The Bristol Cable needs to define what it is, work in the open and get an editor

Last week, I went to the monthly members’ meeting of The Bristol Cable. This is the newspaper* that is co-operatively owned; anyone can become an owner, from £1/month. I wrote about the AGM here. The aim is to come up with a sustainable model of quality, independent local journalism in the service of the people, not shareholders, advertisers or Rupert Murdoch. (Hackney Citizen is similar, but is privately owned by one individual — and seems to run on fumes.)

I find myself getting fired up about the concept — and wanting to raise plenty of critique and ideas — because I want this thing to succeed. Strong, vital local journalism could make such a difference to the quality of local political debates on housing, the environment, schooling — basically everything. If we’ve reached ‘peak centralisation’ in the UK and local/regional government is going to increase in importance, then we’re going to need high quality, independent local media and journalism. And if knowledge is power, and you believe in political equality (the idea that we should all have equal political power) then it seems logical that the people should own the means of the production of knowledge.

Makes sense to me, anyway. And as I get excited about the concept and its potential, I worry that The Bristol Cable isn’t good enough. Of course it takes time and resources to build the thing, and it’s not always helpful to have co-owners being a nuisance. But I’ve written some things, meant with the best intent, and hopefully useful to someone — whether the Cable or another media co-operative somewhere. I think the big risk is that the Cable fails because of execution and then the co-op model takes the blame. 

1) *What is the Cable? And what is it trying to do?

Is The Bristol Cable a newspaper? Is it a current affairs magazine? Is it a quarterly news review? And if it is any of those things today — what is the vision for it for tomorrow? Unless it can clearly answer those questions, it won’t be able to target audiences or identify competitors, which will help it to grow. 

Furthermore, what does success look like for the whole organisation? Beyond readership, thought that’s a good indicator. What is the desired social impact of a local media co-op? What good is it doing Bristol?

The Grenfell Tower disaster might serve as an example. If the fire was partly due to the absence of strong local journalism to hold the council to account and to press them for preventative action, then how would a world with co-owned media be different? Can the Cable prevent a similar disaster occurring in Bristol? How can we judge the Cable’s ability to provide journalism that represents the voices of less privileged people and that holds local decision-makers accountable?

2) How working openly can help

At the meeting last week, the Cable coordinators presented the story of their work with the Bureau Local on mega-farms. It was all good stuff. The members responded to the talk with a bunch of ideas for related writing or investigation, each building off each other. But what becomes of those ideas? Do they go into an editorial meeting somewhere? Or are they lost in the ether?

It made me realise that the Cable might be working the wrong way round. A cooperatively owned media organisation could be the publishing platform for its 1,700 members. Instead of seeing the members as just the means to an end, i.e. they provide the monthly donations to keep the show on the road, what if the Cable saw those people as a newsroom of 1,700 staff? People who could help with writing, production, proofing, producing etc… I got the sense that the coordination team were open to this, but that member involvement would be the exception, not the norm. The Cable does already run journalism training for locals, which is exactly the right approach — hopefully this will be followed through to its logical conclusion. 

The coordinators may be concerned by the risk of being overwhelmed by volunteers, to which the answer is ensuring that there are no bottlenecks. This happens by working openly, to ensure that 1,700 have the same access to information as the central team, which allows members to self-organise to help the paper as best they can. That might look like open editorial meetings, where members contribute and critique story ideas. This would give the paper more stories to choose from, which leads to better content overall. Stories themselves could be drafted in the open, or at least open to the membership if not the public, so that another twenty pairs of eyes can review them for errors — and ten more brains contribute additional local knowledge to the story. Again, this leads to better quality content.

This stuff is often harder said than done. Openness does not guarantee involvement: people are busy or might not understand what they can contribute. But it would allow the real keen ones, the early adopters, to help out — and they’ll iron out the problems and help bring more members on board.

It’s about taking down the barriers to engagement that most organisations naturally create. Organisations get an office, ‘their office’, they set up email and WhatsApp groups: closedness happens by accident, by default. You have to work at openness. One quick win might be a Cable Slack channel — it’s the easiest way to be notified about things, such as editorial meetings, as they’re happening. I’m tempted to just start one for the members, but suspect its better to all be in one place (the coordinators have one already).

3) Who’s the editor?

I’m a relative newcomer to the Cable. I assume there were conversations when it started about the need for an editor. And I’m not sure how these went down. Perhaps it was felt that a cooperative should be all about horizontal communication and organisation, so having an editor felt wrong? Who knows. But the Cable needs an editor. Think orchestras and conductors. Football clubs and coaches. They can manage without one, but they’re unlikely to get good results. Particularly if the Cable can move to a place where its members are the main contributors. Editors then become the most important part of the coordination role.

The print version of the Cable is a bit of a mess. It would benefit from one clear-minded person to take responsibility for it. That person should establish and ferociously guard the Cable’s standards, the quality of writing and sourcing. That person should help everyone else in the coordination team to raise their game. And that person should be ultimately responsible — and be held accountable for — the quality, accuracy and effectiveness of the paper. I don’t know enough about the online content to know if it makes sense to divide the roles into print and online, but I suspect one overall editor would be best.

This seems like a good point to list a range of things that troubled me about the last issue. This gets micro-managey, but is hopefully the kind of stuff an editor would have pointed out…

  • The single most important thing for a free-sheet is surely that the front page is clear and attractive. It’s what determines whether any of those 30,000 distributed free copies actually get read. Unless the front page grabs a potential reader’s attention, unless it’s visually appealing, or at least clear about what it is offering, nobody will read it. Issue #12’s front page is a mess:
The Bristol Cable frontpage, Summer 2017
The Bristol Cable frontpage, Summer 2017
  • More on the front page… Protect the masthead! Part of what the Cable is trying to do is to build a new trusted brand. And so it needs to ruthlessly protect that brand — not allow, as above, illustrations to run under it or illegible red ‘stamps’ to interrupt it. The masthead is the standard, the flag — and in previous editions it has looked really good, where it is given space to breathe, see e.g. Issue 2
  • And more still… The front page font has also changed in this issue — perhaps in attempt to relate to the headline story? — which should never happen. There is a Cable font and it needs to be used consistently.  (Meanwhile, the back page is great — a clear advert for the Cable, using the right font in a readable size).
  • Last thing on the front page… Nothing about the front-page design or copy feels relevant to Bristol. I doubt the salience of dodgy clipart of Dell laptops and a guy with blue coming out of his head. I think there needs to be something obviously Bristol-related on the front page of every issue. It’s a local newspaper, so celebrate and emphasise the local — that’s why people are going to pick it up. Relate the headline story to an image of Bristol somehow.
  • Consistent design. The paper mainly has a four-column format, but sometimes this goes down to three. And on page two the credits have four columns, but the welcome text is in one giant block. More care in colour use would be great too — the white text on green (p. 9) is particularly hard to read. The job of the paper is to help people consume information — anything that makes this harder should go.
  • Consistent content. This will obviously rely on contributions and resource, but the issues I’ve seen so far are a bit of a random jumble of content — an investigation, a photo essay, another bit of investigation. My guess is that readers would like a little cohesion in the structure of content — like a more traditional paper. News sections, letters to the editor, hyperlocal area news, comment / discussion pieces separated from news. And, of course, the most important stories towards the front of the paper. This also comes back to the question of whether it’s a newspaper or a magazine.
  • Quality of writing. A reader should be able to get a good sense of the story from the first two paragraphs. The TL;DR in internet-speak. And it’s just good writing. The rest of the word count can be used to elaborate and provide evidence. Readers should not have to deal with weasel words, cliches or vague writing, which appear throughout the paper.
  • Photos vs illustrations. This might be my personal preference, or my misunderstanding of what the Cable is, but I find the illustrations odd. Photographs seem correct for a newspaper, certainly for the front page and news articles. But photos would add value to features too; the two-page story on Arron Banks in this issue should have been accompanied by a photo of him. It would be valuable to think about how the Cable could run experiments with the print edition to test some of these questions. But that’s another blog post. 
  • Length. The paper seems too long. Again this might be my preference, but consider how much time people spend with a free-sheet: perhaps ten minutes on the bus or in a cafe? I think the coordination team are thinking of going up to 40 pages, but I would much prefer a more regular, shorter, better paper. That also might mean we can use literally better paper — not that stuff that all newspapers used to print on, where it’s difficult to turn individual pages.
  • Fun. Lord Reith was right: you’ve got to entertain, as well as educate and inform. Otherwise it all gets a bit dry. A bit too much like school. One thing at the AGM stuck with me: a co-owner saying “when you get home, you see the Cable and B24/7 [an attractively presented monthly listings magazine that relies on advertising] — and you read the easy one”. I think the Cable needs to provide a bit more fun — a bit more of a celebration of Bristol — or spaces for hope, at least — as well as the investigations of the bad stuff. Perhaps at least a crossword.

The Bristol Cable could be the best example of a new form of co-owned local media in the UK; by Bristolians, for Bristolians and of Bristolians. Good media improves the quality of public debate, governance and ultimately the quality of life for people living in the city. It’s a wonderful vision, but to get there, the Cable needs to be better, and quickly. Help it do that: join as a member here, and come to the monthly meetings (and hopefully I’ll see you on a team Slack sometime soon…)

Why I own a local newspaper (and thoughts on their AGM)

The Bristol Cable is a newspaper, mostly. (Free-to-access, as they wisely print on the front.) It’s also a website and probably an instagram or something too.

And it’s a member-owned cooperative. There are 1,600+ members. I’m delighted to be one, because I worry about the quality of democracy in the UK and I suspect the UK’s media situation isn’t terribly good for us. And it seems fairly obvious that a newspaper owned by its readers is going to serve its readers. A newspaper owned by some tax exile living on an island somewhere is going to serve… well, you get the idea.  Continue reading Why I own a local newspaper (and thoughts on their AGM)

It’s who you know.

On the Fridays before the main Saturday events, #NotWestminster is an opportunity to spend a few hours working on a single idea, proposal, hack, whatever. The day starts with people pitching ideas for stuff they want to work on — all on theme of making local democracy better.

I joined a group of people discussing those occasions where small groups of people get together to do something for where they live. Those motivated individuals who, without any kind of top-down urging or instruction, Just Do It.

The group didn’t get to the point of creating or building anything — instead we spent our time trying to define the problem.

I wrote loads of notes, and hopefully there’s something useful or thought-provoking here: Continue reading It’s who you know.

How to stop some people dying in 2017.

In 2016, dead people were in the news a lot. It’s likely that some people will also die in 2017. Some of these people will be famous. But many of them won’t be. Many of them will suffer from easily preventable causes. Let’s focus on those folks for a minute. Continue reading How to stop some people dying in 2017.

Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe

I think Amsterdam might be (whisper it) more beautiful than Paris. It’s the canals. And the architecture, particularly the social housing — which has been cutting-edge since about 1910.

Apart from wandering around thinking “I’d really like to live here”, I also met up with two democracy-focused organisations. One that I would call classic civic tech, and one that takes a wider democratic engagement role, but that has helped deliver some interesting digital products. With a general election approaching in March 2017, it’s an exciting time for Dutch civic tech.

Amsterdam was also, alas, the last stop on EuroCivicTechTour2016 — so I round off this post with some reflections of the State of Europe’s Civic Tech.  Continue reading Change the system: civic tech lessons from Amsterdam, and a wrap-up from across Europe

Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!

I’m back in the UK (is that still a thing?) now — but I have two more EuroTrip stops to blog about. 

First, Berlin. As you may know, Berlin is excellent. It also has a bit of a reputation for tech startups. And for doing interesting political things with tech.

It seems a long time ago that there was excitement about ‘Liquid Democracy’ — the German Pirate Party software that was going to revolutionise representative democracy. It allowed constant ‘delegative democracy’: you could choose to delegate your vote to someone on a certain topic, but take it away from them again or choose a different delegate at any time. In addition, your delegate could delegate your vote, and so on. Hence the ‘liquid’ bit — power would flow as voters chose and changed their representatives at will. The software made this practically feasible for the first time. There were some excitable blogs about it. But the revolution never came. I wondered what became of it — my trip to Berlin revealed the answer.

And there’s much more happening in Berlin today — in a way that is perhaps more realistic and more understanding of how most people want to engage.  Continue reading Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!