The Bristol Cable – a new business model for doing media?

The Bristol Cable, a year-old quarterly investigative newspaper & community magazine from Bristol way, tweeted me this morning in the following way, to underline how it sees itself:

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This was in response to the following tweet of mine:

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I’d first like you to see a Storify I did earlier in the day, after a long afternoon attending an NUJ Training Wales/C4CJ training course on the project mentioned above, in Cardiff yesterday. It was long because it was concentrated, not because it was heavily communicated. In fact, for me it was a bit overwhelming, but more of that later.

Here’s the Storify, which you can follow by clicking here. It’s in the form of a presentation for ease of visualisation. Alternatively, click on the footnote to find it at the bottom of this post.1

If you did read to the end, you’ll see The Bristol Cable has massively positive implications for citizen journalism in particular, and for local democracy in general.

But the purpose of this post today isn’t to repeat what can already be found elsewhere.

It’s rather, far more interestingly, to understand how we might apply such business models to cities like Chester (for the moment, I don’t say Chester at all – given, precisely, my own challenging trajectory to this point), which might need on a far smaller scale to implement such economic assumptions.

As the Storify indicates, off the back of the presentation given by Adam & Alec, Bristol has an estimated population of upwards of 400,000 people. From that, they calculate – as their business stands – they need to reach 1000 cooperative members, paying 3 GBP/month. They currently have 500, after a year’s operation: they are surely within spitting distance of reaching this first important business goal.

Now there are not many cities that large in the UK – yet are we saying such potentially liberating local/hyperlocal-media business models must be the preserve of only the larger conurbations?

I don’t think so. Take Chester as an example (as it’s a city I know reasonably well): a statistical comparison only, to get a feel for what the economics of smaller cities might look like.

The local council, Cheshire West & Chester, provides useful data for the Borough as a whole, giving us a population of over 300,000. But I’m not quite sure creating The CWaC Cable would easily engender community around so many disparate audiences.

Meanwhile, the data for Chester City’s own population varies just a bit, and is also difficult (for me) to pin down: from Google’s headline 77,040 figure – a 2001 figure, at that – to the Telegraph‘s more recent almost 120,000, whatever the reality, what we do know is that it’s rather smaller than Bristol.

Crunching numbers a tad brutally, and assuming most of the costs of running a media operation like this are common to all communities, whatever their size:

  • if Bristol needs 1000 members to contribute up to 3 GBP/month to reach both an ethical/moral sustainability as well as a seriously important financial break-even (alongside other income streams alluded to in the Storify)
  • then smaller cities like Chester – let’s say 100,000 for easy maths – would proportionately need 250 members to step up and subscribe for 12 GBP/month, to achieve the same financials and editorial/journalistic independence

Is that doable? Is there a potential for say 250 members to cough up 12 GBP/month to create a sustainable, independent, campaigning, promoting and empowering news service for cities which are quarter the size of Bristol?

I think there probably is, for two simple reasons:

  1. I think if the editorial line, quality, competence and sheer drive of The Bristol Cable could be reproduced in other smaller cities, 1000 members would be practical almost anywhere.
  2. This, of course, then means we’d be talking much more about numbers like 3 GBP/month than the kind of figures (5 GBP, and upwards) which currently buy you, for example, Guardian Membership at a much more national level.

It’s a fascinating example of how important it is for journalism to be aware not just of new tech, new distribution systems and new players in the market, but also for it to realise that the economics don’t have always to be driven by top-down, asset stripping models.

And that’s the truth, dear readers. Business model + journalism can = community asset … but the asset bit only comes about if the journalism chooses to be campaigning, and the business model sets itself up from the beginning as independent and focussed on the glocal (ie global and local) needs and requirements of any modern 21st century community.

So I guess that’s where I am, after nine months of soul-searching. As they say – don’t they? (Well they used to, anyway …) – “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

For what’s new is rarely utterly new; it just manages to remind us, trawling grand historical practice, and when done all of a surprisingly sudden well, the bad habits we got used to, gave in to and put up with.

We don’t deserve a broken democracy.

Via the right business model, we can begin to put it back together.


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