The Scottish News Commons
There’s a big moor fire near Gairloch and the reporter from the local community radio station goes out to do a piece to mic and get reaction from people living nearby. In Inverness, the local television station interviews the assistant chief officer of the Scottish Fire Service about how difficult it’s been to deal with all the moor fires we’ve seen in recent months. In Glasgow, a freelance reporter specialising in environmental issues interviews a scientist who has researched the relationship between moor fires and climate change.
In Edinburgh, a freelance political reporter gets reaction from the rural affairs secretary, who backs the fire service appeal to crofters and farmers to hold off on muirburns for the moment. Four separate journalists across the country. Four separate bits of content. Now imagine you were able to bring them together in one news package.
I’m working on an idea that would allow that to happen. It’s called The Scottish News Commons. It’s a blank piece of paper we can use to create a new model for sustainable, quality journalism in Scotland.
We need it. The business supporting most journalism in Scotland is struggling. There was a lot of comment following the latest ABC figures for the Scottish press, showing almost universal falls in circulation. Alex Massie said it’s now a question of when not if a national Scottish title will fold. Then we heard fears that Johnston Press was to make up to 30 editorial staff redundant at The
The scale of the proposed cuts shocked many. But they are nothing new. Staff in the media across Scotland have been suffering job cuts, low pay increases and less resources to do their job, year on year, for many years.
A fundamental change is underway. The traditional economic model for news appears increasingly unable to support the livelihoods of journalists.
So we need new ideas.
Recently in The Scotsman, journalist Peter Geogheagan raised the prospect of state subsidy for journalism, pointing towards a model that’s been at work for several years in Sweden. But do we want to subsidise the for-profit companies who have dominated our media landscape for so long?
For years, companies like these racked up incredible profit margins. Little of that money was invested in journalism, or in journalists, or in developing their brands into recognised leaders in online media. Instead, the profits were distributed in dividends to shareholders and some used as leverage to take on debt in order to acquire more titles and make their companies bigger. The communities these companies served – the people who bought their papers, the advertisers who stuck with them – saw very little improvement in the service they were getting for the investment they were putting in.
And with the rise of the internet and the beginning of the economic downturn, these behemoths were left with less income, big interest repayments and less influence in the new online world. Their answer? Sack journalists. Close offices. Close newspapers.
So, if subsidising these companies is a bad idea, could we still have state support but restrict it to not-for-profit media?
A proposal to do just that was highlighted by commentator Pat Kane recently. The ‘citizenship news voucher’ is a proposal from Robert McChesney in the US, which would see people being given around £130 from government funds to spend as voucher credits, supporting not-for-profit journalism enterprises.
Pat also mentioned the idea of crowdsourcing investment for new journalism startup, citing Wings Over Scotland as an example of what can be achieved. There have are other bigger examples with De Correspondent in the Netherlands and The Big Roundtable in the United States. These are all good ideas and I can see each of them – or variations of them – playing a part in creating a new funding eco-system for news.
But I think we need to do more than just come up with new ideas for funding. We need to think about the structure of the business the media in Scotland is built on.
The Scottish News Commons would be a new peer-to-peer network made up of journalists, broadcasters, advertising sales staff, photographers, designers, coders and others. A peer-to-peer network is a structure that allows people to take part in the creation of a common goal, on an equal basis, and without a lot of hierarchy. The common goal in this case would be the promotion of sustainable, quality journalism in Scotland.
There are no outside rules or ways of working that people in the network have to follow. That makes it easier for them to react to a changing situation and to find new and better ways of working together over time.
Just like our moorland fire example, The Scottish News Commons will rely on journalists sharing their content with each other in an open, flexible way, knowing and trusting that they will be properly rewarded for their work. This sharing of content will be governed by The Scottish News Commons License, created using the Peer Production License as a model. Basically, members in the network agree to share their content with others in the network. Anyone outside the network who wants to use the content has to pay up front.
This license allows different outlets in the network to use content in different ways, without the need to negotiate with each individual journalist. Each one of these outlets will, of course, then have to reward the journalist who created the content, according to the rules of the network. Diversity of journalists and diversity of outlets is the power of The Scottish News Commons.
Everyone brings their own unique content to the table: hyperlocal community reporters; citizen journalists; bloggers and blogsites like Bella Caledonia; political reporters; sports reporters; arts reporters; sports reporters; graphic designers; data journalists; and many others.
The network allows this diverse content to be put together in different ways to suit different outlets. Community news outlets benefit from being able to access national content on stories relevant to their area. National news outlets benefit from having the ability to get local reaction to stories. The Scottish News Commons would only be open to not-for-profit organisations. The income raised by the network would be used to support journalists, not shareholders.
This network would be appealing to advertisers. Instead of individual journalists and outlets trying to sell their own patch of the internet, a central sales team could sell space on the network as a whole.
From the start – even before the start – The Scottish News Commons would be asking members of the public to become subscribers and supporters, looking to people to support quality journalism. The crowdsourcing examples mentioned earlier show the public is interested. And – if there is any public subsidy to come journalism’s way in the future – The Scottish News Commons would be fighting to make sure that it was seen as the best vehicle for that support. The bedrock of all of this, is the idea of a network. Once people come together, bringing their different skills, talents, interests and resources to the table, all kinds of things become possible. It’s a big idea and will need a lot of people to make it happen. I think the basis for this kind of network is already present in Scotland. We just need to come together in a conscious way. I’m confident that we can make it work.
Because people in the news business are used to change. It’s what we deal with everyday. When the newspaper is put to bed or the programme is broadcast, we don’t panic about to what to do next. We just reach out and grab another blank piece of paper.