An ownership model to protect independent media

New Internationalist co-editor Amy Hall explains how a strong reader-owner base can fuel recovery from the impacts of the pandemic

May 23, 2021 · 7 min read
Recent New Internationalist magazine covers

There was a point last year where it seemed like every day I would read that another media organization was laying off journalists and scaling back their operations. From digital-only news platforms to print magazines, many were not going to make it out the other side of the pandemic.

Many media organisations were fighting for survival and New Internationalist, where I am a co-editor, was no exception. In November 2020, a Reuters Institute study of independent news media organisations found that one fifth expected their annual revenue to drop 21–30 per cent. More than a third expected a drop of 30 per cent or more. As someone working for an independent publication that – like Red Pepper – survives without corporate advertising, a billionaire owner or business empire behind us, the statistics were sobering.

The impact of lockdown

As shops closed and newsstand sales plummeted, the biggest impact on our income was being suddenly cut off from our most effective way of recruiting new magazine subscribers – face-to-face conversations with would-be readers at festivals, conferences and on university campuses.

To address this, and other financial impacts, we’ve made cutbacks and some difficult decisions – including making two members of our co-operative redundant as our activities were scaled back. But, as a co-operative, we haven’t had to wait for some media mogul or giant publishing house to announce large scale redundancies and closures. As worker-members of the co-operative, we make decisions about how our business should be run. Now, we are turning to our incredible readership for support.

New Internationalist magazine has been producing social and environmental justice journalism for nearly 50 years. We focus on under-reported stories and in-depth analysis, particularly from the Global South. While three billionaire families – the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – control over two thirds of UK national newspaper circulation, New Internationalist is owned by a strong foundation of 3,600 readers in 42 countries. And over the past few weeks we have been welcoming hundreds more into our community through a community share offer.

Strength in community

Community shares are a way to build co-operative and collective ownership for anything from community-owned pubs to football clubs. Over the past decade, they have grown in popularity – partly in response to public-sector cuts and ownership consolidation. Rather than profit, the motivation for and focus of these investments are the social benefits they make possible. It’s about investing in the kind of world (or the kind of media!) we would like to live in.

The capital we raise through this current community share offer will go into putting our Covid-19 rescue plan into action, increasing access to our journalism and securing our future for the coming years.

But we are not the only ones raising donations and investment right now. For example, online magazine Black Ballad are about to open for investment and The Class Work Project, which publishes Lumpen magazine, is raising money to deal with their pandemic shortfall.

It’s more important than ever that our media agenda is not left to billionaire bosses and shareholders. Before I joined New Internationalist in December 2019, I was involved in a number of independent media organizations, including as a Red Pepper co-editor. What all these publications had in common was financial precarity, a varying need for income other than direct sales of their products (such as grants) and a group of incredibly dedicated readers and people behind the scenes, working night and day (often for free) to produce a better kind of media.

Many people come to independent media because they have lost faith and trust in the mainstream and have seen a disconnect between pundits and headlines and people’s everyday experiences. This year’s annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that less than half of people worldwide trust the media – in the UK this is as low as 35 per cent. And is it any wonder? Time and time again we see the desperate need for media that puts integrity and facts above bigotry and sensationalism.

Integrity, accuracy and independent spirit

Most journalists come from a very narrow section of society and work within media businesses reliant on corporate advertising and wealthy backers from the conservative, powerful elite. In the international media landscape, editors who are women or people of colour are hard to come by. New Internationalist is an exception to that rule, and while independent media still has a way to go in addressing issues around race, class and disability, it is often incomparably better than the mainstream.

But don’t just take it from me – the comments on our crowdfunder page offer a taste of why independent media is so important to people right now. People want to protect publications that are unafraid to ask difficult questions, challenge the powerful and tell the full story – journalism that provides, as recent donor Charlotte wrote, ‘a beacon of hope in our age of disinformation and mistrust’ and a ‘message of collaboration and equality’.

That message of collaboration is one that many independent media producers try to put into practice. Some are part of the Independent Media Association and fight for our collective rights as media organisations, along with the wider right of people ‘to receive news free from corporate and political control’.

Solidarity from other independent media has been vital to New Internationalist’s share offer effort – from Byline TV lending us their studio to record our campaign video to Red Pepper publishing this article on their website.

If we want to keep independent media running, growing and reaching as many people as possible, we need to support it. Ultimately, that means those of us who are able to do so chipping in hard cash.

In the words of Trevor, one of New Internationalist‘s co-owners: ‘We need to stand up to the media bullies’.

Amy Hall is a co-editor of New Internationalist and former co-editor of Red Pepper. To find out more about the New Internationalist Save Our Stories share offer – and to chip in if you can – head to this Crowdfunder

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