Food for Thought: Three

Today I will focus on the political challenges of governing a producer cooperative. This follows my earlier posts, which suggested that content creators, being commodity producers, should imitate farmers and form producer coops. In a follow up to that post, I noted that these producer coops can be large and successful. Now I want to consider how a business cooperative, populated by media producers, might be governed in a way that balances principles and practicalites. The principles of cooperative governance were established by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, twenty-seven men and one woman, who opened a store in the United Kingdom around 1884. “Members of primary societies should enjoy equal rights of voting (one member, one vote) and participation in decisions affecting their societies,” says the Great Bay Food Cooperative, a student run store near the University of New Hampshire campus. “This principle, probably more than any other, insures the continuing cooperative character of an organization. It contrasts with the practice in capitalistic corporations of voting by shares, not by people, where the more shares a person owns.” Even at the risk of provoking an argument, I think this principle is problematic, beginning with the fact that most members don’t vote. Consider this article published in 1995 by The World of Cooperative Enterprise ( Plunkett Foundation). It referenced “the declining percentage of members who vote in cooperative elections — These years have seen the demise of hundreds of natural foods cooperatives and the death or significant downsizing of some of the oldest, largest and most successful of the country’s cooperative supermarkets (Berkeley, Greenbelt, Ithaca, and Palo Alto).” In my cursory search I was not able to find a participation rate. But I would guess it is in the single digits. An editorial written in 2002 by Paul Hazen, president of the National Cooperative Business Association, said “co-ops bemoan poor member participation” and “compete for the attention of busy members.” I do not know whether Hazen meant consumer coops only, or producer coops as well. Here’s another admitted flaw in my argument. I not yet found anything I can reference on member participation in the governance of producers in agricultural coops (of which there are thousands). I assume the rate is higher because producer-members have a stronger stake in the health of the organization than consumer-members. I would also guess there are some politics around the differences between small and large producers, but again I’m shooting from the hip on that score. All of this serves as a preamble to my expectation that a media cooperative, even one organized as a producer organization, will be more like a grocery coop than a farm coop when it comes to governance. Here’s why. It takes land and tools and investment to be a farmer. A media producer is anyone with a blog or a video cam or a podcast. A media cooperative should welcome and nurture these micro media producers. Yet in order to be successful in a business sense, this same media coop would have to attract and support small to mid-sized Web enterprises that have significant page traffic, revenues and paid staff. When push comes to show, how do you harmonize the interests of these hobbyists, who are likely to be more numerous, with the concerns of these fewer, larger (but still miniscule) media businesses? I think the answer is to amend the one-member, one-vote principle in some way that acknowledges that size of ownership matters. I don’t know exactly what form that might take, but it’s not hard to envision two separate voting tracks — one based on the one-member, one-vote principle and another track based on the volume of business that the member — whether a person or a small firm — runs through this fictional media coop. Let me end with this closing thought. The Internet enables new linkages between people. I believe that Net-connected small producers can and will form organizations of sufficient mass to allow their individual members to flourish in a world where only large enterprises seem to thrive. In order to build these new organizations, we will need to write new forms of social software. I think this social software will evolve in the same way as Open Source computer code. So if I’ve trampled on some principle of great importance to you, please be gentle in your critique. I’m just thinking out loud.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media