By Kitty von Bertele

Putting local journalism back at the heart of the community

Why we invested: The Bristol Cable

There is an oft-repeated tale of woe in local journalism. It is one of dramatic decline in availability and quality, of dwindling revenue and conglomerate ownership, and of the devastating and significant consequences of a lack of public interest journalism for local democracy and accountability. People far better qualified than I am have written and spoken a lot about this, but just one egregious example can be found in the absence of local media able to amplify the voices of people warning of a disaster to come at Grenfell Tower in west London, before a fire in the building killed 71 people in June 2017.

Across Omidyar Network’s work on independent media, we are interested in exploring and supporting new business models that will sustain the kind of investigation and local accountability that has been under pressure and that we think is essential for communities around the world. At its most effective, this kind of journalism also engages people, represents their interests, and gives them the information and opportunity they need to hold decision makers to account. As part of a renewed focus on our governance and citizen engagement work in Europe and $100 million global commitment to independent media, Omidyar Network is delighted to announce a grant of £200,000 to The Bristol Cable, a citywide media cooperative in Bristol, England.

The Bristol Cable was launched in 2014 with democratic participation at the heart of the organization. The Cable is owned, so far, by nearly 2,000 members (paying an average of about £3 a month) who “buy in so we can’t sell out.” With online membership forums, monthly members’ meetings, and other live events, the Cable engages its membership in core decision making, from editorial to business matters to build trust, confidence, and a genuine sense of ownership. This relationship is a radical departure from the traditional model of local news media. The Cable’s ethos and practice is driven by a determination to turn readers from consumers into producers and owners of their media and our funding will support them as they focus efforts on how to make this model sustainable.

This relatively new media organization and the team running it — who have been learning about local news and journalism and cooperatives while building a business model that is getting both national and international recognition — are already having a real impact. They have been instrumental in the success of campaigns to get Bristol University to divest from some of the most controversial sectors of the fossil fuel industry; and that led to Bristol City Council becoming one of a very small number of councils that increased transparency around property development. They received national coverage for an investigation indicating racial profiling of British citizens in immigration spot checks and have recently launched a national campaignwith civil liberties groups challenging secretive use of controversial surveillance technology by the police.

We believe that The Bristol Cable can provide a standard and model to be emulated for local media, demonstrating the value of better quality, more relevant, and representative local news that people will choose over other options. Their mission, to provide high quality, independent, local investigative journalism of the sort capable of challenging power, winning trust, and creating well-informed, engaged citizens is going to provide a fundamental contribution to the debate about the future of local journalism, as well as being the kind of resource for people living in Bristol that I hope far more people have access to in the not too distant future.