The crisis facing the press – is there a cooperative solution?

The Financial Times runs an article today which calls into question the long-term future of one of Britain’s quality dailies, The Independent.

All journalists want to see as many newspapers thriving as possible, and the loss of the Indy would be serious indeed.  I have warm memories of the paper from the work it gave me when I was first starting in journalism more than 25 years ago. But my focus here today is on another quality daily, the Guardian (who incidentally have also over the years taken my work).

If I’m honest, I’d have to say that I’m cross with the Guardian. It is heavily promoting its Guardian Members scheme, inviting its readers to pay between £49 and £599 a year to support its work. ‘Members’ receive a range of incentives, including discounts on Guardian events. But the scheme has been established in such a way that these members – a group who by definition have identified themselves as committed supporters of the newspaper – are given no role in its governance or management.

I know that the Guardian did toy with an alternative plan, a cooperative one, which would have given reader-supporters a real stake in the business – one where membership actually meant something. But the Guardian chickened out. What a pity.

The press in Britain, both national and local, is in a serious plight and this should be of concern to us all. One way forward may very well be to explore cooperative ways to bring in readers (and their money). But such a way forward needs papers to give genuine power and responsibility – albeit shared with other stakeholders – to their readers.

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How The Guardian has not become a cooperative

The Guardian newspaper has frightened itself away from taking what could have been a radical and transformative step forward in British media ownership. It could have empowered its readers by giving them a formal voice in its ownership and management structures.   There are a whole variety of different ways in which the Guardian’s parent Scott Trust could have been turned itself into a genuinely cooperative undertaking, in partnership with its readers.

It did, I understand, ponder this sort of step. Instead, it is now inviting its readers to become ‘members’. “If you read the Guardian, join the Guardian,” says Polly Toynbee in today’s paper.

You can for example become a Founding Patron (£540 a year) or Partner (£135) or just a Friend (for nothing). But what are you a member of?  The answer unfortunately is that you are a member of nothing more than a glorified loyalty scheme: the right to priority booking and discounts for Guardian seminars and the like. Guardian ‘members’, when it comes down to it, are no different from Boots loyalty card members.

This is, dear Guardian, a missed opportunity.