Food for Thought: Two (rerun)

(I am on vacation this week, and rather than interrupt my family time or break my habit of weekday postings, I’ve elected to rerun some prior posts that exemplify my “mini media” thinking.)

Yesterday I suggested that content is a commodity, and that small content producers might therefore be wise to follow the example of farmers and band together in producer cooperatives to increase their market clout. Today I’ll show that farm coops can become powerful market players. I will also add a hint that suggests this model might suit the needs of Mini Media.

Sunkist is one of the most familiar brands in the American refrigerator. It is a producer coop whose roots go back more than 100 years. In a casual Web search I came across a scholarly paper written in 1998. It said: “few companies can match the worldwide success that Sunkist has attained in consumer brand recognition, quality, and acceptance. Its sales of $1.075 billion in 1997 rank Sunkist in the top 40 food companies in food processing in the world.” That paper was written by a Jerry Siebert, who listed an affiliation with the University of California. A subsequent search disclosed that a Jerome Siebert retired in 2001 as the director of the University of California Cooperative Extension.

In the name of due diligence I looked up Sunkist’s current sales. The Hoover’s directory listing shows that the coop’s sales had declined to $941.9 million as of 2003, so this century-old institution may be getting some blowback from global competition. Nevertheless, its survival thus far, and even its likely struggle to adapt at present, contains lessons for media types. Siebert’s paper and the Hoover entry are convenient starts for those who want to learn more.

I contend that food producer coops are adaptable to new media, and specifically Mini Media purposes. I saw a hint of affirmation in a recent article in Online Journalism Review that discussed what happens when small publishers reach the point where they need to or wish to scale up their operations — without selling to a larger buyer if they are fortunate enough to have that option “These small publishers will often expand from a single newsletter to several newsletters published by various writers under a single media brand. The larger entity functions as a sort of publishing cooperative.” (Emphasis added.)

The article — worth reading in its entirety — was written by Dawn Rivers Baker, publisher of the MicroEnterprise Journal and someone who has obviously thought a lot about little businesses (though I confess I only became familiar with her work through the link to the OJR article).

One last quick point. (Baby up earlier than usual, demanding attention, gotta blog fast!)

In a world where privacy and data protection are increasingly important, media cooperatives could have a competitive advantage over other publishing forms. The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently surveyed 2,031 adults and found that consumers, by and large, considered cooperatives more trustworthy than other business forms. That survey did focus on consumer-owned coops, so there’s an issue of whether the finding is extensible to a group of publishers in a producer coop. And self-serving surveys are always suspect (try saying that three times, fast).

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that if a coop, with a broadly dispersed ownership, promised not to resell personal data all over creation, viewers might consider that a credible guarantee. Of course the whole issue of broadly dispersed governance raises other issues — but those will have to wait for another day.

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