This British local news co-op’s model is evolving as it grows

Local news orgs are often talked about being community institutions, but a local startup in Bristol, England is taking that to a new level.

The Bristol Cable is a cooperatively owned and operated news org that publishes a quarterly newspaper and a regularly updated website. But beyond its publications, the Cable runs a journalism training program for Bristol residents and holds regular meetings where its members can express their opinions through votes.

This week in Solution Set we’re focusing on The Bristol Cable. We’ll dissect its co-op model, learn how it works with members, and see how it’s thinking of managing growth and attracting new supporters.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one awesome thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other excellent resources.

Is there a project you’re working on that might make a good Solution Set report? How is your outlet interacting with its community? Tell me about! Email me at [email protected] or tweet me at @ylichterman.



Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know about The Bristol Cable:


TLDR

The Challenge: As The Bristol Cable has grown, it’s trying to figure out how to continue to involve members in its unique co-op model.

The Strategy: The Cable has begun to create new systems and technology enabling it to engage members in high-level strategic decisions while letting professional staff focus on day-to-day operations.

The Numbers: There are 1,950 members of the Cable. Most pay £3 ($4.20 USD) per month.

The Lessons: Readers should be at the center of your coverage and decision-making processes, but it can be a challenge to reach and convert potential supporters outside your core fan base.

The Future: The Cable is hiring a community engagement specialist and upgrading its technology to make it easier for members to participate.

Want to know more? Scroll down for additional profiles of the Cable and learn more about membership and how to connect with readers.


Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:

The Challenge

In October 2013, a group of friends from college began a listening tour of sorts around Bristol, England, a city of about 450,000 on the country’s southwest coast.

At the time, Adam Cantwell-Corn, Alec Saelens, and Alon Aviram were recent college graduates who were dismayed by the state of local journalism in the UK. So they set out to do something about it.

Over the course of a few months, they held meetings with hundreds of local residents and dozens of community groups. They asked lots of questions: What do you need from a local news organization? What kind of information do you need? How can a news organization speak for you?

To continue its community outreach, the team organized a series of public journalism trainings. And in fall 2014 they began publishing as The Bristol Cable, putting out a quarterly print publication and posting coverage more frequently to its website.

“It was a period where it was totally grassroots. Just a name and a bunch of people trying to organize around some concepts of let’s do a community-focused media project, the focus of it being let’s organize the workshops to train people and get a magazine out,” Lucas Batt, the Cable’s membership & web coordinator, told me.

“There was some crowdfunding behind the magazine and lots of voluntary work by illustrators and coordinators,” he said. “That’s the very foundation of it.”

Since its launch, a goal of the Cable has been to give community members direct ownership over their local media. As a result, the publication was set up as co-operative, so when someone makes a financial contribution, they become a member, which allows them to vote on major decisions. Members also donate time and services to help advance the publication.

Here’s a diagram from the Cable of how it works:

The Cable holds monthly membership meetings where members receive updates from the Cable’s professional staff, which it calls Contributor Members, about the outlet’s finances, upcoming stories and other pressing questions.

It has an online platform that allows members to discuss issues and vote on topics in between monthly meetings.

The Cable’s membership votes on major decisions – such as its annual budget and the composition of its board of directors — at its Annual General Meeting, which is held each spring.

This system was established when the Cable was a younger and smaller organization, but as it has grown in recent years, the Cable staff has begun to think about how it can make sure its processes continue to function properly to support its mission even as it grows.

“As we’re approaching 2,000 members, we’re having to look again at our approach to that as we’re moving more digitally but also focusing on making those members meetings meaningful and engaging,” Batt said. “Members had quite a lot of say I think in the original stages of the project.”


The Strategy

As it has grown, the Cable has tried to systematize processes to make it easier for members to participate while making sure that their contributions are meaningful.

At its general meeting last year, the Cable’s staff asking the membership to vote on how much they wanted to be consulted. Would they want to be involved in day-to-day decision making or have more of an advisory role?

The response was overwhelmingly in favor of a more advisory role, Batt said.

“Mainly members wanted to support us in general and perhaps be consulted on key decisions as we saw appropriate as a team,” he said.

The Cable has consulted its membership on questions such as whether it should apply for a grant from Google’s European Digital News Innovation Fund (members voted to apply, however the deadline ended up being too close), whether the Cable should campaign for certain issues it thinks are important (they think it should, and it has), or how it should approach advertising (ethically and responsibly).

It also now mostly uses monthly member meetings to share details about stories and investigations, ask for feedback on what they’ve been working on, and solicits coverage ideas.

“We’ve turned those spaces from decision making spaces into transparency and engagement opportunities,” Batt said.

Training has also been part of the Cable’s mission since before it even began publishing. Its presence has grown, it has similarly tried to figure out how to maximize resources while staying true to the values at the core of its mission.

In 2016, the Cable created its Media Lab, which is a free 10-week training course for community members who are interested in learning more about journalism and how they can report and tell stories about their community.

While the early iterations of the Cable’s trainings were one-offs, this is meant to be a more sustainable approach that will cultivate and develop serious journalists.

“In some sense, it’s a development of the initial workshops at the founding of the Cable where the approach was anyone can do journalism,” Batt said. “I think a bit of more mature approach where it’s about cultivating and supporting select people to recognize that a one-off workshop without support [can be limited.]”

The Cable is hiring a community media engagement coordinator now to continue to work with the local residents it’s training. (You can read more about its future plans by scrolling down to The Future section.)

While the community contributors aren’t paid for their work, the Cable also hires professional freelance journalists to produce stories. It’s a balancing act, Batt said, between the paper’s desire to work with community journalists while producing a high-quality professional product.

The paper has always paid freelancers, but as membership and revenue have increased, the Cable has been able to pay staff and freelancers more competitive rates.

“It’s been a road of more than three years where we are able to pay the team, finally, a living wage and now we’re hoping to pay freelancers a better rate,” he said. “We’ve been paying freelancers for a long time, but we can now start matching industry rates, which we think is important for creating a sustainable pool of contributors and fairly valuing people’s work.”


The Numbers

The Cable has 1,950 members. Memberships start at £1 per month, but most people contribute £3 per month, which entitles you to receive two copies of the quarterly paper (one for you and one to share) in the mail. The average contribution is £2.70 per month ($3.75 USD)

The Cable distributes 30,000 free copies of its quarterly print paper to more than 650 locations across Bristol.

The paper’s goal is to hit 2,400 members by the end of 2018. Batt said he was confident the Cable would reach the goal, but he also said that membership growth has slowed recently.

Between April 2016 and March 2017, the Cable had a total revenue of £109,325.06 ($152,000 USD), according to documents from its 2017 general meeting. (This year’s annual meeting is being held next month.) 43.8 percent of its income came from grants and non-profit support. 36.2 percent of its revenue came from membership.

Over the same time period, it spent £92,709.86 ($130,000 USD).58.8 percent of Cable’s expenditures were on payments to freelancers.

The Cable has a core team of 10 people, according to its website.

In February, the Cable announced that it had received a two-year £100,000 ($140,000 USD) grant from the Omidyar Network. The grant will enable the paper to hire its community engagement coordinator and invest in other areas that will improve how the Cable interacts with its members and the community.


The Lessons

Growing pains: When you launch a new news organization or product, you’ll always reach your super fans first. It’s then a major challenge to figure out how to build your audience among more casual users.

As membership growth has stalled, the Cable is thinking about changing its messaging and approach to reach more readers in Bristol who could potentially become members.

The Cable wants to make sure these changes don’t alienate its core constituents.

“It’s a complex idea to communicate, and perhaps many of our initial members were people who saw that and understood it fairly quickly,” Batt said. “We’ve got a task on our hands to communicate something that is fairly novel … and that people aren’t used to or experienced with. It’s not just selling a copy of a newspaper in a shop. It’s a whole new concept about supporting news because it’s a public good. As we grow, one of the things we’re going to have to continually think about is how we [attract] new members while still retaining our identity and not being exclusive … while also managing lots of different viewpoints and bringing them into a public forum that people are happy to support. We want to speak for and to the whole city.”

The Cable has begun asking members why they joined and how they heard about the paper. It’s also asking former members why they cancelled and seeking out non-members to learn what could entice them to join.

Ultimately though, the Cable still has a pretty small staff and it can be tough to find the bandwidth to do this type of research and promotion.

“It’s about getting the right messaging to the right audiences in the right place,” Batt said. “We haven’t had sufficient capacity to be able to do work. Basically, we’ve been quite busy with delivering what we’ve already been doing. What we were doing just wasn’t getting as many members as before, even though we hadn’t changed anything.”

Infrastructure is important: As we discussed, the Cable is trying to make it easier for its members to voice their opinions and contribute to the decision-making process.

However, the software the Cable uses, Loomio, an open-source decision-making program designed in New Zealand, wasn’t really designed for such a large group of people.

The Cable plans to use some the funding from its Omidyar Network grant to develop a new online platform and to better integrate its membership data.

“A year ago, our membership database was manual,” Batt said. “We did have a payment collection system, but keeping track of members was really kind of messy and we didn’t have a well-integrated system for this. IT was starting to get quite burdensome to keep everything up to date. We managed to find a talented developer who did a lot of voluntary work for us over the past year to build the backend of our membership system. That’s something we’ve found: There’s a lot of infrastructure that we’ve needed and we didn’t know where to find it. And we didn’t have any money for it really.”

Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but by investing in your backend products you can ensure that you’re able to meet the needs of your readers and actually fulfill your mission.

Members matter: Because of its unique set up as a co-op, the Cable puts members at the heart of everything it does

I’ve highlighted a bunch of the Cable’s programs already, but it’s worth mentioning them again. Everything the Cable does — its membership approach, the Media Lab, publishing stories from community members, and more — is focused on making sure that it is a representative voice for the people of Bristol

The soon-to-be-hired community engagement coordinator will work with non-professional journalists to help them share their stories.

“They’ll be really dedicated to helping people develop their stories who aren’t professional freelancers and who need more time to help them develop their stories,” Batt said. “That approach is that people shouldn’t be excluded from contributing to their media because of lack of professional experience or skills. Helping people get into media is a really important part of the Cable.”

No matter your outlet’s business model, it will serve you well to put the reader and audience at the center of your approach. If you’re subscription or membership based, you want a dedicated audience that loves your work enough to pay for it, and if you’re selling ads you need readers who keep coming back to read your coverage.

The Cable does a fantastic job prioritizing and lifting up the voices of members, and there are plenty of takeaways that other news organizations can learn from to put their community first.

It also helps that the Cable tries to open source as much of its work as it can.

“We don’t want other organizations to have to struggle through everything that we have,” Batt said, emphasizing that the Cable wants to encourage other groups to “create local media that’s engaging and representative.”


The Future

The Cable is looking to build out its technology platforms and hire a staffer to focus exclusively on community engagement.

It also hopes to potentially collaborate with other community groups and also find ways to expand the Media Lab and bring in more diverse voices while ensuring unheralded local stories are well covered.

It ideally would like to utilize its community even more as a journalistic resource. Batt said the Cable wants to borrow a page from the playbook of De Correspondent, the Dutch outlet that relies on its members to help with its journalism.

“Our members are enormous journalistic resources basically and for those that are members and would want to contribute to having a media which speaks for them and speaks for the city and holds power to account, we want to make there be ways that they can contribute to that and not make it be burdensome,” Batt said.


Want to know more?

• The Guardian profiled the Cable in 2016, and this story gives a fantastic overview of its early days.

• Here’s journalism.co.uk with a story about the Cable’s Omidyar Network funding and how it hopes to use the funding to grow.

• Check out all these great posts from the Membership Puzzle Project for more on how you can build a member-focused newsroom.


Anything to add?

How is your news org working with readers? Let me know!Send me an email, I’m at [email protected].

I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.

See you next Thursday!


Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated Lucas Batt’s title. He’s the Membership & Web Coordinator. An earlier version of this report also mischaracterized the Google DNI grant application. The members voted to apply, but the deadline was too close to get an application in.
Creative Commons photo of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol England by Joe D.
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