How media co-ops foster democracy and accountability at independent publications

Some small, independent media turn to co-operative models.

At the 2008 New Brunswick Social Forum, a group of 200 activists from various social movements were brought together by a common belief: that the local media wasn’t serving them. 

At the time, the New Brunswick media was largely owned by J.D. Irving, one of the Irving group of companies that also controlled many of the province’s industrial sectors. The activists were frustrated at this obvious conflict of interest, and so they created NB Media Co-op, which was officially incorporated as a nonprofit media organization in 2009. “There needed to be an independent voice,” said coordinating editor Tracy Glynn. 

A media co-op is owned by its readers, members or workers rather than by a private individual, meaning that decision-making power is more evenly distributed than traditional media models. Media co-ops are often grassroots, independent publications providing local, community-driven content. NB Media Co-op chose this model because it was “a democratic way of producing and disseminating media,” according to Glynn.

An increasing number of media organizations share this view. According to Joe Amditis, associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, “there’s definitely been an uptick” in media co-op inquiries. “There’s a lot of movement and a lot of conversation in the journalism industry about shifting power and listening, and community engagement and collaboration,” he said. 

This trend toward media co-ops comes at a time when local news is in steep decline, creating news deserts across North America and contributing to the steady erosion of democracy. As small, independent media outlets struggle to stay afloat, some are turning to co-operative models as a long-term solution. 

A built-in accountability mechanism 

When the editors of independent media platform Tone Madison were offered a $10,000 start-up grant to restructure as a worker-owned co-op, it seemed like a great opportunity –– both to put in place a more sustainable business model and to keep the platform accountable to its core values. The outlet is now in the process of transitioning to the co-op model.

“In worker-owned co-operatives, everyone has a real shared stake,” said Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher of Tone Madison. “At the end of the day, there’s the sense that we as workers are in charge of this, we have a real ownership of it and responsibility to it. That can be a really powerful thing.” 

Unsurprisingly, workers are more willing to endure difficult times or make sacrifices for the company’s sake when it’s a choice rather than an imperative. For example, the journalists at the media co-op Bonfire Media Collective voted to take a pay cut during a difficult financial period. “It gives the employees a vested interest in the future of the company,” said Amditis of the Center for Cooperative Media.

The co-op model also bolsters editorial accountability. “For so long, I was running a lot of stuff at Tone [Madison] by myself,” Gordon said. “There have been times where … I was not communicating enough and I wasn’t asking for help enough, and that was a real detriment.” 

This collaborative approach means that content is usually seen by multiple sets of eyes. “When something comes in, we’re able to check it to make sure that we’re not spreading falsehoods or any kind of narrative that may be harmful,” Glynn said. 

Strengthening editorial independence 

Another big upside of co-operative ownership is that it gives journalists and readers more agency over the kinds of news that circulates in their community. For example, any member of the NB Media Co-op can apply to be on the publication’s editorial board or board of directors. “People are actively participating in the media that they’re consuming,” Glynn said. 

At a media co-op, power isn’t hoarded by a few elite board members but is shared amongst editors, journalists and even readers. “There are a lot of instances where journalists have a good understanding of their audience and of what makes their work valuable,” Gordon said. “Higher-up corner-office people lack that understanding, and a lot of problems come from that disconnect.” Redistributing ownership among the workers is “a way to empower the people that you really want to empower at a publication.” 

Amditis agreed that higher-quality media is made when decision-making power is shared. “You can build democratic processes into the way that your organization functions,” he said. 

Structural challenges 

When Tone Madison decided to pivot toward a worker-owned model, Gordon was well aware of both the “upsides and challenges” that would be involved, having worked at a co-op in the past. “One of the challenges is that you’ve got people who are working and also being asked to put in extra time in a leadership capacity,” he said. “It takes real work to make sure that people stay invested and don’t get burned out.” 

Media co-ops also tend to struggle with securing sustainable revenue streams. “There aren’t any legal or financial incentives at the structural level to encourage that type of ownership,” Amditis said. “There aren’t backstops or safety nets in place.” 

Both Tone Madison and the NB Media Co-op make most of their revenue through small monthly or annual reader donations. “We don’t have a paywall on our site,” Glynn said, emphasizing the importance of making their content accessible to everyone. “It’s already so hard to get news or commentary that’s critical of government policies.” 

For this reason, the NB Media Co-op is volunteer-run, which helps keep the operation financially sustainable but further contributes to worker burnout. “It is very difficult to be the media and to do it as a volunteer,” Glynn said. “It really is a labour of love.” 

Still, there are plenty of resources for media co-ops to draw on for funding and support. “An outlet in our situation, we’re not going to get a traditional loan from a bank,” Gordon said. “Tapping into the network of worker-owned cooperatives might be a better way in the long run for a publication like ours to reach sustainability.” 

Likewise, NB Media Co-op receives support through partnerships with local institutions and foundations. “There are a number of foundations out there that are funding social justice work,” Glynn said. 

A welcome alternative 

Despite these challenges, many journalists consider media co-ops a welcome alternative to the current media landscape. “A lot of a lot of newsroom employees –– especially with the seemingly endless rounds of layoffs, newsroom closures, and sell-offs –– have started to understand that the best way to prevent that is to form, build, found or buy something as a co-op, where the workers or even the community members are the owners,” Amditis said. 

Indeed, media workers are increasingly demanding a voice, and journalists are unionizing at unprecedented rates. Co-operative workplaces are on the rise, with the number of worker-owned co-ops in the United States growing by 30 percent between 2019 and 2021. “People are sick of having decisions foisted upon them … about the future of both the company where they work and their individual jobs,” Amditis added. 

Gordon affirmed that the trend toward media co-ops is “an outgrowth of increasing skepticism about traditional media ownership structures,” with many journalists turning toward non-hierarchical, community-based models of media production. 

“Let’s do this differently,” Gordon said. “Let’s question the power structures within journalism and the media itself.”

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