The ferret main
Credit: Screenshot from The Ferret.

In May 2015, The Ferret was launching in Scotland with the aim "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

Set up as a co-operative, the independent organisation hopes to plug a gap in the Scottish media landscape, covering the subjects larger news outlets in the country do not have the resources or the drive to investigate.

As The Ferret is a co-operative, each subscriber owns a part of the organisation, and there are seats reserved for members as well as journalists on its board.

Since launching The Ferret, the team has run a crowdfunding campaign to finance an investigation into fracking, raising more than £9,000. The outlet has covered many other stories that have been picked up by national titles, on subjects including the environment, privacy and surveillance, and human rights, and was nominated to the British Journalism Awards in the digital innovation category. spoke to Rachel Hamada, journalist director at The Ferret, at the Centre for Investigative Journalism's Summer Conference in July, to find out what it has been like trying to make the co-operative model work for journalism.

Fearing a 'hostile takeover'

Starting up as a media co-operative, the founding members of The Ferret were unsure to what extent the rest of the members would like to be involved with the operation.

There were worries they could lose control of the project and even be ousted by others if enough people were to mobilise and stage "a hostile takeover".

But getting the members to engage over the past year has required constant work from the team, both online and offline.

"People are really interested in joining and reading the stories and commenting to some extent," said Hamada.

"People aren't necessarily wanting to come along to AGMs and get deeper involved in the day to day running of things. So we've been having to put a bit more legwork into it."

Operating a porous paywall, The Ferret offers three free stories to readers before they are asked to subscribe – options include paying £3 per month, or £30 per year, as well as a gold membership costing £96 per year.

According to its latest transparency report, 260 people were subscribed to The Ferret at the end of March.

The team also consults the members to find out what stories they should be investigating, as well as getting them involved in larger projects such as analysing the Panama Papers data.

The long road to sustainability

But the operation of The Ferret is still dependant on the presence and skills of its core team, who still work different jobs to make ends meet.

"We all knew from the beginning that we would need to put in a lot of work to get it off the ground, and things like crowdfunding are fairly notorious for taking up a lot of time and energy," said Hamada.

"I think beyond that, there has been a lot of free work required of all of us to make it work and we're still very dependant on our skillsets – so the five of us in particular have very good complementary skills."

But she worries The Ferret wouldn't be able to continue in its current form if one of the founding members were to leave.

"We're going to try and work towards being more sustainable. In a way, we all want to be replaceable because we want the project to continue beyond individual involvement.

"We're also very much working towards it being sustainable financially as well so we all take enough money from it to put in the work that we need to put in.

"I don't think anyone expects to be working five days a week on it for quite a long time, but say we do one or two days a week that's paid for fairly," she added.

The Ferret currently pays its contributors a day rate of £110 as and when they are working on stories.

Another media co-operative founded in the UK is The Bristol Cable, launched in 2014. The Cable publishes a quarterly newspaper and maintains a website, currently counting on a core team of 12 people.

One of The Bristol Cable's co-founders, Alec Saelens, has also pointed out the challenges of developing a logistical infrastructure for working with members, as well as creating a sustainable organisation.

Having a core team that's on the same wavelength is crucial to the success of such media organisations, and Hamada advises other journalists who would like to start up a similar initiative to find like-minded people.

"That makes the whole thing, even when it's hard work, a pleasure, especially as the newsroom atmosphere is often negative these days, and as a freelancer working on your own it can be kind of boring or isolating.

"So the fact that we're working on something positive and sociable, the rewards for the free work that we've put in are massive."

A more collaborative future

The Ferret covers a wide range of topics, from investigations into the welfare system and its providers, to censorship on Facebook, the arms trade and asylum, which enables it to reach different audiences across the country.

Its journalists usually work on investigations individually, but Hamada told the team is looking to collaborate more on stories in the future. Each journalist could investigate different geographical areas, looking for sources and information that's part of a larger theme for example.

"That's something we haven't done that much of yet but we'd like to do a lot more. Coordinating everyone's diaries is always a bit of a challenge."

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