Hacks as co-operators?

HOW DO cooperatives operate, and could they work for journalists? November's London Freelance Branch meeting looked at the possibilities. Our own Dan Davies, a documentary director and producer, chaired a panel of people involved in actual creative industry co-ops.


Left to right: David Whitney, Dan Davies (chairing), Sean Dagan Woods (gesticulating), James Andrew Smith

Seán Dagan Woods is editor-in-chief of "constructive journalism" magazine Positive News (www.positive.news). Founded 23 years ago, the paper was financially supported by a philanthropic friend, but their passing away posed the question, "how are we going to keep it going?"

So PN recently changed to a magazine format and turned itself into a cooperative of readers and journalists. It has a community benefit society ownership structure. Day-to-day, says Sean, PN "function like most editorial teams". There are mechanisms in place to "protect your editorial independence," a subsidiary company has a charter protecting editorial values, which needs a huge majority to change.

A recent "very successful" share issue raised almost £263,000 from readers in 30 days. While "still currently loss-making" PN is "working towards breaking even in a couple of years." Any profit goes "back into the journalism." Everyone with shares gets an equal vote on key editorial and business decisions, facilitated by an online voting platform. They elect the board of directors. A big readers' survey was due to go out the week after the meeting. Some 20 per cent of the content pitched is by reader co-owners.

There are five staff: the bulk of PN's content is produced by freelances, paid 20-25p a word. Some content is from volunteers, who received training in constructive journalism.

Freelance journalist James Andrew Smith, "not a student anymore," described how University of London management shut down both its student union ULU and the successful London Student, the UK's biggest student newspaper. In 2015, "me and a few friends helped restart" the paper online as a worker's collective. (londonstudent.coop).

The "relatively malleable" horizontal structure suited London Student's revival because they have "new people each year". London Student's current news editor Emma Yoemans (also present) noted that this structure "allowed those with "chaotic schedules... to feel valued and empowered in the work they do" and it "spread the libel risk around."

Student organisations are often targeted for takeover by Trotskyists, which London Student's "flat" organisation also protected against. Experienced people train new people as soon as they join: nothing is published unless checked by at least one other person. Facilitated by a lot of digital and online tools, says James, it "worked really well," the "constant democratic process" ensured the editorial line was "more or less balanced."

London Student has now been handed over to this year's new editorial team. Last year it produced one issue in print, for which it was easy to sell advertising space. It is hoped everyone in the collective will be working for money eventually.

We also heard from actor David Whitney, who's with actor's co-operative agency West Central - it's been going since the 1970s, working on the basis of members doing three days a month in the office. It turned out there were a couple of actor-journalists in the audience too.