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For a local web and print magazine run by an assortment of people who have not come straight out of newsrooms, the Bristol Cable has caused a splash since its launch in 2014. And the journalism, which is carving out a niche as community-led, investigative media serving Bristol, is only half of the story. As a co-op, the Cable is owned and led by over 1,000 co-op members in the city. One person, one vote. What lessons have we learned during the project, and is a local media co-op realistic in other locations? Here are our tips.
The origins of the Cable lie in a series of high-quality journalism and media workshops held all around Bristol, attracting contributors and building networks. Their ideas shaped the project from the beginning. Now members continue to influence and mandate the direction of the Cable through participating in regular co-op meetings and using an online discussion forum – deciding everything from finances and advertising to events. Engagement by members and readers is fundamental to the project – and we constantly seek to refine and update engagement platforms. Having a print publication and continuously running workshops and events, often alongside other community groups, has been crucial to this.
In contrast to the abundant ‘churnalism’ of mainstream local press and much of the media, new and old, the Cable found a niche offering an original deeper look at issues, challenging investigative pieces and community voices – from exiled Kurds on ISIS to investigations into local nepotism and exploitation and the deep-data stories on housing and climate change. Rather than just playing catch-up with advances in journalism we sought to use new approaches from the off, and caught attention for our infographics, design and interactive approach – with a nice dose of humour too. This has been crucial for establishing legitimacy, attracting the start-up funding, elevating so-called community journalism to a standard way higher than most conventional media, and reaching out to a broad audience.
Sometimes information and ideas seems like a hard sell. So you have to layer on the reasons to take notice and get involved. The Cable is valued by its membership and in the community as much for its events and workshops as for the content. We’ve run workshops on reporting on the police, the Freedom of Information Act, video journalism and dozens more. We’ve put on unique hustings, film screenings, run extensive programmes and even thrown the occasional party. This means a lot more work but it’s important. Add to that discount deals with local businesses and you’ve got a decent case to make.
The Cable’s history is not one of ‘activism’ but more one of organising. The long-term financial sustainability and social aims of the Cable rely on a membership paying £1-plus a month. This means involvement, and building a community of interest is essential. Make sure you speak to a wide cross-section of people and groups. Various people with conventional or other expertise in our network have contributed greatly to the project, whether it’s community elders, youth, ‘on side’ journalists, film makers, designers, media law lecturers or the Centre for Investigative Journalism. Their input has been invaluable.
The first two years of the project have been possible due to a sort of collective chronic masochism, based on fervent belief in the co-op’s potential. Until this month all work, from the core co-ordinators to every contributor, was unpaid – although taking on the challenge and the lessons learned in the process have been priceless. Be ready for doing as much project management and administration as journalism (alongside another job)! Also – the Cable is far from a proven model, so let’s see what happens next.