns. What role is left for journalists, besides packaging pre-processed content? This trend shifts journalism towards a culture of ‘churnalism’, rehashing the arguments and ideas of those with vested interests who can afford to put them out there: private companies, political parties, public sector institutions.

Meanwhile, the appointment of editors is decided by directors who have to keep the shareholders’ interests in mind. Does this mean journalism can only remain within the purview of the powerful?

The real risk is that the media will become unrepresentative, distrusted and disengaging. The role of the media should be to enable disenfranchized voices to have a platform that can hold to account people with power as well as those producing information.

In this context, restoring the independent voice of the local media through community-led ownership is vital. A co-operative model allows for collectively redefining the media. Developing participative forums of engagement, such as a collaborative editorial process, can fulfil the role of regenerating a truly bottom-up participation in journalistic production, and one that can help reach beyond the like-minded crowds.

A report called ‘Make Your Local Media Work’ found that unless policy changed it would be hard to facilitate community takeover of existing papers. So more than ever, making media outlets community-based assets requires much groundwork and persistence. Turning a democratic and initially volunteer-led co-operative into an efficient and financially sustainable organization remains an everyday challenge. Yet, through crowd-sourcing and skill-sharing, opportunities for collaborative processes of content production and running multi-faceted operations within a co-operative are infinite.

The Bristol Cable has been learning by doing. We started by consulting hundreds of organizations across the city, followed by organizing a series of free media-related events, talks and skills workshops for the public. Having grown from the support and enthusiasm generated, The Bristol Cable developed its co-operative model to increase its community engagement capacity through workshops and ongoing publication online and in print.

The now-released second edition is testimony to the momentum behind community and co-operative-led journalism, with over 30 contributors inputting in the creation of original investigations, community voice features, infographics and illustrations. The Bristol Cable is taking a step towards redefining local media; it is making news.

Alec Saelens is co-founder of The Bristol Cable, a volunteer-led media co-operative start-up that blends community action and journalism.

*Ponsford, D., PG research reveals 242 local press closures in 7 years, Press Gazette, 30 April 2012.

As part of the Stir to Action Workshop Series, The Bristol Cable will be facilitating a weekend-long workshop on Citizen Journalism (7-8 March; 10am-5pm, Dorset). New Internationalist readers quoting ‘New Internationalist’ when booking will receive a 10% discount.

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