How three friends from University built a community-powered media house in Bristol to fight local flaccid content.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
The Bristol Cable is a media co-operative – created and owned by over 1400 (and counting) people in Bristol, with the goal to redefine local media as we know it. In stark comparison to the decline in quality and availability of local media, the Cable aims to create journalism that is fresh, challenging, accountable and produced by the people in Bristol.
We meet with Alon Aviram, one of the Cable co-founders, as he tells us his journey from a part-time caterer to co-founding a community-powered media house.
INKLINE: Could you tell us how you came up with the idea for Bristol Cable?
Alon: With a few friends who were working in different areas -mainly in kind of low-skilled jobs- we were interested in how we could hold power to account and have the most impact. We were looking at the media landscape and a lot of the information and good journalism produced doesn’t really have that impact, and the readerships are quite, narrowly-defined and quite inaccessible.
We were interested in co-operatives and we thought perhaps we could join the idea of a co-operative model with a media organisation. Finding a model that was self-sustainable and that could deliver investigative and high-quality journalism which amplified peoples that are otherwise unheard.
I: So, how would you define the Cable ?
A: We are like an investigative educational communicative publication that amplifies local people’s’ voices. We are literally now owned by 850 local people. We are trying to challenge what people understand by ‘community media publication’ because community in media is often a synonym for amateur or boring.
We are 100% responsive to what the community demands. But at the same time, we are also trying to maintain a quality and you don’t usually see that ambition in local media, which is really a problem, making it boring and unengaging and people don’t read it.
I: How difficult was it to turn the on-paper concept into a full-fledged working model?
We approached hundreds of people from across the city, from unemployed young people to professors, to youth clubs, to media professionals and asked them what they thought of the idea.
We had a big meeting at a community centre and gave a presentation, (only two of us were in the team then) and people gave a lot of critical feedback, lot of cynicism and lot of interest as well, and people started offering help. Three months of developing the structure, the idea, the concept, which was still very much in its infancy and still kind of is, is still evolving.
Then we did a Crowdfunder, we raised an amount of £3,300 from a group of 100 people who supported the idea and we used two-thirds of that money for just running educational programs across the city which were free with around 300 participants. We did it on everything from how to use social media for journalists to low-budget filmmaking to basics of article writing.
Off the back of those workshops, people got involved to start creating the first edition. So people picked up really valuable skills and they were right on applying those skills in actually creating content.
I: How was the reception for the Cable’s first edition?
A: How it was received, varied across different communities. There was a level of interest from more established media circles and a lot of cynicism. ‘Who are these people? Who do they think they are to pull off something this ambitious?’ But otherwise, it was very well-received because it was very different from other ideas. People were not sure what to make of us, how to box us: we weren’t activists, we weren’t charity types and we weren’t professional journalists…
Also, there was this fact that we were knocking on peoples’ doors. Something that’s really overlooked by a lot of organisations these days is the power of literally seeing people face to face. We had so many meetings, we just did that, repeatedly. We are finding now, one and a half years later a lot of the people we talked to on the streets now have a really good relationship with us.
We were going up to the guys who were standing on the street corner smoking weed and getting arrested and we were like we want to chat to know, ‘cos we know you don’t have voice in local publications, get involved with us. Here’s a paper and let’s work together on a piece of content and sure enough that’s happened.
I: How does the Cable work as a community, obviously every 1500-odd member can’t have a say in every decision you make?
A: We have people who are given the mandate to take the day to day decisions within a certain parameter. The membership voted on our editorial policy and what advertisements we can and we can’t do and what type of content we publish and how.
How money is spent in particular areas and on these guiding principles, people like me and a lot of others make decisions day to day. And online there’s a digital platform that members use called Loomio to vote on anything that members want to bring forward, so we are constantly tied to the membership.
It’s really important to be a democratic media publication, because it’s not only a great way of getting people to become members as they genuinely are a part of something, it’s having a world of great content. Local people across the city who are members, if they want a story, they are going to send it our way.
And that’s something editors of most publications are totally detached from, their audience. We are connected to them, if the members don’t like it, we are gone and that’s our business model. We can’t afford to lose them.
I: What’s next for the Cable?
A: We are finalising the budget for the next year, which will be taken to the Annual General Body Meeting and then be amended and ratified and agreed upon by the members, and that will see around 20 people get paid for their work which is a really important step in the right direction. And that will be really interesting to see an organisation mature form a volunteer-led start-up to an organisation that’s really paying people a basic rate.
We are linking up with local radio stations to do shows on our content. We are also putting out of a proposal to change the number of times we print, from quarterly to once every two months. We are trying to step up our capacity to do investigations and we are linking up with the people of Centre of Investigative Journalism.
Ultimately, we want to reach 2500 members by spring 2017 and that’ll bring us enough money to run us on a skeleton budget and with growing revenue from events and advertisements and grant funding. We are also in discussion with people from other cities to see if our model can work and produce quality journalism elsewhere. We want to see it in other cities and we want to work with other people to do that.
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Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.