The Scottish News Commons

keyboardactivistsWhat’s the future for journalism in Scotland? 

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
Scotsman titles.

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.

Comments (12)

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  1. I’d prefer we had a news system free from advertisers. All advertisers have to do when journalists report issues those advertisers would prefer be kept quiet is withdraw… spend their money elsewhere. The US has had a long tradition of public news, radio and TV. That was funded in part by the federal govt. Americans themselves volunteer to run their local media outlets, help with fund raising etc too. I see no reason why we, in a new Scotland can’t have a little news studio in every community. We wouldn’t have to have the same old faces every night if there were facilities spread out across Scotland, all wired up. And yes, they do network, share and share successfully across the entire US despite the pressures from large corporations. They network, they train people, they treasure good journalism. They give a voice to the young, the poor, the old, and even the woman at the end of the lane near the forest some rich guy wants to cut down.

    The radio waves (or whatever they are in this digital world) are ours, our commons. We merely rent them out to broadcasters. We have to remember we own that commons and we want both quality and value.. Don’t we? Well, let’s look at the rent we’re charging. Maybe we could have new tenants, a lot more of them.

    1. I totally agree with @Balderrie – at the moment our notion of public broadcasting is stuck in the monolithic model of the BBC – great service, publically funded, but (as we have seen on numerous occasions in the last six months) prone to lumbering managerialist decisions…

      Instead, in considering what a SBC might look like: lets draw on the US public service broadcasting – a network that is funded, and encouraged to be plural, rather than centralised. The author, David Eyre, suggests that editorial control of content be ceded to some/body central, which would be the quickest way to dismantle the goodwill and co-operation required from such a volunteer-led network to build a service…

      Instead, the local stations need to reserve the right to editorial control, creating packages that are then broadcast by their own station and then potentially distributed across a network… I rather not hear what a Glaswegian editor makes of a fishing issue drawn from content recorded by someone from Peterhead, when I could I hear that same package recorded and edited in Peterhead. The network would be stronger for this diversity.

      The capacity of the network would grow and hopefully outgrow voluntary efforts, to become adequately funded…

      1. Thanks for thoughtful comments Mary and Johnny.

        On Mary’s point – I understand the attraction of an advertiser-free news network. But I think any new kind of network is going to have to rely on a number of different income streams. That’s how NPR works in the states. There’s a mixture of funding from local, state and federal government, combined with audience pledges and corporate sponsorship. http://www.npr.org/about/support/corpsponsorship.html

        PBS does the same. http://www.pbs.org/about/support-our-mission/corporate-partnerships/broadcast-sponsorship/

        So – even in the US where there is federally-mandated government support for public broadcasting – advertising (which is fundamentally what corporate sponsorship is) is still part of the mix. I think it would have to be in the mix for The Scottish News Commons network too.

        Johnny – you said I suggest “that editorial control of content be ceded to some/body central, which would be the quickest way to dismantle the goodwill and co-operation required from such a volunteer-led network to build a service…”

        I honestly don’t mean that at all so I’ve obviously not done a good job in explaining it.

        That diversity of voice and editorial choice that you rightly highlight would be fundamental to the network. Members would be able to follow whatever story they wanted in a way that was relevant to their audience. The value of the network – and the value of the News Commons License – is that it allows that diverse content to be used in different ways for other outlets. That way you get two or more hits at monetizing the same content – the first for your own audience, the second (and possibly third or fourth) through other network members using it straight or re-packaging it for their audiences. It also adds greater value to the news being provided.

        So – taking your Peterhead example – that package is important and relevant and newsworthy and rooted in a community directly affected by this fishing issue. If I ran a politics news site and I was doing a piece interviewing the Scottish Fisheries Minister about the issue, I’d probably want to use that Peterhead package to show the effect that the policy decision has had. If I was running the news outlet in Peterhead, I’d probaby want to use the interview with the minister. Two different outlets, two different bits of content that suit their individual audiences, but by being in a network and sharing content, you add value to both outlets.

        Really glad people are debating the idea! Thanks!

  2. Alan MacD says:

    I too have been pondering this issue albeit alot closer to home.

    Imagine a major news and entertainment website with also a printed edition which all supported the improvement of Scottish Journalism and Scotland in general……..Hard to imagine?
    Please divert your eyes to the right of this page to see a massive list of local,regional and national news blogs with some great culture websites ,economics catogorys and there is plenty of sport too! Basically everything you possible need to fill a newspaper with quality journalism.
    Top that off with the big guns like Bella, Newsnet and of course WoS and you have what should be one hell of scottish broadsheet…..(BBC Scotlandshire can do the satire thing in the middle pages)

    Maybe that is a mental idea containing too many egos and opinions and perhaps newspapers need to pick a spot on the political spectrum for it to properly function……but just maybe, someone with the right determination could make it happen…..just maybe!

  3. G. P. Walrus says:

    This is a really exciting idea. We are seeing it emerge – what a privilege.

  4. Hi David, I used to be the news-team leader at Leith FM/Castle FM in Edinburgh and we were desperate for this kind of service! At one time we were using local news and UK news but to get a Scottish news feed would have cost extra. Unfortunately Community Radio has been set up on a shoe string and we were badly limited in what we could do – government funding would have been a god-send. Community Radio was set up to engage with the community (clues in the name!) but my station struggled competing with the bigger businesses who were doing it in name only.
    I now volunteer with The Edinburgh Reporter which is a hyperlocal news website and is excellent, but is challenged like every other not-for-profit.

    Trystan

  5. Dave Dick says:

    I imagine a journalist who finds out who set the fires, then doorsteps them,then interviews the SGA and asks them why they claim that unattended campfires caused thousands of pounds of taxpayers money. A bit more hard edge and a bit lesspolitics needed these days…

  6. There does seem to be an embryonic movement for Scottish News gathering beyond traditional institutions. Tom Allan has established a radio collective (The 22) based at Argyle House Edinburgh. There is a Scottish Community Radio Network which needs content. My experience as founder of Leith FM and now editor of 3meninablog keeps me interested in any developments. Lets take the idea of a voucher scheme further. Stewart Lochhead

    1. I think you’re right Stewart. When you start mapping what’s out there already, you quickly start seeing there’s already a lot of people doing journalism in a new way out there. I think the Scottish Community Broadcasting Network is very interesting. Do you think it could be used as a ‘proof of concept’ pilot for The Scottish News Commons idea?

  7. George Gunn says:

    I think it’s a great an timely idea. “Local radio” is usually owned by big conglomerates. E.G. Caithness FM is owned by Moray Firth Radio which is owned by the same crowd that own Radio Clyde and Forth etc. As a point of information – most of the recent hill fires in the Highlands have been started by the ghillies on sporting estates who are only interested in preparing the ground for grouse shooting. Of course they will not be billed for their rashness and selfishness…

  8. Dave Dick says:

    Thanks George..but you back up my point about factual reporting ..do we actually know it was “ghillies” [gamekeepers] on grouse estates…much talk of big conglomerates here..they wouldn’t name and shame the estates responsible..we need journalists and news services who will.

  9. @davideyre

    I wasn’t thinking of NPR to be honest. I was thinking more of Pacifica radio, local university radio stations across all of the US. NPR is known on the streets and among many experienced journalists as National Petroleum radio for a reason, a very troubling one.

    The essential point is ensuring media is neutral. Taking advertising immediately puts neutrality in jeopardy and everyone who knows anything about media business is well aware of it.

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