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Could co-op news help save Canada’s media?

Co-ops and employee-owned media have been growing around the world in recent years

Media Canadian Business

Alt-weeklies have fallen on hard times recently with the flight of advertising to social media, but Prairie Dog and its Saskatoon sister newspaper Planet S have endured through ingenuity and community support, and co-op ownership is one reason. Photo by D. McFadzean.

When television station CHEK in BC’s picturesque capital of Victoria was threatened with closure in 2009, its workers banded together to form a co-op and buy it, with each contributing $15,000 to an employee stock ownership plan. Community members rallied in the city of 340,000, with some selling T-shirts emblazoned “Save CHEK TV,” while local investors raised the rest of the money needed to make an offer for the station from media conglomerate Canwest Global Communications, which was about to go bankrupt. Local residents gathered in the station’s parking lot on the last day of August for what was expected to be its final newscast, which dramatically led with breaking news that the deal could go through. “Our parking lot was full of people, hundreds of people, and a huge cheer went up,” recalled news director Rob Germain on the deal’s 10th anniversary. “It was just remarkable.”

A year after its rescue, while most Canadian newsrooms were making layoffs, CHEK had grown from fewer than 30 staff members to more than 40 and its “gutsy employees” were named winners of the first J-Source Journalism Integrity Award. By the next year it had more than 50 full-time staff members, including eight stationed “up-Island” north of Victoria, its control room had been rebuilt at a cost of $1.8 million, and its transmitter had been upgraded for $1.3 million. By 2023, CHEK’s employee-owners numbered 80 and it had the fourth-highest viewership in the province, behind only the big network stations in Vancouver. When Bell Media cut 1,300 positions nationwide last year, including a reported 16 at its Victoria CTV station to reduce its staff to only seven, CHEK hired several of the castoffs.

Co-operative ownership means that staff members literally co-operate, often going unpaid for working overtime, weekend anchor Tess van Straaten told a National Post reporter in 2015. “Every time I go in the break room, I’m turning the lights off when nobody’s there.” When the CRTC cancelled its short-lived Local Programming Improvement Fund, which was created in 2008 to help TV stations in markets with a population of less than one million, CHEK staff took a voluntary pay cut to avoid layoffs.

Co-operative ownership has a long history in Canada dating to before Confederation, as the first co-op was organized at Stellarton, Nova Scotia, in 1861. The settlers brought with them the co-operative movement’s principles first set down in 1844 by artisans at Rochdale, England, that anyone could join, members had only one vote each, and any profits would be distributed to members. Alphonse Desjardins developed co-operative banking in Québec, organizing the first Caisse Populaire in 1900. The so-called Antigonish Movement established in the 1920s at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia became the basis of credit unions, fishing and housing co-operatives and co-op stores. Canada’s third national political party was founded as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary by a number of co-op and labour groups in 1932 before changing its name to the New Democratic Party in 1961. Western co-ops teamed up as Federated Co-operatives starting in 1928 and they now include 160 member businesses with more than 2,500 employees. Their co-op refinery in Regina, which was built in 1935, is one of Canada’s largest and retails its products at almost 400 Co-op gas stations across Western Canada, including one at the corner of my street, where I punch in my membership number every time I fill up and get a dividend cheque every year. What a concept.

CHEK was hardly the first media co-op in Canada, as the Canadian Press was founded in 1917 to share stories between its member newspapers. It fell into decline when Canwest withdrew in 2007 to cut costs and Quebecor followed two years later. It was rescued in 2010 by the owners of three of its largest members—the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and La Presse—and converted into a for-profit corporation. Co-ops have otherwise been a persistent but minor part of Canadian media, largely as an alternative to the MSM. Vancouver Co-op Radio was founded in 1975 and transmits to this day from the city’s seedy downtown east side.

The Regina alt-weekly Prairie Dog was founded in 1992 as a non-profit but converted to a for-profit worker co-operative in 1999. Alt-weeklies have fallen on hard times recently with the flight of advertising to social media. Publications in Ottawa, Montréal, Calgary, and Edmonton have closed within a few years, but Prairie Dog and its Saskatoon sister newspaper Planet S have endured through ingenuity and community support, and co-op ownership is one reason. They faced closure recently after Ottawa demanded repayment of its Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans, prompting the publications to launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise $60,000. They got more than half of that and used their bank overdraft protection to cover the rest, saving them from bankruptcy.

The Media Co-op was formed in 2006 to publish the reader-funded progressive newspaper The Dominion, which had been printed monthly and/or posted online since 2003. At its peak, the Media Co-op had 700 members, each paying between $15 and $200 a year, and had branches across the country. The coalition collapsed in 2015, but it continues to exist as a small, nationally-focused online publication that produces original, grassroots content. The New Brunswick Media Co-Op was founded in 2009 after a meeting of 200 concerned citizens, including the mayor of Saint John, who had received negative coverage in the province’s monopoly newspaper chain owned by Irving Oil after refusing to lower its taxes.

Inspired by CHEK’s example, workers at the Prince Albert Daily Herald in Saskatchewan bought the 124-year-old newspaper in 2018 after it was threatened with closure by the Star News chain. When the Groupe Capitales Médias chain filed for bankruptcy in 2019, its 450 workers at Québec City’s Le Soleil newspaper and five other dailies agreed to contribute five percent of their salaries to launch the country’s largest media co-op. La Coopérative Nationale de L’information Indépendante (CN2i) was structured as a so-called “solidarity cooperative,” which was introduced by Québec in 1997 as the first of its kind in North America and based on social co-operatives in Italy.

Media co-ops and employee-owned media have been growing around the world in recent years. Majority shareholders of the leading French daily Le Monde announced last year that they would donate it to a foundation controlled by its journalists and other employees, while co-operatives also publish major daily dailies in Rome, Berlin, Mexico, Montevideo and Athens. As news media in Canada continue to crumble, going the co-op route makes increasing sense for their displaced workers.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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