The Bristol Cable is a community-owned cooperative news organization in Bristol, U.K.
The Bristol Cable is a British member-owned cooperative news organization. As a cooperative, community members are the owners of the Cable, not its staff or a company – and as owners, members are legal shareholders and therefore must be consulted when making certain strategic decisions that affect the organization.
But just because members can weigh in doesn’t mean they will. The Cable team puts significant time and effort into making the process of participating in strategic decisions easy to understand, accessible, and enjoyable.
In the beginning the Cable mainly involved member-owners in decisions through its Annual General Meeting (AGM), which brings together staff and members to report on the accomplishments and challenges of the past year, review finances, discuss key questions, define strategy for the year ahead, and elect voluntary non-executive board members.
Over time, based on member-owner feedback, they’ve added more frequent, lower-effort ways to weigh in on the Cable’s decisions as well, which made it possible for a greater number of members to play a role. This case study will walk you through how they involve members at different stages, based on the level of involvement they want.
Why this is important
The AGM is the principal way that the Cable’s members can influence the strategy and policies of the newspaper. Although the number of news organizations making their community members their owners is small, a growing number of newsrooms are exploring ways to involve community members in newsroom decision-making. The Cable’s AGM offers one way to do that.
The meeting also allows staff members to share their thinking about the paper’s work and respond to member feedback in a regular way that is manageable and is respectful of members’ time.
But if you only offer one way to participate in decision-making, you’ll exclude many of your members. Over time, the Cable developed a participation ladder that expanded the number of ways members could weigh in, offering opportunities to participate that matched the level of involvement each member wanted.
What they did
As a member-owned cooperative, anyone who becomes a member of the Cable has a say in the direction of the organization. Every year members elect a non-executive board of directors, which plays an advisory role, while the Cable’s staff run its day-to-day operations
Other than serving on the board of directors, participating in the Annual General Meeting is the key way that members participate in strategic decision making. Each year members vote on the Cable’s budget and elect the board of directors. They also offer input on two to three strategic decisions that the staff wants feedback on that year.
For example, in 2020 they discussed the Cable’s five-year strategic plan, which focused on topics such as whether the Cable should expand the geographic footprint of its coverage around Bristol and how it can create additional partnerships with local organizations. The goal is to have a wide-ranging discussion that gives the Cable a sense of their members’ values and how they feel about the decisions at hand.
“More often than not we’re trying to get more textured or graded understanding — a temperature check or a steer on things for the team to take away and turn into a project rather than this quite limiting concept of yes/no votes,” said Adam Cantwell-Corn, the Cable’s co-founder and coordinator.
The AGM, which lasts 2 to 2.5 hours, is critical to the Cable’s mission, so they spend months preparing for it. Historically the Cable has held the AGMs at a local community center or sports hall, although the 2020 AGM was held on Zoom due to the pandemic.
A couple months before the AGM, the Cable staff narrows down the topics it wants to ask the members to weigh in on. They try to focus on larger strategic topics that will yield insights that will help inform how the staff approaches its day-to-day decision making, such as the Ethical Advertising Charter that they drafted at the 2016 AGM. They then share the topics with members in advance of the meeting.
Then the staff turn to the logistics of the meeting, such as renting tables and chairs and lining up catering from a local restaurant. The Cable also recruits members to help out with tasks such as checking in attendees and confirming they’re actually members who are eligible to vote.
In addition to the logistics, the Cable team undertakes a month-long promotional campaign via their newsletter and social media to both encourage non-members to become members so they can attend and encourage existing members to come.
At the meeting itself, the team plays music, offers food and drinks, and hosts ice breakers to make people feel welcome and encourage them to participate. “One of the overwhelming bits of feedback we received [in previous years] was that it didn’t feel like an AGM, it felt like a community meeting,” Cantwell-Corn said.
Attendees sit in small groups around tables, and Cable staffers and volunteers facilitate group discussions on the main topics of the evening. They document the conversations on big pieces of paper in the middle of each table to make the process more accessible to everyone.
The AGM was moved fully online in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before the pandemic, as its membership grew, the Cable took steps to ensure the meetings were more accessible by allowing people to ask questions and offer feedback asynchronously and vote virtually.
The Cable has invested in building custom ‘Community Relationship Manager’ software, where members can respond to polls, participate in exercises, and manage their membership through a single login. (This product, called ‘Beabee’, is currently under development with German newsroom Correctiv.) Allowing online participation made the decision-making process more accessible since not all of its members are able to attend an event on a weeknight.
The Cable has about 2,700 members, and more than 90 attended the most recent virtual AGM in November 2020. But more than 270 participated asynchronously by voting for the board of directors or submitting questions for staff to answer. In previous years, when they met in-person, about 100 members attended the AGMs each year.
The strategic discussions at the AGMs have gone from being the beginning and end of the collaborative decisions to the start of a whole series of smaller decisions.
For example, at the 2017 meeting, the team facilitated a discussion with members about the boundaries between advocacy and journalism, and whether members wanted to see the Cable take a stand on certain local issues. They had small tables of about six people and did exercises such as dotmocracy to collect feedback, such as how members define advocacy. They then asked members to vote on whether the Cable should campaign on certain issues. Most people felt the Cable should pursue campaign journalism. (See full results)
With the affirmative vote in place, the Cable staff began identifying issues that it could take a stand on and build a campaign around.
It brought some of those specific campaign ideas back to the members for further discussion via one of their monthly membership meetings, which are part meeting, part social event.
“Okay, here’s what the whole organization as represented by the AGM has said about how we should do campaign journalism as a concept. Now let’s bring it down a level to ‘What should we do in terms of topics?’ What’s pertinent in the city and how can we interact with that as a journalism organization?,” Cantwell-Corn summarized.
In collaboration with the members, the Cable identified two topics that they could campaign on that year: air pollution in Bristol and safe injection sites for people fighting addiction. They then presented the two topics to all members via an online forum and invited all members to vote on which topic they wanted to see the Cable campaign for.
More than 600 members voted and engaged in the online conversation, compared with 30 people at the meeting who helped identify potential topics and 12 0people who attended the AGM and decided whether the Cable should engage in advocacy journalism. Air pollution received the most votes and in January 2019 the Cable launched its editorial campaign, Fight for Fair Air, which included investigative stories, editorials, commentary, and more.
“It went from the AGM to being actually realized as an editorial product,” Cantwell-Corn said.
What they learned
You need to evolve as you grow. When the Cable had its first Annual General Meeting in 2015, it had fewer than 200 members.
“It’s much easier to manage cooperative decisions when you have 30 people in the room rather than when you have 2,000 members,” said Lucas Batt, the Cable’s membership coordinator. That’s why they first turned to Loomi and later to developing a CRM.
The initial AGMs focused on the constitutional founding and key principles and norms — such as whether and how the Cable should accept advertising. But members’ interest in participating in decisions didn’t wane after those foundational decisions were made, and the Cable didn’t stop involving members either. More recent AGMs have focused on topics such as how to reach new readers and what the Cable can do to be an anti-racist organization. The platforms and topics evolved to fit the needs of the organization as it matured.
How much involvement members want will vary. So should their options for getting involved. Even as committed cooperative owners, there’s still variation in how much members want or are able to participate. Members often have other commitments and priorities and only so much bandwidth.
The Cable has made it easier to participate by taking some decisions online via voting platforms, providing regular updates to members outside of the AGM, and making fewer open-ended asks, such as asking for feedback about how the Cable should approach editorial decision making. (There’s no single editor — The Cable editorial team operates democratically but independent of the membership on a day-to-day basis.)
“We now do a lot more work of crafting genuine options for the membership to engage with: this is the scenario, here are a couple of options, and here are pros/cons,” said Cantwell-Corn.
The Cable has also gotten clearer about what each avenue for feedback is for.
The AGM is for big-picture strategic discussions and beginning the feedback loop with members, such as what kind of advertising the Cable will accept and whether the Cable should begin taking stances on some local issues, as detailed above.
The monthly membership meetings are slightly less involved than the AGM. Although the Cable team originally used them for more nitty-gritty decision-making with members, members said they didn’t need that level of involvement. Now the Cable uses them to keep members up-to-date on the implementation of decisions made at the AGM, help prepare for upcoming AGMs, involve them in specific editorial projects, and hold social events. (However, the monthly meetings have been on pause during the pandemic.)
When the Cable needs members to weigh in on an ongoing issue, they’ll conduct the discussion and/or vote via the online voting platform to maximize the number of people who can participate.
At every stage, the Cable takes great care to appropriately frame the discussions and give members a clear sense of the scope of the decision they’re being asked to make.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Not everyone wants to be highly involved. When the Cable began offering online voting, the total number of members who participated in decision-making went up, from the 100 or so people at an AGM to the hundreds that participated in various ways online. Although members’ valued the Cable’s commitment to cooperative decision-making, that didn’t mean they all wanted to attend a multi-hour Annual General Meeting. The stages of decision-making the Cable offers to members is a great example of what MPP calls the “participation ladder.” You need to offer flexible ways to participate if you want to attract a diverse group of participants.
Always close the loop. If you’re going to ask members to take the time to weigh in on important decisions, you need to show them what you did with their feedback. If you don’t, they’re less likely to weigh in next time you ask for it. When the Cable produced its editorial campaign on air pollution, it showed the AGM attendees who approved the idea of campaigns that the staff not just listened, but was able to act on what it heard.
- 2020 AGM report: This is how Cable members are building a media owned by communities not corporations
- 2019 AGM report: Shaping local media for 2020 at our fifth birthday AGM
- 2017 AGM report: Annual General Meeting “fun” shocker!
- Solution Set: This British local news co-op’s model is evolving as it grows
- MPP Report: Seven newsrooms share the promise & pitfalls of moving the engagement needle with members
- Membership Guide: How can we offer appropriate participation requests?