Editorial collective, The Media Co-op, Montréal, Québec
Interviewed by Stuart Hertzog
September 17, 2010
- How did The Dominion and The Media Co-op get started?
- Did you incorporate as a co-operative from the start?
- Has the Media Co-op been successful in attracting new members?
- How has it worked in terms of the quality of its journalism?
- Do you see yourselves as part of the citizen journalism movement?
- Where is the Media Co-op at now in terms of its development?
- Have you been able to get the development assistance you need?
- What do you think about the state of the co-op sector generally?
How did The Dominion and The Media Co-op get started?
It goes back to 2003 when myself and a few others, with some necessary naivete I think, started a newspaper called The Dominion. The idea was that it would be a national newspaper, but one with minimal costs and progressive politics. It was primarily to be a print publication but it would also be available on the Internet as a PDF file that people could download and print locally.
We believe that print is important because we think that people don’t want to read everything on a screen. It’s a different kind of reading and it takes up space. If you’re reading the print version on the bus or in a coffee shop, people will see it and you can share it or give it away. You can leave it somewhere and it will stay there until somebody picks it up, and so on.
It started in Halifax, but the production office came with me to Washington State when I moved there. The majority of the first year was in Halifax and then I moved to Montreal, but other people were still in Halifax working on it.
The idea was to have grassroots coverage, and we did that for a good five years. We definitely had some moderate expansions and a fair bit of interest, a decent base of subscribers. But we realised at a certain point that it was just too exhausting. It didn’t feel that we were expanding fast enough and we weren’t getting the support that we needed. I was working personally too hard for no pay, and it felt like we were just maintaining the status quo. I was in danger of burning out: something had to change.
Did you incorporate as a co-operative from the start?
the idea was always to have it owned and run by its members. It wasn’t until we incorporated as a co-operative that we really started to flush out what that meant. The readers were always the members of the Society, but we hadn’t really focussed on that as a core strength. We initiated a visioning process around the fourth year, and from this we realised that we were not going to be able to complete in a media marketplace where the conventional business model was already failing, and it was heavily skewed towards publications that could reach desirable advertising demographics — and even then the commercial publications weren’t doing so well.
We needed to come up with a new model, and that turned out to be a media co-operative, which gives members the ability to participate in the decision-making processes. It makes everyone part of the organisation, not just a supporter, shifting from the producer-consumer model where we produced a magazine and you find it worthy enough to spend you hard-earned dollars on it, to a co-operative model where everyone gets together and says: “OK, the media is terrible, what are we going to do about it, and how can we each contribute?”
When we decided to incorporate as a co-operative we met with Peter Hough, a co-op developer in the Atlantic provinces. We had a whole weekend of meetings with him in which he laid out how difficult it was to start a co-op, and maintain a co-op, and so on. We decided to push forward — we didn’t really have a choice at that point. Either the project was worth it or we might as well stop. It was a strange and interesting process of re-envisioning what we were trying to do and reconfiguring the organisational model, and that process is ongoing. We’re still trying to invent ways of being a media co-operative. There are co-operatives that make media, but I don’t think that anyone’s really done what we have done, which is to try to bring everyone together and have meaningful democratic participation in the process for everyone involved.
We started developing the idea of a media co-operative, and from that came the idea of a Media Co-op web site in addition to The Dominion’s web site, where members could whatever they wanted, creating an online space for collaboration. Then came the idea of the Media Co-op locals, where people could start working on things in their region and get geographically-based activity going; and pre-local working groups, which haven’t really been fully implemented yet. There are a lot of ideas going around, nothing is set in stone at this stage.
Why have other grassroots media not become co-operatives?
That’s a really good question, but I think the answer is complicated. People have a pretty narrow idea of what co-operatives are. They haven’t thought a lot about what it means to be a co-operative or the benefits. I also think that the co-operative movement in Canada has a circumscribed idea of what a co-operative is; they think of a food co-op, or like the Mountain Equipment Co-op, or a gas station or whatever — useful services that people set up as co-operatives because often they don’t have any other way to do it. In Quebec you have many small-town co-ops, because nobody wants to invest money in a grocery store in a small town like Jonquière or wherever, so they do it themselves. That’s what a co-op has come to be known to be.
I think there’s certainly a disconnection between co-ops and society at large, and between co-ops. I think that if people got down to it, they would actually see a lot in common between the co-operative way of doing things and Left or radical politics. A lot of people on the Left have dabbled in co-operativism and some have done some interesting and important work, like with the Mondragon Café and the A-Zone in Winnipeg. I think there’s a pretty interesting overlap between radical politics and co-ops, and certainly I get the sense that in Vancouver in the 1970s there was some pretty interesting stuff going on. Uprising Breads was pretty interesting, but it’s now completely not co-operative at all.
But all that’s to say that there needs to be a radical expansion of how people think about co-operatives and the position they take up in society. I think that the generation now in their 20s and 30s thinks that because co-operatives are something that already exist, it’s not something that you can start, although in Quebec there’s a lot of new co-operative activity all of a sudden, but it’s also seen as a means to an end as opposed to an end in and of itself.
Has the Media Co-op been successful in attracting new members?
It wasn’t easy to begin with, but it’s been getting easier as people see the results of what we do. Our total membership is 603 members right now, including 230-plus Sustaining members, which means that 234 people are giving $5 or more per month to the co-op. If you told me two years ago that we would have over 600 members including 234 sustaining members by year two, I would have been pretty impressed. Membership has definitely been growing recently. We’ve been getting a steady flow of new subscribers, and our strategy is to turn them into sustainers as they get more involved in the co-op.
Once we started the local co-op model, it really took off. Media Co-op has been very successful over the last two years as a network of local organisations. There’s a local co-op in Halifax that’s got a lot of people involved; there are locals in Vancouver and Toronto and there’s going to be one in Montreal. It’s been really successful in tapping into an idea of what’s needed and making that work. In terms of making it sustainable, though, I think we have a long ways to go. We pay people minimum wage — actually, less than minimum wage in Ontario, so we got some complaints about that, exploiting the workers and so on.
Everyone who started the first round of locals were directly involved with the editorial collective. Now, other people who have not been directly involved are getting in touch with us and asking about starting locals.We definitely feel that if a group or person doesn’t have a working relationship already established with us, we definitely need a clear set of policies and outlines of goals> and so on, so we all can have something to refer to in the relationship, as opposed to realising that when disagreements arise two years down the road, that we are all in the same organisation but have incompatible views.
We’ve struggled with policy and how to deal with having all these different components all of a sudden having to work together. We’ve been taking some steps, but I think we are at the point right now where we’re going to, I think this Fall (of 2010), to step back a bit and figure out where we are at, get our feet under ourselves again with the policies and the structures and the ways of interacting, and making sure that things get addressed.
How has it worked in terms of the quality of its journalism?
We produced a massive amount of content over the last couple of years, just reams and reams of some pretty high-quality stuff, in my opinion. Obviously, with a varying degree of quality but a lot of it has been really good, and it’s really revitalised the work we do at The Dominion. The Media Co-op web site creates a base of material to draw on that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. When we started out we would draw a lot from the IndyMedia web sites, and other grassroots other web sites. But as IndyMedia activity dropped off, nothing really replaced it except a lot of blogs and social networking stuff.
What we tried to do was to create a new Web space where people could reach a large audience, with a common base of promotion and so on, and get people’s work out there. I think we’ve been relatively successful at this. Certainly, our work around some of the larger convergences like the Olympics in Vancouver and the G-20 in Toronto, has resulted in some amazing previews of what co-operative media could become. We had a hundred people sharing a space in Toronto, collaborating on a daily basis, having nightly story meetings where they made all the decisions by consensus.
It was all based on collaboration and getting anybody who wanted to work on the same story would be encouraged to collaborate with the others. People would share information and discuss the story together, and so on. It was a really incredible experience. I think we put out a couple of hundred stories in four or five days, a lot of it really good stuff. It’s sad that it all happened in such a short timeframe, because I don’t think people really had the ability to get into it.
Do you see yourselves as part of the citizen journalism movement?
Sort of… We have more interaction with other movements than the citizen journalism movement, starting with the word ‘citizen.’ We definitely prefer not to use the word citizen just because there are some people who are not citizens, immigrants and so on. We prefer ‘participatory,’ or ‘popular.’ Many people live in Canada who are not documented, so ‘citizen’ is an exclusive term. But certainly in the intention of the word we consider ourselves part of that general process of trying to get people involved in creating our own media. But we have a different approach. In terms of what’s out there already, there’s an individualistic approach to media that is not collective. It’s all about: “You get your coverage out there,” whereas as a media co-operative, we are interested in bringing all kinds of people together to co-operatively figure out how we can produce the best coverage possible.
I think the closest thing to what we’re doing is IndyMedia, which doesn’t really exist in Canada any more. It certainly exists in other places but its output is sporadic. But IndyMedia is not a co-op, anda point of pride with them is not paying people, which is where we diverge philosophically. We think it’s important to pay people, but its important for those people to be accountable on time, and to be at the service of the general membership. ButIndyMedia never had that kind of structure, it was a utopian free-for-all, so anybody could take the initiative and do stuff, so it’s very different from what we’re doing. I don’t have any sense of where they’re at at the global level, but in Canada their activity seems to have almost completely died out.
Where is the Media Co-op at now in terms of its development?
We’re in a policy-making stage right now. We actually got a development grant from the federal government Co-operative Development Initiative to work on policy, so we’ll be doing quite a bit of that in the next few months. We’ll be working on how we govern ourselves at the central level. The way it works right now is that locals get members with the support of the central co-op, and the revenues from sustaining members is split 50-50 between the locals and the central co-op, the idea being for the central body to comport itself in an accountable and consultative manner as possible.
The trick is finding ways to enshrine that and making relationships between the different parts really clear — outlining participatory processes for budgeting, for example, outlining what kinds of decisions get made and who makes them, and whose consent you need to make them, so for example with the special issues of The Dominion there has to be a consultation process with the locals, and the locals can opt out or not. And if we hire someone the Board has to be involved. So far there’s a lot of overlap between all the different parts of the co-op and a lot of things have been done without a clear decision-making process. Everyone gets consulted to some extent, but it’s not clear whose responsibility and what things are, so we needed to take a step back and outline that really clearly.
The Board, Staff, and members of the different locals will be taking part in this process, and I think we’ll probably be facilitating input from the relevant parts of the membership at the very least. It will take at least a couple of months, a good chunk of the Fall and Winter of 2010-11.
Have you been able to get the development assistance you need?
We’re getting the kind of help we need, maybe just not quite enough. We got more than $20,000 from the Co-operative Development Institute over two years — that’s a lot for us, it’s half our budget. The co-op sector isn’t has offered some help but on a more modest scale. We’ve gotten a few small grants to hire co-op consultants to help us figure out this and that part, or develop policy and stuff like that, so certainly that’s been part of it. The Canadian Worker Co-op Federation gave us $1,000 maybe once or twice. It may be token in terms of the business world, but for us it’s a significant sum. There has been a decent amount of support for us from the co-op sector, but it’s been more in terms of loans, which we haven’t been keen to take advantage of yet.
Right now we just need more capacity, that’s the main problem. We have more projects than we have capacity, and more things that we want to do. It’s basically a question of money, how to get short-term infusions of it to increase our capacity. So far, every time we’ve got a chunk of money, we’ve been able to turn it into a pretty major improvement in our capacities, so we’re fairly confident of our ability to make that transformation. A secondary thing we need help with is co-operative education: teaching people how to be a part of a co-op and how to interact with each other in establishing new practices and incorporating them.
If we had the capacity we’d do those things, but we don’t. Accounting is right up there in terms of where we need help. We’ve been struggling because there’s a huge amount of financial information that comes in, and keeping on top of it and processing it takes a lot of time and energy. It’s been such a time of expansion that it’s been difficult to set up these systems.
What do you think about the state of the co-op sector generally?
It appears to be very confused and trying to decide what it’s on about. Certainly in Quebec I’ve been involved in it more, you have a situation I think where there’s a certain group within the co-op movement that really wants to create something a little more defined in terms of a collective mission and really move it forward, but I think there’s really different perspectives on what co-ops are.
For many people co-ops are a means to an end, not a vision of how to organise society — that would certainly be the main difference. You have people where it’s their job, and it’s a nice thing to have because you have the services; and you have other people who want to re-organise society on co-operative grounds because it’s more environmentally sustainable, more democratic, more equitable, it keeps money in communities, and makes more sense in every possible way.
But there doesn’t seem to be any movement within the co-op sector towards the progressive approach. People are pushing it a bit, but there’s a lot of resistance.
Thank you, Dru — and good luck with the Media Co-op!