Praxis Makes Perfect: Adam Cantwell Corn

The co-founder and contributing editor of The Bristol Cable on how this unique co-op newspaper is redefining local journalism in an era of news deserts.

There’s been an alarming increase in "news deserts” in the UK and US - places where local news is essentially non-existent. More than one study has shown that the absence of news to inform people about their local democracies and happenings has a stark impact on civic engagement and empowerment.

The UK media industry is owned by just a handful of conglomerates, and that concentration of ownership is rapidly increasing. But there are a number of new, independent, thriving outlets in the UK doing excellent work towards greater representation and/or media democracy. The Bristol Cable is a leading example.

In an era of ‘churnalism’—journalism that simply parrots the official government line, corporate press releases, or reporting from other outlets—The Cable has been successfully producing original, power-challenging, and investigative work within the city of Bristol for over six years.

Along with co-founders Alon Aviram and Alec Saelens, Adam Cantwell-Corn created the Community Benefit Society, a type of co-op structure, in 2014 and alongside grant funding developed a successful public subscription model for a print and digital local newspaper. The Cable now has more than 2500 subscribers who pay upwards of £1 a month to support the paper’s expanding work.

Adam Cantwell-Corn spoke with me about the rise, purpose, and future of this agile, revolutionary local paper at a time when the rest of the industry is struggling to turn the tanker.

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[Disclaimer: I write for The Cable on a freelance basis, and I was on the board in the paper’s first two years. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.]

Introduce yourself however you wish!

Hi! I'm Adam Cantwell Corn, a co-founder, contributing editor, and project manager of the Bristol Cable - a 100% member-owned magazine redefining local journalism.

Give a brief overview of your career trajectory up to now.

After uni, faced with the gloom of the post-2008 economy and austerity, I took up a bunch of part-time jobs in catering, manual labour, and pig farming (!) to support myself through several internships in Human Rights and Immigration Law. In 2013/14, myself and Alon Aviram decided to bring together a number of our interests - advocacy, research, community organising, and democratic organisations - and the Bristol Cable was born onto a piece of A4 from a living room in Easton, Bristol.

The Bristol Cable is a co-op. Can you tell us the main ways this makes it different from commercial news outlets?

We are 100% democratically owned by members. Currently, at 2600 and counting, each member is a legal shareholder in our non-profit company: a Community Benefit Society, which is a type of co-operative. At a minimum, this means that the Cable can not 'sell out' as there are no majority shareholders; that we are legally bound to work in a way that supports our stated 'Community Benefit'; and our board of non-executive directors is elected from the membership.

In addition, a key part of our mission is to build on that foundation through member engagement. For example, members have voted on editorial campaigns, helped determine our advertising policy, and worked to shape strategic directions and priorities.

How does it work, financially?

Our overall aim is to be totally financed by members. The crisis in the business model of journalism is long-running, and advertising revenue won’t return to the sector. As such we believe that having a quality product and building meaningful relationships with 'the people formerly known' as the audience is the only way to secure a future for public interest journalism.

Currently, our 2,600 members pay an average of £4 a month, with a minimum contribution of £1 a month. This provides about 35% of our annual revenue. Then we have another 5% from advertising in print and other sources (such as commissions, speaking fees, etc). The rest is covered by grants from foundations that recognise The Cable's pioneering approach, and support us so that we can drive innovation and learning across the whole sector. Our full grant funding record is listed on our about page.

Talk about the make-up of your newsroom - does being a co-op make a difference to this too?

At present we have a team of 7.5 full time equivalent staff members, plus dozens of various freelancers. The team is organised around key operational areas we call 'circles': for example media and membership, and within that there are specific roles or leadership positions. We also have 'workplace circles' which take care of the key aspects of running an organisation, from strategy, to finances and HR.

We are organised in a flat hierarchy, which means all key high-level decisions are made at a fortnightly team meeting. Following this, there are high levels of autonomy within the circles to take this mandate and deliver the necessary projects and tasks. Our structure has changed quite a bit over the years as we iterate on having an inclusive and democratic organisation that is effective and productive.

It seems to me The Cable is ‘progressive’. Am I right in that impression? Do you have strong feelings about that label?

I think that would be a fair description. We've always said from the beginning we don't buy the myth of journalistic objectivity, and nor can anyone point to media outlets that indisputably meet this standard. However, though we take a progressive angle on what we decide to cover and how we cover it, we are keen to make sure we reach as wide an audience as possible (expanding the echo-chamber?) and also to stay independent of any particular political grouping. 

Would you say what the Cable does is 'campaigning journalism', and do you see any conflict of interest in that?

Some of our journalism is definitely and explicitly campaigning journalism, with some tangible successes - whether it’s bailiffsair pollutionthe housing crisis or police surveillance. We also ask our members questions about what and how we should campaign, and to grapple with some of these issues. We aim not only to inform but also to empower and engage people, for example through our solutions journalism series, and also to hold power to account and prompt change in policies or discourse (see our investigations on private mental healthcare or Gypsy Roma Traveller communities). This aim to empower as well as inform is based in a concern about the phenomenon of 'new avoidance', where people are switching off altogether from journalism, seeing it as an 'infodemic' of bleak news that can provoke a response of "ok, now I know this, but what do I do with it?"

With this in mind, we see journalism not just as purveying information, but a critical part of contributing to social and political life which has real-world impacts. I would also say that 'campaigning journalism' is not just the preserve of progressive media. In particular, UK tabloids regularly lead campaigns; the former deputy editor of The Daily Mail once said: “Any newspaper worth its salt in the modern age should know the key ingredients of a good campaign.” You can read about our approach here.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?

Not primarily, but I would say that we are 'active' in the broader sense of being engaged in political processes through our approach to journalism. We are definitely activists for media reform and regularly contribute to industry, government, and academic work on reform. We need to tackle the chronic crisis of a failing business model, monopolisation and corporate ownership, and the collapse in quality of local journalism in particular.

Were there any specific moments that galvanised you to start the Cable?

We began working on the Cable in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, and this certainly proved useful for making the argument. But I would say that, horrific though it was, the phone-hacking scandal seemed to be just a continuation of long-standing unacceptable practices in much of the media, and in some ways still is. Driven by the relentless pursuit of sales and clicks and profit, many outlets have sacrificed trust, ethics, and independence.

What were the primary obstacles you faced as young people starting your own newsroom?

Aside from money (we were unpaid at the Cable for the first years, and worked nights and weekends in hospitality to support ourselves), the big one was experience, primarily in the operational aspects of running an organisation. The other was the difficulty of entering such a tough market, where even major players are seeing mass lay-offs and a collapse in revenue. However, we garnered a lot of support from people and organisations that believed in what we are doing.

To what extent do the people of Bristol inform your coverage? How much is it editorial vs democratic?

People in Bristol inform our coverage in different ways and at different times. Recently, as part of our coverage of the local elections we developed a Citizen's Agenda where hundreds of people helped to create a list of priorities, for candidates mainly, but also to help the Cable editorial team shape our journalism. In the past members or readers have ranked priority topics to focus on, debated and decided editorial campaigns, and also fed into our journalism, for example crowdsourcing information on political advertising on social media for a partnership with OpenDemocracy during the 2019 General Election.

Your work has been recognised in national news outlets, cited by The Guardian and the BBC, for example. The modern-day slavery exclusive was excellent (the fascinating backstory of which can be found in an episode of the Tip-Off podcast). Is there a piece from the Cable that hasn't got as much traction, but you would like to shout about?

Right now we are focusing on the climate crisis, and working to connect this big issue to the city, and hopefully people's lives. It’s the defining issue of our time - the challenge is to cover the gloom of an existential threat while not switching people off completely!

Which other media organisations do you think are doing the most important work currently, and why?

That's a tricky one! Due to funding and regulatory issues, the innovative media scene in the UK is quite underdeveloped. In Europe and in the US there are a lot of great examples of organisations that are re-centering the audience and creating great journalism. Good examples are tracked by the European Journalism Centre.

Back home, there are lots of great journalists, including in the mainstream local and nationals. The challenge is whether we can move beyond the click-based model and effectively make the case that journalism is a public good and worth paying for! There is hope, but we have a long way to go.

If you could boil it down to three changes that need to happen in the media industry, what would they be?

1) Making the case that public interest journalism needs to be paid for, and following through:

The best shot for the industry to survive is to address years of mistrust and disengagement and refocus on what people will pay for. Underpinning this has to be a confident and authentic case for journalism as a public service and, like all public services, it needs to be paid for. No outlet is going to be perfect (the Cable certainly isn't), but by striving for a great product, a compelling vision, and good practices such as transparency, we can begin to move people beyond just complaining about the media, and towards building a solution.

2) Regulatory change to lower barriers to entry for public interest journalism:

Journalism is an expensive business to run, often with very low returns - this means it’s too often the preserve of wealthy owners or corporate shareholders. Regulatory change to grant public interest, non-profit publishers the equivalent of charitable status (something already underway) would unlock funding and lower the financial barriers to entry for start-ups. This in turn would help drive plurality and innovation, creating opportunities to upskill young and diverse journalists.

3) Training and professional development:
Running a newsroom is about so much more than editorial. Though that is the core product, to make it work there needs to be a fully-fledged team of project managers, computer programmers, membership and audience engagement experts, finance, HR, and more. There is more of this coming through, but it'd be great to see the development and pipelining of skills and talent to work on these vital areas in a way that supports the fundamental values and ethos of quality journalism.

I wish I had known about these needs and had more skills in these areas when we started! The risk of not looking after these areas is either that the organisation grinds to a halt, or they get dominated by corporate practices and a culture that undermines the journalism itself. Again, this will also help diversify and create opportunities in the media across all job roles.

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Go to The Bristol Cable’s website to see their campaigning journalism, and what they’ve managed to do by enrolling 2500+ people to their innovative model.

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