How does the co-operative model apply to journalism, and in what cases could it be preferable to a more traditional funding model?
At the International Journalism Festival on 7 April in Italy, founders and journalists from four co-operatives from around the world told their stories and shared insights into the inner workings of their media organisations.
Deca, The Ferret, Apache.be and Mada Masr were founded to produce the type of journalism that was harder to place in mainstream news outlets at the time, and to enable journalists to work in an environment freed from the pressures of advertisers.
Deca launched in 2014 to try to find a business model around narrative journalism, or the kinds of stories "that journalists with a track record couldn’t place". Deca's journalism was first published through Kindle Singles, which members saw as an opportunity to monetise longform stories.
"None of us really wanted to write 50 Shades of Grey but could there be a non-fiction story that we’d like to publish?"
Deca has so far published eight stories between 10-40,000 words long, with a collaborative editing and production process aiming to replicate the spirit of community of journalists in the field.
"Could we make an editorial structure and business structure out of this culture that existed in the field? The collective has that, and working in a big media structure is not the same."
But the day-to-day grind of organising the co-operative and turning it into a sustainable business has proven to be a difficult task, as the journalists have to learn how to be business and sales people, and social media experts.
"If you put me in front of a hot dog stand, I will run it out of business in three and a half weeks. Co-operatives are really good for setting up editorial, and maybe they’re good for business," said Herman.
Founded in Cairo, Mada Masr is "the offspring of crisis", said publisher Lina Attalah. The co-operative was created by journalists who left mainstream media organisations at a time of political transformation.
"We were faced with no other option than building our own co-operative.
"We are operating in a highly restricted context in the country, and it is also a moment when a lot of existing media organisations have very clearly established certain allegiances with different apparatus.
"The appetite for a different kind of narrative is there, except that right now there isn’t so much of a supply."
Mada Masr expanded its co-operative model to allow people who weren't directly part of the team to contribute, attempting to establish a new media funding model in the face of highly concentrated media ownership in Egypt.
Journalists who were previously economics and finance reporters took over running the business side of the co-operative, and the organisation also produces various events that build both community and revenue streams, such as live concerns.
"The organisation is ultimately defined by the group of people working in it, because we all have different track records of journalism in the country and people recognise it," said Attalah.
The co-operative crowdfunded the revenue to cover its first story on fracking, a topic chosen from a short-list of stories ideas suggested by the public.
"Co-operatives have the potential to turn the relationship between readers and publishers on its head," he said.
The Ferret currently serves around 400 members and has "reader directors", who are elected from the subscribers and have a say on how to handle complaints and what action should be taken.
Tbbitt explained that he sees the co-operative also taking on a community development role with its readers, as well as producing the investigative journalism they set out to do.
"As long as we keep those 400 people happy and keep growing exponentially, we don’t have to worry about scale or reach. A co-operative is just a tool. If your product is amazing, you can take over the world."
Apache.be is a news website publishing investigative stories for the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. It started in 2009 as a non-profit and later switched to a co-operative model as it became clear the latter was a more sustainable funding model.
Bram Souffreau, co-founder of Apache, said the co-operative currently has about 1,000 shareholders and also generates revenues from subscriptions, which he hopes will become a more significant part of the model over the next two years.
Apache was also founded for more "philosophical" reasons, such as breaking away from the pressure the advertising model can exert on journalism.
"We have 1000 shareholders, media has a handful, there is less influence of our shareholders than there is in a media company," he said. "Everybody is there to make some investigative journalism possible."
"The fact that it's co-operative is important because you bring journalists and readers together and they learn from each other."
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