He helped launch a thriving news cooperative in Bristol UK
The Bristol Cable has 2,100 paying members.
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All across the world, thousands of entrepreneurs are experimenting with ways to solve the local news crisis. Some have launched local blogs. Other built town-focused networks. Still others debuted daily newsletters.
Quite a few local news startups these days are nonprofits. But Alec Saelens and a few of his colleagues decided to try out a very specific model: a media cooperative. These involve group ownership, not just among the publication’s staff, but also the local community members as well.
A few years ago, they launched The Bristol Cable, an investigative news startup that boasts on its membership page that “there are no majority shareholders or commercial investors, and we do not accept corporate advertising.” It currently has 2,100 paying members.
I interviewed Alec about why they settled on the media cooperative model, how they found their first stakeholders, and what impact that publication has had on the Bristol community.
So you started your local cooperative after college. Had you always planned to go into journalism after graduating?
No I didn't. After my bachelor in International Relations I did a masters in International Law. I was planning on working for an advocacy group or a non-profit focused on social justice issues. My reflections on those aims evolved. I decided to get into journalism after discussion with friends about the discrepancy between local media's coverage of politics and the existence of local grassroots movements seeking change in their cities.
That's why you were more interested in local journalism over national media?
That's correct. My studies and involvement in various campaigns as a student and young adult led me to question where the leverages for political change resided. The localized scale seemed more accessible, especially when it comes to where media can shape the direction of public discourse and the policy agenda.
The quality of local media was also quite poor. Most local newspapers across the UK (where I was living at the time) were owned by large conglomerates with titles across the country and a drive to generate profit. The drive to churn out articles led to click-bait journalism, seemingly to drive profits. It had a deleterious effect on the kind of information people received locally and contributed to disenfranchising them from more constructive engagement with what was happening in their community.
How did you choose a city to focus your efforts on?
A few friends with whom I eventually co-founded the Bristol Cable were moving to Bristol. Rent was cheaper than in London or other places. With around half a million inhabitants, Bristol was neither too big nor too small. It was vibrant, with a lot of cultural activity, some interesting social projects, and very multicultural.
The city was also known to have a progressive edge and we were eager to experiment with our ideas in a place that would be receptive to them.
How did you come up with the idea for the Bristol Cable, and what business models were you considering early on?
A feature of the British media industry are the tabloids. For the most part, the quality of their journalism is poor and driven towards sensationalizing issues that should be reported on with more context and sensitivity. We aspired to create an alternative to this easily accessible form of information, one that could get into the hands of people and provide more deeply researched angles on social issues.
From very early on, the cooperative model was the focus of our attention. We'd heard of a few examples of worker-owned initiatives in the UK and looked at models that existed elsewhere. The Bristol Cable was the fruit of some critical thinking on the ownership model of the local media industry at large. We decided to flip the pyramid of ownership to make it much more inclusive. We adopted the multistakeholder model so that community members could become legal shareholders of the publications that served them.
Before we get into how you built the cooperative, can you briefly explain what a cooperative model is?
Yes. It's a kind of organization that is owned by the people who own a share in the business. Each shareholder is a member that holds one vote no matter how large their financial stake is.
It provides the most democratic kind of decision making and governance.
And you're not just talking about employees, right? You also mean members of the community are shareholders?
That's right. That is the multistakeholder model, in contrast to the worker owned model.
That said, workers are obviously more involved in day to day small scale, operational decision making than other members.
So how does that work in practice? How did you go about talking to people in the community and getting them on board? Did they have to pay into the cooperative?
Before launching the cooperative and even producing any journalism, we went out in the city to meet with people in the street and community leaders. We went to various neighborhoods and made sure to hear from a diversity of voices. Our purpose was to identify the gaps in what local media was providing and to get feedback on the idea of a cooperative model for local news. We organized events in community centers and invited people from the areas to share their ideas with us. We took all of this information away and designed the bare bones of the organization.
A key objective was to put together a board of directors, with individuals from various community groups to keep the organization in check and to help it thrive in ways that were useful to the people we served. Once we launched the cooperative we organized a general meeting where members voted to elect other members to the board.
You could become a member by paying as little as £1 a month. The idea behind such a low monetary threshold was to make it accessible to people with few means. We didn't want access to a democratic, community-owned organization to be financially exclusive.
When did the publication officially launch? How many journalists were working for it? What were your core areas of coverage?
We launched the first publication late 2014. The Bristol Cable puts out a quarterly edition and has a website updated with more regular content.
At the time there were three people full time, running everything from the journalism to the operations. We were newbies in the field of reporting and business development, so it was a challenge. We also worked near full-time jobs as waiters on the side to sustain ourselves financially. The Cable was completely run on volunteer time for the first couple of years. That was also the case for the content we put out there, which we sourced from community members with an interest or expertise in various issues. We didn't have pre-defined areas of coverage. Our quarterly publication had a theme but that was about it for thematic lines. We subsequently developed beats.
A crucial point here is that our lack of journalism training needed to be compensated by huge amounts of editorial work to make the content meet the journalistic standards we aspired to. We also benefited from pro-bono advice from college journalism professors and other more experienced journalists and editors.
How did the publication grow over time? Did it eventually start generating more revenue? If so, how?
Yes. The bedrock of our business model was membership. While the entry level was low we had tiers and many supporters contributed more money. We steadily grew our membership in the first few years, reaching 2000 people after about three years.
We knew that diversification of revenue would be a key to sustainability, though. So we pulled advertising money for our print edition. We set up media programs for local organizations and did the occasional workshops for universities and others, which paid some money. We also organized events, free for members and with a fee for the wider public.
We also got grants. Small to begin with, and then increasingly bigger. In our third year we received a large multiyear grant from an American organization, which covered operational costs. Grants now form the major part of the Cable's revenue.
As you generated more revenue, were you able to expand your journalism capabilities?
Absolutely. We started paying people to produce content for the Cable. This attracted more talent, improving both the quantity and quality of content produced.
What kind of impact did you see from your reporting while you were there? In what ways could you see the publication making a difference in the city?
Impact comes in different forms. Our content focused on areas of the city that very rarely received coverage. This highlighted aspects of the city which few people knew about. Rather than looking strictly at what affected the place based on negative stereotypes we sought to portray the lives and work of local people by amplifying their voices. This impact is hard to quantify but we often received anecdotal feedback from people about the value of this work - both from communities themselves and readers.
We often organized public events in different parts of the city, depending on where or what our reporting was focused on and saw great turnout from people living in the area. This showed the real traction we had.
In terms of change-based impact, here is a list of what we achieved with our feature and investigative reporting:
Sparked criminal cases following an investigation into slavery-like conditions on a Bristol high street and human rights cases that have led to changes in the way police use powerful surveillance tools
Helped change Bristol City Council’s policies on the aggressive use of bailiffs and secrecy rules over controversial housing developments
Been cited in parliament multiple times
Informed campaigns for fossil fuel divestment and more
Sparked debates and informed public conversations with in-depth series
You've since moved on from the publication and are now embarking on research into journalism business models. What prompted you to leave and what are you researching?
I left after almost four years to be with my partner here in the US.
Since then I did some research and coaching with the Membership Puzzle Project -- shout out to the Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio who launched the first US-based local media cooperative.
I'm now managing the Revenue Project at the Solutions Journalism Network. Our aim is to experiment with strategies to generate money from newsrooms' solutions journalism -- rigorous and evidence-based reporting on responses to problems. The newsrooms I work with (12) are testing different revenue streams. We're halfway through the project so I don't have any firm conclusions to share yet, but I'll be sure to circle back and keep you posted on this.
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