Reader-owned media? Lessons from football

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post in October set off alarm bells in the minds of media critics and readers of independent media alike, myself included. This was the fate of one of the world’s most reputed political newspapers thrown into corporate hands – the same hands that controlled the world’s largest internet company by revenue. All this in an age of what appears to be terminal decline as far as newspapers are concerned: circulation has fallen by 13% in North America and around twice that in Europe in the last five years. Bezos’ takeover is symptomatic of an increasing reliance of the mainstream media on handouts from either corporations or governments – those who can afford to subsidize their losses. As Le Monde diplomatique‘s Serge Halimi succinctly puts it: “Publications aligned with the dominant worldview or the decrees of advertisers rake in the money, everything else struggles.” Amazon’s recent $600 million deal with the CIA ought to set a few more alarm bells off.

All of this is perfectly familiar to football fans, who have seen wealthy benefactors with seemingly bottomless pockets propel once humble clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain to the top of their respective leagues through funnelling an endless stream of subsidies into their coffers. What is really worrying is that the benefactor model has become the norm: of the 20 clubs that competed in the 2011-12 English Premier League season, only Norwich City, Swansea City and Wolverhampton Wanderers finished the season without incurring debt. Clubs run on the principles of strict financial responsibility can no longer compete with the billions flowing into the accounts of their subsidized rivals, and this fact largely accounts for the contagiousness of the benefactor model.

The benefactor model has an Achilles heel, however. What happens when the benefactor decides he or she has poured enough money down the drain and pulls out? Or if the benefactor goes bankrupt? No fewer than 38 English clubs have entered administration (essentially bankruptcy) since the turn of the millennium, four of which went out of business altogether. An alternative business model for football on the rise today is that of fan ownership – a model that not only prevents this type of financial instability but also ensures that decisions are made according to those whom it ultimately serves: the fans.

My club, AFC Wimbledon, is one example. Founded in 2002 by former fans of Wimbledon FC when its owners decided to relocate the club to Milton Keynes, where it remains today under the “MK Dons” moniker, the club is fully owned by The Dons Trust, a supporters’ group that pledges to retain at least 75% ownership of the club to ensure nothing of the sort of the fate that befell its predecessor ever occurs again. Members join the trust for an annual fee of £25, an amount that supplements gate receipts and season tickets, which make up most of the club’s turnover. Last season, fans established the We Are Wimbledon Fund, a crowdfunding initiative to boost the playing budget that ultimately provided the finances for the estimated £25,000 transfer fee of Harry Pell from Hereford United (not a trivial sum for a fourth-division team). Fan ownership isn’t limited to clubs starting from scratch, either. Former Premier League club Portsmouth FC, now playing in the fourth tier, became the largest fan-owned club in England when its fans bought it out of administration in April.

What lessons can the likes of the Washington Post pick up from the likes of Wimbledon and Portsmouth? If fan ownership of a football club is not only conceivable but also doable in a league system dominated by subsidized clubs, who’s to say the same couldn’t be done in the media? After all, both football and the news are, in today’s world, inherently unprofitable sectors that rely, if not on corporate or taxpayer dollars (or pounds), on trust membership fees and crowdfunding for revenue to keep them afloat. I propose that the next time the owners of a major newspaper or news magazine offer it up for sale, its readers should pool together a sum of money to make a bid for it. Then, once in ownership of it, they can decide on coverage on a democratic basis and keep it running financially on an annual subscription fee. After all, plenty of media sources are charging subscription fees without giving readers a share or even a voice. $20 or $30 a year to have a say in what stories your newspaper covers and to ensure that it stays well away from corporate and government interference. Not a bad deal, is it?

Finally… it’s already been done before.

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