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Nov. 3, 2017, 8:25 a.m.
Business Models

How this local news co-op gets its members interested: Getting them involved in the production of news

The Bristol Cable now has a solid stable of members who can be involved in every stage — from pitching story ideas to assisting in investigations to delivering the quarterly print paper.

“You buy in, so we can’t sell out.”

That’s one of the taglines the Bristol, England-based local news organization Bristol Cable has adopted recently.

“Basically everywhere is the sentiment that the mainstream media, particularly the tabloid media, is not really serving the needs of the public as a whole,” said Adam Cantwell-Corn, who cofounded the Cable with Alec Saelens and Alon Aviram. “What we need to do is transfer that commonly held opinion into positively framed: Okay, here’s something we can do about it.”

The Cable is a quarterly print magazine with a circulation of around 30,000 and a website that publishes around five pieces a week, both of which are free for anyone to read. Run as a co-operative, the publication takes its direction almost entirely from its 1,800 members, who pay an average of £3 ($4) a month for access to Bristol Cable events and a vote in how the publication operates. Apart from membership fees, the Cable is supported through grant funding, print advertising, and workshop commissions. It’s aiming to hit 3,400 paying members within the next year.

The Cable, with its full-time editorial team of five, isn’t interested in maintaining a breaking-news desk. As the team sees it, its journalistic strength lies in going beyond breaking-news headlines to report on stories from Bristol that aren’t already part of the mainstream news cycle. A crucial part of that strategy is developing the diverse network of bought-in members who can pitch story ideas, bring their personal or professional experience to assist with investigations, and to help deliver the magazine to more readers in their own communities.

Much of the inspiration for the co-op model stemmed from frustration with the decline of local journalism in the region. Local media in the U.K. has been hit hard through consolidations, cutbacks, and closures in recent years, leaving gaps in vital ground-level reporting. 18 local newspapers around the U.K. closed over summer 2017 alone.

The Cable has bet on hyperlocal stories with the belief that Bristolians can be persuaded to pay for quality local journalism.

“A local media desert has started to appear, with failing business models behind it. As a result, we’ve identified a loss of quality in the existing media,” Cantwell-Corn said. “The idea was to step into that gap, create a niche, and look at stories that didn’t have much traction, even though they dealt with big issues that were in people’s daily lives.”

At its monthly events, the Cable staff brings members behind the scenes on major stories that the team has been working on, relating the reporting and the expertise of industry professionals to members’ day-to-day lives. Past events have included Q&As between journalists and local health care providers or talks with an investigative journalist digging into the local housing crisis, and were open to the public for a small fee or free for Bristol Cable members, “refugees and asylum seekers, and people in financial hardship.”

“People are curious to know what the story is behind the headlines. How did we break a story, what impact did it have, what were the implications in terms of resources that were invested in it,” Saelens said. “That was something that we could offer the members as a privileged audience, so we decided to tap into it.”

The events for members are as much an effort to try to restore people’s trust in local media as they are a means to grow the Cable’s own presence in Bristol, Saelens said.

“It’s about re-establishing the bonds that have been so severely lost between local media and the community that it supposedly serves,” he told me. “I think that’s been lost within much of the corporate media.”

Cable stories often try to dig into national issues on a local level, such as this analysis of fire safety measures in Bristol high-rises following the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, or this investigation into the relationship between an atomic weapons institution and a local university. Another strand of coverage comes from collaborating with other local media outlets, and country-wide organizations like the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which helped support a Cable investigation into racial profiling at U.K. immigration checkpoints.

Not all Cable members choose to have regular involvement with the running of the Cable, instead staying involved through voting: at co-op meetings, members rank issues such as housing, education, and immigration that they think should be covered more, and vote on how the Cable uses its finances and other resources.

The site regularly publishes its spending reports, membership numbers, and details about its ongoing projects. Their open reporting is fastidious; one report shows the vote breakdown on whether or not the Cable should apply for a Google Digital News Initiative grant (68.2 percent were in favor).

A smaller, core group of its members, along with the Cable’s full-time staff, are responsible for a range of operations, from distributing copies of the magazine at local markets to investigating and writing stories themselves.

“At the widest level, most people are involved with big questions about principles, priorities, and key ethical questions,” Cantwell-Corn said of the co-op’s decision-making process. “As it filters down to the practicalities of implementation, it gets down to the sub teams, the editors and the individuals.”

Diversity in its membership base has also improved the Cable’s ability to cover Bristol issues more comprehensively. Last year, Cable staff ran a free mentoring course through its Media Lab — the organization’s training, education, and innovation arm — which provided journalism training to non-journalist locals interested in writing for the magazine. The Cable has been able to bring on “several dozen” freelancers this way.

Recent statistics from Bristol City Council show that 187 nationalities and over 90 different languages are represented in the city. The Cable has been trying to cover issues relevant to these immigrant communities, as well as translate stories so that they reach wider audiences. Features of interest to particular communities have been translated into relevant languages like Spanish or Somali. The Cable also hosts roundtable discussions with community leaders to get their perspective on relevant issues, which are turned into podcasts.

Cantwell-Corn is optimistic about the Cable’s co-op model and is convinced that it could be replicated by other local journalism outfits. But the training sessions, educational events, and efforts to improve ties with its community aren’t the only things that the team is juggling. The team understands the Cable must continue to grow its readership and paying membership in order to pay contributors and become more financially self-sufficient. (As the group is registered as a co-op, they’re legally obliged to reinvest all profits back into the Cable.)

Saelens is realistic about the financial challenges of such a business model. “We need to be hard-nosed about that. We may be a co-operative, but that doesn’t mean we shy away [from finances],” he said. “On the contrary, we need to be even more strict and disciplined about the way that we do things in order to obtain the objectives that we have.”

Sometimes, making money at all can feel like an uphill battle, the co-founders will readily admit. Cantwell-Corn said that access to grant funding has become more competitive as other cash-strapped U.K. newsrooms look for other ways to finance their reporting. The Cable also faces the same challenges as other print media in sustaining their own print advertising. And while it publishes tens of thousands of print editions each year, it’s still in the relatively early stages of developing a robust online presence.

Cantwell-Corn is clear on what his team needs to do to almost double their paying members by late 2018.

“We basically have to continue to make the argument, that hasn’t been made for some time, or hasn’t been made well enough, that media is a public good, and therefore it needs to be paid for. We want to keep it free at the point of access, but that means we need to get people to stump up at a certain level in order for that to keep happening.”

Bristol Cable issues image used with permission.

POSTED     Nov. 3, 2017, 8:25 a.m.
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