Why Laid Off Bell Sports Journalists Should Form A Worker Co-op
We cannot rely on legacy corporate media to save the journalism industry. It's time to build something better.
Carnage is the only way to describe recent layoffs at Bell Media’s sports division. Entire radio stations no longer exist.
The layoffs are part of a trend. Legacy for-profit corporations are accelerating the hollowing-out of Canadian media. Conglomerates centralize reporting, shed labour costs, and double down on corporate profitability.
Laid-off reporters, producers, and media personalities are forced to grapple with an industry facing ever-shrinking job prospects.
In this article, I want to explain why Bell journalists should consider starting out on their own, by following the path laid out by former Deadspin writers.
Instead of relying on legacy corporate media bosses who only care about wringing profit at whatever the cost, laid-off workers should consider forming a media co-op, that puts audiences and workers first.
To understand why this could work, we need to understand the barriers to building media that are slowly disappearing.
The Big Shift
Media in Canada is dominated by a few corporations. For example, Bell and Rogers are ubiquitous on TV and radio, while Postmedia dominates print and web.
As seen with the recent layoffs, the largel legacy corporate media model, underpinned by TV, radio and print advertising, is under increasing strain, forced to satisfy the insatiable demands of shareholders. The most obvious place corporattions maximize profits is by cutting overhead: firing workers and centralizing coverage.
Decisions like this are made to benefit shareholders, not media workers or the communities they serve.
Their dominance, up until recently, was made possible by three factors:
Domination of existing media infrastructure and technology: They own the TV, radio and physical print presses that (were) required to deliver media to audiences.
Access to capital: Setting up studios, hiring people, printing newspapers - all of this costs money. Capital was needed to run an outlet, with competitors facing large startup costs.
Ability to monetize: Owning high-cost infrastructure required to consume content ensured these companies could hold onto and monetize audiences, with little outside competition.
All of these formed a moat, protecting their companies from most competitors. Profits inevitably followed.
But all of these reasons are also why media conglomerates are facing long-term existential challenges.
TV channels, printing presses and radio stations are being replaced by YouTube, websites and podcasts. Costs to start your own high-quality online streaming station on YouTube are minimal. Monetization of media, in the form of advertisements and subscriptions, are now available to anyone with a website.
Slowly but surely, legacy corporate media outlets are losing audiences. NHL viewership is down. Radio listenership is down. Readership is down. Netflix and Disney are hoovering up subscribers. It’s unlikely that this trend will change.
Those impacted first and most significantly by these changes will inevitably be workers.
The last best chance for media workers and consumers lies with outlets that put workers and audiences, not shareholders, at the centre of its operations.
Defector Defeats Venture Capitalists
The story of Deadspin and Defector Media offers a potential way forward for laid-off Bell Media workers.
Deadspin was a favourite sports media brand, known for their unique voice, and beloved by their readers. But private equity vultures had other ideas. After refusing to abide by new rules requiring writers to stick to sports writing, 18 writers quit en-masse, rather than delivering a media their audience wouldn’t enjoy.
Rather than moving on and finding other jobs, these writers formed an outlet called (cheekily) Defector, with the slogan “All of our bullshit, none of theirs.”
According to Business Insider, the outlet is co-owned by all writers, with equity given to new hires. Workers control the company, with larger decisions triggering shareholder (worker) votes. Staff also can vote out executives with a two-thirds majority.
Workers are given an equal base salary. On top of the base salary is a target salary, which according to Bloomberg “ allows them to share in the company's financial success via payouts.” Maximum salary varies between two different employee groups: writers and editors. It’s also structured to allow writers to benefit from profits before executive members.
This is Bell’s model turned on its head. Instead of profits and decision-making power in the hands of senior management and shareholders who only want higher stock prices, workers (i.e. the ones actually producing the value!) shape the outlet’s direction and benefit from its success.
And with over 30,000 subscribers and $2 million in revenue, Defector is succeeding in delivering value for audiences, without sacrificing its commitment to workers.
Building Worker-Owned Media
Defector’s story offers a ray of hope for beleaguered journalists. But is this story replicable?
I believe it is.
It’s not without its challenges. Starting any new venture is terrifying and risky, but building media for audiences and workers - not executives and profit-seeking shareholders - is becoming easier.
Besides the obvious comparison to Defector, I believe that a worker-owned sports network like this would succeed for a number of different reasons.
Hosts Are The Brand
Hosts are the intermediary between the sport and the viewer. Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole built a legion of followers because of their unique reporting. Audiences could watch sports anywhere - but instead, they chose Jay and Dan.
Dan was just laid off. But the relationship built between himself and his audience isn’t lost; the means of delivery (TV, radio) is just different.
The first step to rebuilding that relationship is moving to more accessible and cost-effective mediums like YouTube or podcasts. Many of these hosts have massive Twitter audiences, which is a leg up compared to others just starting out.
In today’s world, the host and their brand is the media product, not faceless corporations like Bell. People watch YouTube creators not because they're on YouTube, but because they love the creator. People are willing to pay for that.
Monetization is Possible
Replacing a salary is, to put it bluntly, hard. There’s no short term solution for a living wage.
Yet Defector showed the path. They built a brand and style of writing that audiences loved. By placing the relationship of hosts with viewers at the centre of the experience, fans have shown that they are willing to pay to support creators, and advertisers are willing to pay to reach them.
Imagine being able to listen to members-only podcast episodes with Dan O’Toole, and asking him questions live on-air. Imagine hosts offering subscribers the opportunity to pose questions through them to their favourite local hockey players. Audiences would absolutely pay for that.
Ads follow audiences; Defector inked a deal with Warby Parker and the podcast network The Ringer, which was sold to Spotify for $200 million, was entirely ad-funded. Advertisers will gladly support new media if they can reach an engaged audience.
The combination of subscriptions and ad revenue is the best model to create sustainable media.
New Sports Media Models Already Exist
New media outlets based on sports are incredibly popular.
Barstool Sports has a rabid fan base who will never desert them. Through popular hosts and a “unique” brand, Barstool has built a presence to rival existing sports outlets.
The Athletic built an entire sports subscription model by hiring top local sportswriters. Their product isn’t unique - every news site offers this. Rather, they identify popular writers, create highly in-depth content loved by readers, and ask people to pay.
Sports podcasting is rapidly growing. One study estimates podcast advertising revenue doubling from $800 million by 2024. Sport shows are incredibly popular.
Creative monetization strategies coupled with putting creators front and centre, illustrate people are willing to support new media. Defector’s worker-owned model shows it’s possible.
Here In Canada
We don’t need to look beyond the border to find examples of journalists challenging the dominance of large legacy corporate media.
In September 2020, CHED radio host Ryan Jespersen was laid off by Corus Media. The reasons were not disclosed.
Ryan went on to create his own online radio show. While success is hard to measure, podcast chart tool Podboard says Ryan’s show is resonating with audiences.
Ryan also indicated he plans to hire more staff in the future.
Ryan does this with a hybrid model, relying both on advertising and membership.
Better Media Is Possible
There’s no doubt Bell, Rogers, and Postmedia will continue to put the needs of shareholders first.
The combination of new media models, the democratization of technology and ease of delivery, and the elevation of host-centric and relationship-based media, means an alternative can be built.
Laid off Bell sports journalists should consider following the path of Defector and create their own worker co-op, one that puts communities, audiences and workers first.
Right now Canadians are paying attention, outraged at the layoffs, and looking for an alternative.
Now is the time to build something better.
If you are a Bell worker and are interested in pursuing this idea, please feel free to reach out to me, I would love to help you - firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about co-ops, visit the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation