A group of journalists, activists and academics are looking to establish a local citizen media co-operative in Bristol in response to what they see as the dissolution of responsible local media.
The Bristol Cable will launch as a website and monthly print edition in July to tell stories of and by people who, the site argues, are "under-served" or "marginalised" by mainstream media.
"We're trying to bring these two elements of journalism and community action together to create a new publication for Bristol, and hopefully beyond, that can provide what the local press should be doing," Adam Cantwell-Corn, one of six co-founders, told Journalism.co.uk, "which is independent, quality and engaging journalism and being accountable to the people consuming what is essentially the main source of ideas and information in their daily lives."
The co-operative, currently in the crowdfunding stage, will be funded on a community share basis and hold free workshops led by prominent journalists and academics throughout May and June to give Bristolians looking to contribute, the proper training.
The state of local media is of major concern to the founders of the Bristol Cable, as "certain qualities" are "drastically lacking" in terms of ownership and content, said Cantwell-Corn.We need to know what is going on with the people we elect, the corporations that are existing within our societyAdam Cantwell-Corn, The Bristol Cable
Last November, Local World chief executive David Montgomery wrote a controversial memo to Local World staff, including The Bristol Post, explaining his new plan for the publisher. At the core of the message was the proposal that journalists will use their skills in the "harvesting of content" from third parties – local councils, police, hospitals, businesses – and allowing the external organisations to upload articles themselves.
To the founders of the Bristol Cable, this is unacceptable.
"We need to know what is going on with the people we elect, the corporations that are existing within our society", said Cantwell-Corn, who has a background in community activism, the legal position of asylum seekers and campaigning for civil liberties.
"We really feel that the Bristol Cable can address those problems by being independent, democratically-organised and having a real, in-built vision of being accountable to the readership and communities that we are there to serve."
Montgomery responded to widespread criticism of his plan by praising Local World staff and attempting to clarify grey areas, but a recent incident of the Torquay Police publishing directly to the Herald Express website was slammed by media commentators and The Chartered Institute of Journalists' Professional Practices Board as "wholly unacceptable" and "an attack on democracy". The story has since been removed.
"What you're looking at there is reporters becoming much more detached from their communities," said Alon Aviram, another co-founder, "and people recycling press releases in offices."
Mike Norton, editor of The Bristol Post, refutes these claims entirely, citing 112 per cent year-on-year growth in traffic to his organisation's website as evidence that the audience are "voting with their feet".
"I think they're very misinformed," Norton told Journalism.co.uk of the comments from Aviram and Cantwell-Corn. "I don't recognise the newsroom that they're describing. I've just taken on two more reporters and we're investing hugely in the content and the product and our audience is growing."
In February, Local World reported a 70 per cent increase in web traffic across its publications.
Norton accepts that local councils and other third parties will be able to publish press releases to the website, which now receives more than 1.2 million unique browsers a month, but that would by no means be replacing original reporting by trained Post journalists.
"We have many more people reporting on the events around the city than a publication like the Bristol Cable could ever hope to have," he said. "Our audience would tell us [if we were failing them] but that's not what we've been seeing."
For Aviram, the Bristol Cable is about looking at stories "from a grass-roots angle" and involving the audience directly, "so the people who are actually experiencing the issue and who are in that current affair are the ones producing the journalism," he said.
Community share funding
The video for The Bristol Cable from the CrowdFunder page
The founders have already received £1,500 in funding from the UK Federation of Co-Operatives, which has been committed to establishing the forthcoming workshops, and are crowdfunding to "give a bit of liquidity after that", until Cantwell-Corn hopes a co-operative model of community shares will fund the project in the long term.
"People pay a nominal amount every year or every six months and become enfranchised with full democratic rights within the co operative," he said. "They contribute to the running of the co-operative and give it some sort of financial support which will be based on one person, one share."
"Mutual-benefit advertising" with other co-operatives, social enterprises, charities and NGOs will also play a part in funding the project, he said, but the community share scheme is where they are pinning their hopes, in "democratising media in the city", a positive circle which Aviram hopes will sustain the co-op into the future.
"If people consider the Bristol Cable to be a public asset and they recognise that this is a local media source that they value then obviously the community share scheme is going to be much more viable," he said. "And in order to get to that we need to raise the funds to have several print editions to generate that confidence."
Mike Jempson, head of the journalism school at Bristol's University of the West of England (UWE), is helping to draft an editorial charter that the founders hope will be as open and democratic as the funding model.
In itself, Aviram and Cantwell-Corn recognise that a democratic editorial process could cause more problems than it is worth, but by rotating the editorship between members on a monthly basis they hope balance can be achieved, giving a voice to members of the community who may not otherwise be heard.We're trying to bring people in to build the skills so they can create citizen journalism of a high standardAdam Cantwell-Corn, The Bristol Cable
"Instead of the odd blog here or the odd tweet there, we want to bring people in to be real citizen journalists where they're actually conducting long term investigations and they're gaining skills," Cantwell-Corn said.
Reporters will be divided by postcode or area of expertise to provide up-to-date information on local communities while also contextualising larger stories and multimedia.
Aviram, who has worked for Vice, Channel 4 News online and the Israeli-Palestinian media collective 972 Magazine, among others, hopes to feature maps and "interactive infographics" alongside traditional storytelling, using data that is readily available in the public sphere.
This may be about "income disparity or economic inequality", he said as an example, which the site will use to "build up a picture of the city in terms of that".
"So we'll map, in a very visualised, colour-coded, interactive way, the spread of betting shops, or pawnbrokers, or cash-for-gold exchanges. And in this way really hit a lot of pertinent issues and do it in a way which is engaging and accessible to a lot of people and serves as a communal resource too."
Screenshot of the workshops on offer from The Bristol Cable
"33 hours" of free workshops will be held throughout May and June, said Cantwell-Corn, to train citizen journalists in the tools for the job.
Academics and journalists from the Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times will train attendees in mobile journalism, social media, public affairs, WordPress, media law and reporting techniques before working towards the first edition and website launch in July.
"We're making this a genuine, participatory and outreach-led organisation," Cantwell-Corn said, "bringing people in to build the skills so they can create citizen journalism of a high standard which a broad range of people can connect with."
The campaign to crowdfund The Bristol Cable ends on 10 April.
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