Are media coops the business model of the future?

Photo courtesy of New Internationalist.

On a wet September evening in Shoreditch, East London, the editors of New Internationalist meet their magazine’s new owners for the first time. The team has just completed a redesign with hip London content agency TCO, who volunteered their basement gallery for the launch. Over the roar of an industrial fan, between walls decorated with blown-up pages from the dense, bi-monthly magazine, staff chat to some of the 3,467 new co-owners: a mixture of readers, writers, and supporters who bought shares as part of a crowdfunding campaign that raised almost $900,000 by the time it concluded in April 2017.

Since then, New Internationalist has been reckoning with its new status as one of the world’s biggest media co-operatives. “This is the magic of the share offer: You invest in the kind of world—or the kind of media—you want to see,” says co-editor Hazel Healy. In a world of declining magazine circulations, New Internationalist has secured its future. Now it must reimagine its structure to share decisions with thousands of owners, without compromising its editorial independence.

New Internationalist has published reported articles, cartoons, and profiles that explore social justice and inequality from its offices in Oxford, UK, since 1973. It had always been almost entirely funded by subscribers, which now number 23,000. Editors felt this to be a strength: With no billionaire backer waiting in the wings, the magazine is free to publish as it likes. But by 2017, subscriptions were falling, and the team realized their business model would soon be unsustainable.

“Rather than just cutting back, stretching ourselves, and hollowing out our product, we wanted to invest,” Healy says. “The share offer was a way to do that, which tied with our mission. It wasn’t just help us keep this thing going, but help us be bigger and better. We knew our readers were the right place to go for that big push.”

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As an early example of a publication prepared to share ownership with dedicated readers, New Internationalist serves as an experiment in a new models of financing media. Yet New Internationalist is not your typical magazine. It has an unusually engaged subscriber-base and a mission to draw attention to the unjust balance of power in both rich and poor nations. It also has a long history of experimenting with collective ownership. The monthly magazine first launched with financial help from Oxfam and Christian Aid, who wanted to encourage better understanding of the idea of international development. It nearly went bankrupt two years after the launch, in 1975, when postal charges almost doubled, but was rescued with funding from several charities and the Methodist church.

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At the time New Internationalist had a conventional masthead. But in 1976 staff adopted a cooperative approach, sharing decision-making with all members on an equal footing, although legally it was still a limited company owned by two original shareholders. In 1987, staff agreed to adopt equal pay and in 1992, the New Internationalist formally changed its legal status to worker-owned cooperative. This laid the groundwork for the change to a multi-stakeholder cooperative almost three decades later.

Community shares, which have government backing in the UK, have been used to give people a stake in everything from football clubs to piers. But their use for media organizations is relatively new. In 2015, Positive News magazine raised £263,000 through shares, while the Community Channel TV station attracted £390,000 the following year. Investors do not ordinarily get a financial return on their investment, although they may be offered a small rate of interest if the outfit makes a surplus. Instead they often invest to see social returns, such as the continuation of a publication that they see to be doing valuable work.

These shares, also known as “withdrawable” shares, operate differently to ordinary, or “transferable” shares that are traded on a stock exchange. While an ordinary shareholder might transfer their shares to a third party based on its value, withdrawable shares cannot be transferred. Instead they can be withdrawn, subject to terms that protect the share-issuing society’s financial security.

Holders of withdrawable shares are given one vote at the annual general meeting, no matter how many shares they own. This means no individual owner can buy enough shares to take control of the business. All members also have the right to stand as candidates for the board. If The New York Times adopted the same structure as New Internationalist, for example, their reader-owners would be able to vote on a resolution to reject adverts from unethical sources, or to block a takeover by Rupert Murdoch. The role demands greater responsibility than being a subscriber, though it may not be as financially lucrative as being an ordinary shareholder.

Staff at New Internationalist understand that becoming multi-stakeholder cooperative will mean sharing a certain amount of power. But Healy says some worker-owners, used to making decisions without bosses, expressed concern about maintaining editorial independence while broadening ownership to involve readers.

New Internationalist enlisted Dave Boyle, a community shares expert to help it work out what responsibilities work-owners felt comfortable sharing with readers. They unanimously voted to keep control over firing staff, for example, but were prepared to split a vote on salaries with investors. The magazine decided to model its membership structure on the cooperative newspaper Die Tageszeitung. This German daily sustains circulation through reader funding, while the business of publishing the newspaper is left to worker-owners who elect their own editor. “What we were selling to the readers was the ethos,” Boyle says. “The share sale made the mission of New Internationalist something which became owned by its readers, while the workers were responsible for executing that mission through the publication itself.”

New Internationalist set out its mission in an editorial charter. Boyle borrowed the idea from East End News, a co-operative weekly that was launched in March 1981 after a slew of journalists were sacked with the closing of the East Ender. East End News offered readers a share of the publication for £5. The paper wanted to come up with a way to make ownership meaningful without compromising editorial independence. They introduced a charter, where the editor was responsible for producing a newspaper shaped by the values of owners. Boyle says this was a good model for New Internationalist: “We didn’t want the truth to be something that was up for democratic shaping.” Nonetheless, Healy says she has fielded more calls from reader-owners about content than before the share sale.

After the New Internationalist share offer launched in March 2017, workers scrambled to enlist support from every corner. “The process itself was absolutely nerve-wracking,” says Vanessa Baird, co-editor. “We were going like crazy in the month before, and at times it looked like we weren’t going to make it.” Kelsi Farrington, production editor, worked at Positive News at the time of the New Internationalist share sale. She had a feeling they would make it. “From an outsider’s perspective, we saw so many people who didn’t want New Internationalist to go under,” says Farrington.

The successful share sale has transformed the magazine’s relationship with its readers. “We have 15 directors and 23 staff, and now we have 3,467 owners,” Healy says. “It’s a big change and there’s a real sense that we are accountable to a wider group. Everyone”—including readers, says Healy, “feels that.”

Colin Mayger, a longtime subscriber, learned of the crowdfunding campaign, dubbed “buy into a better story,” when the magazine landed on his doormat, as it had done for 30 years, early in 2017. Fearful that publishers would scrap the print edition, he followed instructions to register on Crowdfunder and pledged to invest. Afterwards, he received regular updates tracking the progress of the sale.

“That was quite fun, that stage,” he says. A map showed that pledges were coming from all over the world—especially Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. Mayger says he’s not bothered about returns: “I’m certainly not considering it an investment.” He considers the launch party—and the chance to meet the editorial team—“a bonus.”

At the New Internationalist launch in Shoreditch, Healy asks reader and worker owners alike to raise their glasses to their first achievement: investing in the future of New Internationalist. “While people are getting news for free, persuading people to pay for it by investing in the publication is an untapped resource,” she says later. “How else are you going to keep a diverse media landscape? For smaller, mission-driven outfits, this could be a really interesting way forward.”

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Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that New Internationalist is monthly. It is bi-monthly as of the relaunch.

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Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.