What would the ideal news organization look like?
It was a week with more sad news for journalism, with Digital First Media announcing the end of Project Thunderdome. It’s sad for me because I know two journalists, one of whom I consider a mentor, who are losing their jobs because of this. But it’s sad for the industry in general, because it’s another example of a great experiment in journalism ending before its time.
This got me thinking—again—about what the ideal structure for a news organization might look like, as it’s become increasingly obvious that the model of corporate-owned journalism no longer works, as the goal of the owners is short-term profitability rather than sustainable journalism.
Before I make any suggestions, I want to lay out some assumptions:
- Any entity concerned primarily with short-term profitability is ill-suited to modern journalism.
- Even well-meaning chains and family-owned news enterprises are saddled with too many legacy costs to truly be able to create a new structure for a news organization.
- Traditional newsroom organizational structures are not effective at managing a digital news organization.
- Economies of scale matter less when talking about digital news organizations.
- Looking beyond the media industry is essential for finding the best structure for a news organization.
- New organizations need to be free from corporate influence and the biases those bring.
Some further notes: I’m not thinking about business model in this post, nor topics of coverage. Nor am I going to actually start this hypothetical news organization. In 2005 I helped to start two weekly newspapers and ran them for 18 months. It was an endeavor I hope to never repeat, and I had the backing of a large organization. That said, I’d like to make this as practical as possible. Lots of medium to large-sized newspapers are doing everything short of pulling the copper wire out of the walls Finally, I recognize that there are a lot of community newspapers, especially weekly papers in small towns, that are doing quite well and are independent. But I’m more concerned with creating their digital-only equivalent.
So if a major problem with news organizations is their structure and their management, what would a well-structured, well-run news organization look like?
Here are some of the qualities that an ideal news organization would possess:
- A flat management structure. Decisions should be reached quickly, but with as much consensus as possible.
- No legacy costs. No presses, yes, but take that idea even further. If it doesn’t directly produce high-quality journalism, then it isn’t part of the organization. No HR, no customer service, no office. Learn from start-ups and contract where it makes sense.
- Multiple roles for everyone.
- Shared responsibility and shared reward. When things go well, the people who make the journalism happen should be the ones reaping the benefit.
- A common purpose. The idea isn’t to get a paper out, it’s to produce the best community-focused journalism possible. Anyone not on board with that doesn’t stay.
This might sound familiar—it should. Worker-owned co-ops have been around for a very long time, and there is no reason that the idea can’t be applied to a news organization.
Hedge funds and private equity firms are terrible news organization owners, because they put up money but are structured in such a way that they take on almost no real risk. They are diversified, protected by favorable tax regulations, and willing to short a business they own to maximize profits. The risk is borne almost entirely by the workers, who have little hope of achieving a reward no matter how well they perform.
A true journalism co-op would offer higher wages, more security, better benefits, and better stories while also helping to solve the issue of sustainability, as there is no enormous corporate parent to vacuum up profits, and lower overall legacy costs.
The problem left to solve is how to pay to start the co-op in the first place. One option is crowd-funding, although that’s less ideal for what’s essentially a capital campaign. If you were willing to start small and grown slowly, though, it might work well. Another option would entail more risk, but would allow for a larger organization from the start—pooling money from retirement funds, IRAs, 401(k)s, etc. from numerous workers and investing that in the co-op. (NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor an accountant. Follow this advice at your own risk).
Either of these methods is better than seeking funding from venture capitalists, however, and would allow for complete worker control from the beginning. That means a betteer, more humane structure that would support sustainable, community-focused journalism while breaking free from the endless cycle of closings and layoffs the media is facing today.