West Highland Free Press makes case for employee ownership as path to salvation for local newspapers

The demise of local newspapers is well documented.

Many have floundered in the face of competition from the internet or simply delivered insufficient profit for their corporate shareholders to view them as viable and have shut up shop.

Titles that were a major presence in the areas they served a few years ago have either vanished or become shadows of what they were.

So what makes local papers worth fighting for?

It’s that ability to connect with their readers and give voice to the hopes, fears and aspirations of a community that simply doesn’t yet exist in the amorphous, anonymous world of the internet.

Don’t misunderstand me; the internet can play a significant role in disseminating information and there are some fine examples of citizen journalism if you have the hours to trawl through a morass of online blogs, but what the web has yet to acquire is the ability to contextualise and add back story through local knowledge in the same trusted way as newspapers.  

And what confers this trust is the basic, old-fashioned notion that once something is in print it has a permanency, authority and tangibility that cannot be deleted or edited at the touch of button; you have to get newspapers right first time.

That’s why newspapers are still respected and read by politicians and decision makers.

It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in the industry, there is a solution available that reconnects journalists with their local communities and offers a sustainable business model to secure the future of newspapers.

It’s called employee ownership and is an idea whose time has very much come, judging by the clarion calls from politicians like Nick Clegg to create, ‘a John Lewis economy.’

This innovative business model puts employees at the heart of their companies, by making them shareholders in their own firm.

Employee ownership incentivises workers to do their best because they share in the rewards of their company’s success; whatever field that might be in.

As an owner of the UK’s only employee-owned newspaper, I’ve seen first-hand how successful this approach can be.

I firmly believe it has relevance and application to newspapers of all sizes because aligning individual success with company success delivers a highly motivated workforce.

Making journalists shareholders in their own paper sounds radical, but in fact it provides them with stability and motivation – at a time of difficulty for the industry.

So how does employee ownership work in practice for a newspaper?

The West Highland Free Press was founded in 1972 and became employee owned in 2009.

From its base on the Island of Skye in Scotland, The West Highland Free Press has a vital role to play in keeping a disparate local community connected, informed and engaged.

Since its birth, the paper formed an enviable reputation for the quality of its hard-hitting, campaigning journalism as well as a keen sense of how a newspaper should represent and serve its local community.

From the outset the Free Press campaigned on land reform, community ownership of assets, renewable energy and the resurgence of the Gaelic language, so central to the culture of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

We’ve helped make some progress and given a coalescing voice to our community, although we acknowledge there is much work still to be done.

So it was against this backdrop that the Free Press, a newspaper that had campaigned so hard for community empowerment, decided in 2009 it was the best way to secure its own future and became employee-owned.

We had plenty of help from Co-operative Development Scotland, an organisation passionate about helping companies embrace employee ownership.

The move kept the newspaper firmly rooted in the community it serves, secured its long-term future and legacy through practising what it so passionately preached, and importantly, kept the newspaper independent and out of the hands of many of the larger and circling publishers.

Local papers once acted as guardians of local democracy and acted as a voice to which a community could rally.

I’m happy to say the West Highland Free Press still holds to these ambitions and responsibilities.

The tragedy of the decline of local newspapers and part of the reason the industry is in turmoil, is that many publishers jettisoned much of the local connectivity their titles enjoyed years ago.

They did this for financial short term gain, and at the expense of representing the communities they served.

At the West Highland Free Press we have proved you do not have to be a corporately bland giant to make a newspaper successful.

What counts is well researched, well written content reflecting the needs of the community it serves.

What better way of doing that than through a company independently and locally owned by members of that same community?

There will always be a place and future for newspapers, but not for those publishers who measure success and viability only by the size of dividend and profit margin.

I would encourage editors, journalists and proprietors alike to give serious consideration to employee ownership.

Our newspaper has flourished since 2009 and I believe other titles would do so too.

Our employee ownership takes a proud place amongst the many successful campaigns the Free Press has championed on behalf of its community.

Paul Wood is an employee-owner and managing director of the UK’s only employee-owned newspaper, the West Highland Free Press, a campaigning weekly covering the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Paul is also an Employee Ownership Ambassador with Co-operative Development Scotland.

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