Positive News hits milestone as ‘first crowdfunded global media cooperative’
Positive News Editor-in-Chief Sean Dagan Wood (pictured left) with Danielle Batist led the crowdfunding effort. Photo courtesy of Positive News.
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.
The past few years had been a time of emotional upheaval for the staff of Positive News, a print and digital publication based in the United Kingdom.
In 2012, its founder Shauna Crockett-Burrows passed away. And then, last year, a close friend of Crockett-Burrows — one of the publication’s most faithful benefactors — died unexpectedly.
“We immediately had a funding shortfall,” said Editor-in-Chief Seán Dagan Wood. It was time to put a project he and Crockett-Burrows had been planning into action.
Last month, Positive News started a campaign to become what it calls the first crowdfunded global media cooperative. It promised its audience the chance to “#OwnTheMedia,” by rewarding investments with shares in Positive News.
But by transforming into a cooperative, Positive News was agreeing to distribute its ownership over thousands of different individuals, across the globe. They would each have an equal vote in important company affairs, like electing its board of directors and amending its governing charter.
It was a risk, Wood admits, to surrender power to Positive News’s audience. But he nonetheless felt confident. Positive News had always been buoyed by the enthusiasm of its readers, even from its very inception, when it was just a newsletter launched from Crockett-Burrows’ kitchen table 22 years ago.
“I recognized that the most valuable thing we had was the incredibly passionate, dedicated support of our readership,” Wood said. “By being owned by all our audience, then we are ultimately accountable to them, and we have to work in their interest.”
Wood had observed the co-op model work on the small scale, with British locals investing in collectively owned soccer clubs and pubs. One report in 2012 indicated that co-ops in the U.K. were expanding at twice the rate of the overall economy.
Other media companies had already taken the plunge into cooperative ownership, including Berlin’s left-leaning Die Tageszeitung and the Banyan Project in the U.S. Wood and his colleagues felt inspired to act. It was a welcome alternative to raising money through advertising and donations.
But Wood decided to first test the waters, to make sure this was the right move for an international publication like Positive News. “We did a survey a couple of years ago and asked [our audience] about various ideas for our future, what they’d like to see,” he said. “And we put in this idea of becoming a cooperative, and that was the most popular idea.”
So on June 8, Positive News started a month-long drive to raise 200,000 pounds (about 312,000 U.S. dollars), through the website Crowdfunder.co.uk. The money was aimed at sprucing up Positive News’s website, re-launching the print publication as a magazine, and offering more community services, such as speaking engagements and workshops.
The ideals were there, but would the money come? Crowdfunding for journalism can be a dicey venture. One study found that journalism crowdfunding failed 63 percent of the time, a rate higher than average for crowdfunding projects. Meanwhile, Kickstarter reports only 36 percent of journalism projects reaching their goals.
Wood remembers that Positive News’s campaign started strong, but midway, it hit a slump. “We thought, ‘This is a bit of a challenge right now,'” he said, recalling the week when crowdfunding investments slowed.
But soon, investments started to accelerate again. On day 25 of the campaign, Positive News reached its goal. And the campaign didn’t stop there. It raised the ceiling for investments, and by the end of the 30-day period, a total of 263,422 pounds had been raised. “It was really rocketing in the last few days,” Wood said. “It was wonderful.”
Positive News received investments from 1,525 people hailing from 33 different countries. Most invested the minimum, 50 pounds (about $78), while a couple heavy-hitters poured over 15,000 pounds into the campaign. Each pound represents a share in Positive News, but no matter the size of the investment, each investor only gets a single vote in the new cooperative.
It’s the start of what Wood hopes will be an “ethical, democratic” model for media ownership. He points out that, all around the world, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Large conglomerates like Viacom and magnates like Rupert Murdoch own much of the world’s media. If publications have seen the need to innovate in the digital age, why not innovate their ownership models too?
“This breaks down the idea of a one-way conversation, that the media dictates what’s important and how it’s delivered,” Wood said. “It gives people more say, more control.”
But a diverse leadership of 1,525 presents its own dilemmas. Would Positive News’s ethos be maintained? Would it keep going in the right direction? Wood said he is not too concerned by the concerns that cropped up.
Positive News has a charter that can only be changed by a significant majority of the co-owners, and Wood believes none of them would have invested if they hadn’t already been emotionally attached to Positive News’s mission.
That mission — to create inspiring, solutions-focused journalism — was validated to some degree by the crowdfunding campaign’s success. “It’s harder for positive stories to be pigeonholed as fluff, or as happy, smiley stories,” Wood said. “People are fed up with the excessive negativity found in a lot of the press, and how that makes them feel.”
Positive News approaches journalism with the philosophy that solutions should be highlighted, so that readers can take positive action on issues like economic instability and climate change. “We really believe that constructive journalism should be a vital part of what makes up good journalism, alongside conventional, highly critical investigative reporting,” Wood said.
It was vision that resonated with many of the investors. “I have never bought shares before, I don’t have much money, but what you are doing is worth it,” one commenter wrote on Positive News’s Crowdfunder page.
Wood summed up the whole experience as surreal. “The world’s first crowdfunded global media cooperative — it’s not just any media organization. It’s the world’s first positive newspaper as well,” he said. “We’re really amazed.”
Now it’s time to rest and prepare for the next big phase of Positive News, Wood said, with a new website and print format to look forward to. But his small news team won’t weather these changes alone. There are 1,525 new people in their corner, proven ready to lend their support.