Ally Tibbit has learned through experience what types of non-profit structures work for active hyperlocal sites. In this guest post for Talk About Local, Ally sketches out how a Co-operative with hundred of members could be formed to produce local news and return control of the news to the people.
As part of my job with STV Edinburgh, I try to maintain an updated ‘map’ of hyperlocal activity in Edinburgh. And recently, I’ve been struck by the amount of our civic life which is happening inside proprietary platforms such as Facebook.
In some ways this is unsurprising. Facebook is afterall a familiar platform, which is taking up more and more of everybody’s time, so why not? Having concluded the first ever round of Social Media Surgeries in the city, it was pretty clear that most community councillors and voluntary organisations simply wanted to find out how to set-up and use a Facebook page effectively. Some didn’t even have a independent website at all.
We’re about to hold the first ever Edinbuzz community unconference, on the subject of the “future of community news” and one of the things we’ve been discussing, at least amongst the “social media surgeons,” is not how we produce content – that is becoming increasingly easy – but how we build in long-term sustainability to what we’re doing.
Increasingly, some of the more established hyper-local groups in Edinburgh are realising that it is not individual blog posts that matter – it is building a sustainable relationship with a local audience and developing it into a community of ‘engaged’ citizens that matters.
And having got over the ‘gee, isn’t this neat’ phase of wonderment at the technology and what you can do with it, this means asking some tricky questions. Who is it that “owns” the audience a site has developed? What is the most sustainable tech platform for it? And who ultimately makes decisions about the sites long-term future and aims?
The hyperlocal sector is marvelous in it’s messiness – so I’ll make it clear that I don’t think there is a one-size fits all solution. But being a bit of a constitutional geek, all this has got me considering what the best form of legal structure for an independent community led hyperlocal organisation might be.
I got into all this because I helped to set-up Greener Leith. It is now a registered charity and company limited by guarantee, with the explicit aim of promoting better public spaces, sustainable development and community involvement. One of the ways we work towards our aims is to run a niche hyper-local news site that celebrates all the good stuff that’s going on.
Having full charitable status is good for lots of reasons. It means we can apply for grants and it gives people confidence in the way we run. Our accounts must be independently audited and we report to OSCR. We have an open membership and the committee is elected each year from the members. So, there is a strong element of transparency and democratic control built into the organisation. Being a company limited by guarantee is also good – as it gives some protection to the management committee.
However, is it the perfect set-up for a community development focused hyper-local? If you have no ambitions to run projects beyond a local website, I’m thinking probably not. For a start, all the regulation can be costly. Greener Leith needs to pay an accountant to look over our accounts each year, so that’s more core costs.
Perhaps more importantly, charitable status could hinder your organisations freedom of speech as it means you can’t be too overtly political. In some people’s eyes, not being allowed to take a political stance may be regarded as a good thing. It’s a bit like choosing to be regulated by Offcom.
And lastly, if you’re on the management committee of a charity you can’t be paid. This could be off putting for someone who has worked their socks off to establish a hyperlocal site. Together those reasons have led me to consider whether a co-operative model may be worth exploring for hyperlocals considering their long-term future.
And, if it could be made to work, then it throws up some tantalising opportunities for local community involvement. The marvelous hyperlocal co-op that exists only in my imagination at present, would be based, like many hyperlocals on “citizen journalists” writing for free, but it would sell subscriptions. Let’s say we ask people to subscribe for £1 a month and all subscribers are deemed ‘members of the co-op.’ This wouldn’t be a paywall or any form of pay to read, but a price for membership of the organisation. This would mean subscribers get a warm fuzzy glow from supporting local news, but even better, they also become the legal owners of the site, with voting rights.
Every year all the owners vote to choose an editorial board. And it is this editorial board who make the daily decisions about the site. The subscription fee would need to cover the core costs of the operation – but as all good Hyperlocal people know, you can run a hyperlocal site for £200 a year, or basically free if you’re really frugal.
So, every so often, the board would get together and decide how to spend their financial surplus. This might mean just a couple of meetings in the first year if there’s not much cash, but if the project slowly acquired more subscribers, they might need to meet more often. Image what could be achieved with 1000 people paying £1 a month?
What could they do with the cash? They could decide to make a micro-payments to local journalists to report in depth on a particular story. They could decide to give members who write frequently for the site a rebate on their dues. They could decide to spend it on marketing the site and growing the subscriber base. They could split the surplus between the authors of the top five posts that month.
If they got enough subscription cash together perhaps they could hire a part time ‘beat blogger?’ Or, even more radically, they could give some back to the members as a ‘dividend,’ or donate it to a local good cause.
The important point really is that it is the members who are in control. If the editorial board screw up, then they get voted off. And whilst the management of giant co-operative organisations might start to become detached from their members – at a hyper-local scale, the chances are most readers would know at least some of the people on the board. This increases the chances that board members would be held accountable, most probably in the high street, if the site started doing things people didn’t agree with.
I’ve no idea whether there are any hyperlocal sites operating like this at the moment. If there are, I’d love to find out about them. But, if there aren’t it might still be worth considering. You might even be able to get funding to cover the set-up costs.
After all, when was the last time you had the chance to vote for the editor of your local paper?
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