Can the media be cooperative?
Is there another way to run the media, apart from the existing corporate model? Or, as former General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists Aidan White asked a conference in May: can the market deliver the journalism that democracy needs?
The conference, organised by the NUJ and the co-operative movement, examined ways the media could be run. There are real examples of alternative ways media is being run - workers and local communities in co-operative models, and new funding outlets supporting non-profit structures for journalism.
The current Department of Culture, Media and Sport communications review for the digital age still appears to be geared to industry rather than to public service. But the state has in the past had a role in journalism, through tax breaks - and still offers zero-rated VAT. There is also a history of cross-subsidy from the profitable to the less-profitable sides of the same business, such as Sunday Times colour supplement ads underpinning 1970s investigative journalism. Now we see a global growth of investigative journalism funded by foundations and public bodies.
The session on co-operatives and mutuals examined initiatives such as the recently-founded Port Talbot Magnet - a local news co-op in South Wales run as a social enterprise - and the West Highland Free Press, run as a cooperative since 1972. It also heard from a more traditional co-op (with a loan from a merchant bank,) Calverts, printers to the Freelance.
A belief in being able to raise enough money to create shareholder-free, news-friendly media has to be balanced with a firm business model. Any journalists embarking on such ventures needs to gain a thorough understanding of the legal and business side.
The cooperative models seems better suited to local needs. Local media financial models could include community shares and micropayments - possibly made by phone text. It wasn't clear how these would provide a sustainable living for journalists right now. But these structures do exist and may provide future possibilities.
National and regional newspapers may eventually be replaced by a patchwork on a local level, with more readership participation in the form of votes and community trusts. The future media financing landscape could well include a variety of foundations and trusts, mutuality, public funding, micropayments and other models.
Past and present examples of small-scale ventures suggest alternative forms of media ownership can and do work. Yet, with the consolidation of the digital, social networking age, it remains to be seen if a new crop of cooperatively-run media social enterprises and charities can make the alliances, gain the readership loyalty, sponsorship, advertising and other forms of balanced funding to provide a serious source of income for journalists.