Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders

The phone-hacking scandal and the subsequent launch of a public inquiry examining not simply the ethics and regulation of the press but media ownership more generally […] provide a real opportunity to replace one form of media power – concentrated, unaccountable, privileged – with another form that holds elites to account, offers more than a token range of “legitimate” views on urgent matters of the day and represents British society back to itself. This will require a series of reforms to ownership structures and self-regulatory practices that are clearly not currently operating in the public interest.

What does it mean to ‘break up’ media power?

Des Freedman, The Guardian, 31 July 2011

How would you redesign the ownership of newspapers? How about starting here:

Last month, for example, 51 million individual users clicked into the Guardian site — a number that should please online advertisers.

Great! So what if the Guardian were to let us readers/commenters buy shares in the comments sections of its site?

– Reader commenting on:

At their best, newspapers became beautiful objects, I shall miss them

Ian Jack, The Guardian, 24 September 2011

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Newspaper and other print media sites to which I have returned several times a day – or week, depending on what has been happening in my life – have had two things in common:

  • Unusually sharp and entertaining comments sections in site segments dedicated to topics that interest me.
  • A group of stimulating, well-informed debaters among the regular commenters, who often enter into extended wrangles – sometimes, not just with each other, but with the writer of an article.

Unfortunately, commenters tend to come and go unpredictably, then vanish altogether. And I have to start looking for a new equivalent of an online coffee shop.

But what if commenters were given some incentive to keep commenting on a particular site – for years at a time? Two years ago, thinking about what would make contributing posts irresistible to me, my conclusion was: money, and the feeling that I was helping to build a semi-permanent family of debaters. Without some form of payment – or the possibility of being paid in the future – posting frequently on newspaper sites becomes suspiciously like wasting time. I have found it hard to justify time spent commenting, even though joining online discussions has deepened and enlivened my understanding of all sorts of topics.

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In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. In a future entry in this blog, I will describe the reactions of particular publishing organisations to which I sent a link for my proposal. There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

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Here is a summary of what a test of a jointly owned site would involve for publishers and reader-commenters at the beginning:

As this is a scheme for helping print media to adapt for the arrival of the 5th Estate, a publisher would have to initiate the experiment, inviting readers to become part of it.

The publisher would set a price for a subscription-cum-stake in the jointly owned site called, say, the Forum. Just one stake per reader. Site visitors who do not buy a subscription-stake would not be shut out from reading articles and discussions but could not, of course, share in any future profits.

The publisher would develop the software tools and infrastructure for the experiment – to collect and record subscription-stakes; run elections and referendums; develop apps, links to social networking sites, and so on – and, if the test site makes a profit from subscriptions and advertising, distribute it to stakeholders.

Both the publisher and readers would nominate a few reader-stakeholders for membership of the Forum’s (say,) eleven-member management board. All reader-stakeholders would elect six of these as their representatives. The other five board members would be appointees of the publisher from within its own executive and editorial ranks.

As noted above, the arrangement would work in roughly the way insurance does. Reader-stakeholders would pay more or less equal sums into a pool of cash. Payments from that pool would be made according to certain criteria. How would classes of subscription-stakes be established? Who would set the criteria? These – and all other rules for the site’s operation – would be proposed by the management board and then voted into existence by subscriber-stakeholders.

So setting rule-making in motion would be the first task of the management board, and the first job for reader-stakeholders after that would be choosing from among alternative rules proposed to them.

A publisher would not have to finance the experiment alone. A newspaper could, for instance, share the costs and administrative burden with a book publisher. Their partnership would resemble a Japanese keiretsu – or arrangement between companies with common or interlocked business interests.

The rationale for this scheme for shared ownership is set out in more detail here.

Any takers? Careful suggestions for refining and improving the experiment would be indescribably welcome, and will be given proper credit in a future post on this site.

Correspondence to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

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