On media’s stage, a scenery shift: De Correspondent shows off thrilling new props verging on a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’; a NY Times columnist tugs the curtain on the old set

android dec 2011 to nov 2012 035

Betwixt and between: stage hands at work - postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Betwixt and between: stage hands at work
– postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

A group of Dutch media innovators – inevitably, young, as noted here last week – has created an actual, working prototype of what we expect to be a popular style of organisation for publishing in the near future. It has no advertising. It is financed by reasonably-priced subscriptions. Most important of all, it puts commenters on articles – the people it prefers to refer to as ‘contributors’ – at the centre of its enterprise, treating them as honoured extensions of its founding family. Wondermooi. That is exactly what we recommended in 2010 when, in keeping with the fuzzier usage of the time we referred to this same constituency as ‘bloggers’ — or ‘blogger-commenters,’ after a critic rightly demanded a clarification.

We did not foresee a big, ambitious media venture being able to do without advertising so soon. Nor did we anticipate that one would launch itself with crowdfunding, which Kickstarter was just beginning to turn into a household word four years ago. De Correspondent raised a breathtaking $1.7 million between March and September last year. In a post in April on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Loes Witschge reported a remarkable feat in a country with a population of just 16 million:

On March 18, [Rob] Wijnberg, former editor-in-chief of the young-adult-targeted newspaper nrc.next, proposed his idea for a new online journalism platform on Dutch national television. Within 24 hours, his team had raised half its goal, and after eight days, Wijnberg got an earlier than expected go-ahead: 15,000 had subscribed, and many had added donations on top of their subscription fee. In just over a week, in a small country, the Dutch crowdfunding project De Correspondent had raised over €1 million (about $1.3 million).

By this spring, the group had 24,000 subscribers – the proportional equivalent of 450,000 in the US, Wijnberg says — each paying roughly $80 (€60) for the privilege.

Now this, you might agree, is seriously important news. Print media are desperate for a viable new economic model. So, has The New York Times written about De Correspondent? Er, … no, unless we’ve been using the wrong search terms, hunting for evidence. The Guardian, another of the most-visited sites on the net? The Telegraph? The Independent? The Economist? Apparently not – and anyone who has proof to the contrary must please leave a comment with appropriate links beneath this post. … Oh, and there is no point in trying to look up its history on the Wikipedia for anyone irritated by having to make do with a machine translation from Dutch.

We only learnt of De Correspondent’s existence in checking that search engines were keeping up with our last entry on post-Gutenberg, using, for search tags, ‘new media’ and ‘business model’. Its own site is naturally the best guide to its modus operandi, but the applause it richly deserves is to be found exclusively on new media sites of the likes of Journalism.co.uk, Gigaom and MediaGazer. On the Medium blogging platform, Ernst-Jan Pfauth , another founder, explains under the headline ‘Why we see journalists as conversation leaders and readers as expert contributors’:

Every reader is an expert at something

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about news sites shutting down their comments sections, since readers’ contributions are often too obtrusive (read Mathew Ingrams excellent post about this).

Here in Amsterdam, we sincerely regret these developments, since we believe that modern journalists shouldn’t see their readers as a passive group of annoying followers. Instead, they should regard readers as a potential gold mine of expert information. That’s why, at De Correspondent, we encourage our journalists to function as conversation leaders and our members as expert contributors.

At De Correspondent, we owe our very existence to our members, since we launched our Dutch ad-free journalism platform after raising a total of 1.7 million dollars with a world record breaking crowd-funding campaign. We encourage our correspondents — who all have their own niche — to tell the stories that they feel are important, instead of just following the hype cycle of the news.

He also said:

We end every article with a question to our members

In our custom-built editor Respondens, we have a special field called ‘Oproep’ (which translates to ‘Call-up’). Correspondents can use that field to make explicit what they would like to know from their readers. The call shows up underneath the article and steers the contributions in the direction the correspondent finds journalistically most relevant.

We invite members to write guest articles

We continuously invite our members to write guest posts. […]

There is no mention of turning those subscribers into shareholders and running De Correspondent as a cooperative – yet. That might be an idea for another group to try, one we hope will give us the sort of laugh these Dutchmen did in setting out their names — well-established in Netherlands media before they banded together — as follows: Rob Wijnberg (1982), Harald Dunnink (1981), Sebastian Kersten (1976), and Ernst-Jan Pfauth (1986).

Advertising their birth years, you might suppose, amounts to a sign reading, Oldies Keep Out. But, not quite. The first part of ‘the keiretsu-cooperative’ in the paper that started this blog in 2010 referred to the Japanese name for a network of firms collaborating as trading partners, in a proposal for a news site (long-established or new) sharing the initial expense of starting and running a subscriber-owned cooperative with a partner in, say, book publishing. De Correspondent says it is working with:

De Groene Amsterdammer (founded in 1877) … a weekly magazine of ideas and opinion; it is perhaps best comparable to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books[…] De Groene Amsterdammer will share some of its content as well as its editorial and investigative resources with De Correspondent.

… and …

Momkai (founded in 2002) … an independent, digital creative agency in the Netherlands that is renowned for its ability to combine conceptual thinking, design and technology in the creation of online formats and campaigns. Momkai is founding partner and responsible for the brand, the website, the identity and the campaigns. Momkai also created a new publishing framework and editor for De Correspondent called Respondens.

… Well, well, well – we thought, spotting Monday’s column in The New York Times by its media correspondent, David Carr: this De Correspondent has not been born a moment too soon. Snippets that stood out in the column, a review of a new book — a roman à clef about New York newshounds by Michael Hastings, a journalist killed tragically young in the 2003 Iraq war:

… [P]oliticians and journalists are now neck and neck in a race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they read, watch or click on, a historic low.

… Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably that the audience has fled established print outlets …

… The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news conference. The jig is up.

The public is ready to share the stage, onto which De Correspondent has invited it to step up and join fully in the action. Bravo for the courage to try out a new idea — never mind if the degree to which it has succeeded so far is hard to judge for those of us who cannot read in Dutch. And a hat tip to David Carr for facing the facts, refusing to bury his head in the sand, and telling us what he sees — truthfully.

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Loomio: open-source tools from young New Zealand techies to make the dream of practical, efficient, sexy cooperatives come true

Bricks for building a working model for cooperatives are being conjured out of the ether – in prototypes by young New Zealand techies - photograph by MIL 22

Bricks for building a working model for cooperatives are being conjured out of the ether – in prototypes by young New Zealand techies
– photograph via MIL 22

Can a group of young New Zealand revolutionaries save the world – by rescuing cooperatives from the taint of failed hippie idealism and accusations of underestimating the selfishness of human beings?

We discovered Loomio, founded in Wellington this year, in thinking about Thomas Piketty’s mountainously substantiated belief, in his world champion bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that unchecked capitalism has signed its own death warrant — by ignoring the tidal wave of anger and outrage about increasingly dire and shocking social inequality.

This blog, post-Gutenberg, is founded on the conviction justified in a paper for the Oxford Internet Institute in 2010 that organisations owned by their contributors are the key to levelling the playing field in the media – that this is essential, if we want the form of government by the people we call ‘democracy’ to work properly. So of course we’re wondering when Piketty will come to the same conclusion – like Pope Francis, as we reported last year in ‘Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?’.

Googling ‘Piketty’ and ‘cooperatives’ did not only produce Shaila Dewan, also making this connection, in ‘Who Needs a Boss?’ in The New York Times. It led to an excellent discussion on the Hacker News site last month.

We were close to ecstatic to learn on that forum about the birth of Loomio – a group of young software designers with exactly the right skills to support the point made on this blog in February of 2012, that the lightning digital communication we have now means that cooperatives no longer have to be bogged down by endless meetings and chronic bickering and power-mongering. We said, then, in ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind’:

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods […] Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise. The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. […] To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work …

Someone especially brilliant behind the founding of Loomio grasped the idea all the way down to the mention in that second paragraph of The Guardian’s opinion polls – whose progress happens to be displayed in pie charts. The Wikipedia summary of Loomio’s mission explains: ‘Loomio is a libre software application for group decision-making and collaboration […] As discussions progress the group receives feedback on a proposal through an up-datable pie chart.’

We urge our readers to visit the Loomio.org site for further – erm – enlightenment (could this be a group who grew up reading about Harry Potter’s ‘Lumos!’ spell?). Its home page announces: ‘Loomio unleashes the internet’s potential to bring people towards consensus rather than polarized debate..’

In the meanwhile, here is a practical idealist at a startup in New York explaining how using Loomio’s toolkit fits the charter and modus operandi of his own organisation – the Colab Cooperative — ‘a worker-owned tech cooperative supporting startup social enterprises through agile development of … products that we hope will change the world for the better’. The upper-case letters are our own annotations — reactions and mental notes — reading his contribution to the Hacker News discussion:

PROGRESS! SOMEONE ARGUING FROM HANDS-ON EXPERIMENTATION …We have found the biggest plus of being a cooperative to be the sense of equality amongst our crew stemming from a democratic-based decision making process and a path to membership (as a co-owner) available to all (assuming performance and cultural standards are met).

THE BRIGHTEST SOCIALLY-AWARE TECHIES WILL IN FUTURE CHOOSE COOPS …Moving forward we are of the opinion that the many of the best and brightest in our industry who seek social and environmental change will choose to work in cooperatives rather than traditional corporations even if it means sacrificing some personal financial benefit to do so (although hopefully this will not be needed as more resources go to supporting cooperatives).

IDEALISM IS NOT THE DRUG OF FOOLS BUT THE WAY SOME THINGS IMPROVE IN THE WORLD, BIT BY BIT …The ‘meaning quotient’ of life generally trumps all for those we work with and those who support cooperatives.

RECOGNISES NEED FOR ‘EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE’ AND STRONGLY SHARED BELIEFS … In terms of keynotes, running a cooperative successfully requires: – emotional intelligence – operational processes that support intra-team communication and collaborative work – a willingness to put your trust in your co-workers – a strong sense of cultural identity – a mission that can be shared with members and partners.

LEARNING TO BALANCE LEADERSHIP FOR SPEED, WHEN THIS IS MISSION-CRITICAL, WITH CONSULTATION-AND-COLLABORATION, THE ORGANISATION’S CORE CULTURE … Given this is HN, I will say that there is some tension b/t the ‘lead by your gut’ – fast and furious – approach of most entrepreneurs and the emphasis in cooperatives on getting consensus from the team on big decisions. As a former ‘traditional’ entrepreneur with some VC / startup experience, I feel like we have found a nice balance b/t empowering our management team to lead with their ‘gut’ business instincts while also engaging in proactive communication with the team around key business decisions.

ADMITS MISTAKES …That said I have also at times stepped on some toes and gently bruised some egos with my former ways. So it is a learning process for sure…

EXPERIMENTING WITH COLLABORATIVE DECISION MAKING SOFTWARE … As part of our communications work, we have begun experimenting with using http://loomio.org as part of our discussion and decision-making process.

Best of luck, Loomio and Colab. It will be a dream come true to see you prove sour, embittered old pessimists — like this Thomas Howard Kunstler commenting on Piketty — utterly mistaken:

[T]he second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face. Piketty just feeds that secondary delusion.

Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.

[…]

The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.