It is not news to anyone that the news media is in an economic crisis. In 2018, US newspapers had seen their weekday circulation decline from 62.7 million to 28.9 million since 1988, advertisement revenue (incl. digital) dropped from $49 billion to $14.3 by 2000 and newsroom employees collapsed from 71,600 to 37,900 by 2004. Meanwhile, the ownership has concentrated to 6 corporations, owning 90% of the media, down from 50 in 1983.
Alongside an economic decline, there is also a decline of trust and confidence in newspapers. In 1979 51% of Americans trusted the media “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, while 13% had little or no trust. In 2017 only 20% had “a lot” or “quite a lot” of trust, while 36% had “little” or “no trust”.
Similar trends are occurring across the world.
The subscription e-commerce market has grown by more than 100% percent a year over the past five years. It is also seen as the most viable path for survival by the newspapers.
I did a bit of research on whether cooperatives might have an advantage in subscription based business models by doing a small survey of 106 people through Profilic, a service used by many universities, asking:
“Imagine two otherwise similar online newspapers that would require a monthly subscription fee. The other one would be owned by investors. The other one would be owned by readers who pay a monthly subscription. In the subscriber owned newspaper the board of directors would be elected by the subscribers on one-subscriber-one-vote basis. In the investor owned newspaper the investors would choose the board of directors. Which one would you subscribe to?”
79.2% of the respondents chose the subscriber owned newspaper.
I then asked which one they would choose if the investor owned would be 10% cheaper. 65.1% chose the subscriber owned.
25% cheaper? 44.3% for the subscriber owned.
50% cheaper? 23.6%.
I also asked whether they would trust a subscriber owned or an investor owned newspaper more. 87.7% chose the subscriber owned.
This survey suggests that subscriber owned cooperatives might have a competitive advantage in subscription based businesses, and that the model might help restore trust in newspapers, while helping them survive financially.
One example of a publication that is partly subscriber owned is the Cooperative News, a publication focused on the cooperative sector that is itself a cooperative where the subscribers elect one member on the board of directors.
I would love to see the platform cooperative movement organise around the Cooperative News board elections, and use their electoral campaign as a way to boost the number of subscribers. Instead of a hostile corporate takeover, it should be a friendly upgrading. The movement could brainstorm ideas on how the publication could build tools for member participation. Here are five examples of what this could mean:
Have members vote on the best articles of the month or year.
Have a section on the website for articles submitted by members.
Have members vote on new article ideas or areas they wish the publication would cover more.
Have members submit questions for future interviews.
If the share of revenue coming from subscriptions grows, grow the share of seats on the board elected by the subscribers to the same proportion.
The possibilities are endless. Coop News is a great publication with huge potential. It can become a flagship example that would inspire a broader shift towards subscriber ownership. This requires us subscribers to view ourselves, not as spectators, but as participants.