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No CEO, no editor-in-chief: how the Bristol Cable team works together

Ever wondered how a newspaper without a CEO works? Go behind-the-scenes at the Cable co-op’s office.

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If you’re dedicated enough to read the Bristol Cable’s community news blog, you probably know that we are at the forefront of redefining local media. But did you know we also do things differently in the way we organise our workplace? 

Here we’re going to share more about how the Cable newsroom and office works. That’s important not only for the sake of transparency, but also because we believe demonstrating alternative possibilities for organising is as important as showing how local news can be done differently.

You may well have heard us mention that, unlike many local papers owned by hedge funds and billionaires, the Bristol Cable is a co-op owned by our thousands-strong membership, mostly local residents. This means we’re able to challenge corporate interests in our investigations and reporting, because they’re not paying our wages. Our newsroom will never feel the Murdoch family breathing – even at a distance – down their necks.

As demonstrated in our latest membership campaign…

Not only are we co-operatively owned, and held accountable by a volunteer board of our members, but we are co-operatively organised. This means we don’t operate day-to-day with many of the usual formal hierarchies. 

First, we don’t have a CEO. Nor is there an editor-in-chief making top-down decisions about headlines and editorials – Matty has the title ‘editor’ as he leads on strategy in the media team and acts as a point of contact, but is not ‘in charge’ of the other reporters.

The Bristol Cable started as a grassroots project, run by volunteers, and keeping some egalitarian spirit in how we collaborate has remained a crucial part of the vision. Although we’ve professionalised significantly since the early days (we are paid a living wage! And pensions!) we wanted to find ways to work together that are more democratic and dynamic than a traditional chain of command.

So without a boss, how does it work? We use what’s sometimes called ‘hierarchy of purpose’, or distributed hierarchy. These are lofty names for something that small groups of humans have likely been doing since the dawn of time. In essence, different members of the team look after different parts of our operations. 

Gigi is in charge of choosing events venues; Eliz signs off on our communications strategy; Alex oversees the production of our print newspapers. We ask each other’s advice where needed and consult each other if decisions we’re making will have a knock-on effect on other areas of work. 

This is similar within lots of collaborative teams. The difference is, we all have final say over our little corner, but no one has final say overall. So instead of a pyramid of hierarchy, with a CEO at the top, we’re more like a shallow collection of peaks (a bit like the organisational equivalent of the Mendips?)

What does the Bristol Cable miss without a CEO? It’s appealing to imagine a fantasy parent figure who can swoop in when things are difficult and lead us to the promised land of increased membership and financial security. It would be lovely sometimes to have someone all-wise and all-powerful in charge, who somehow understands the way through the dilemmas facing independent media everywhere (namely, how to stay afloat without selling your soul), so we don’t have to. 

But distributed hierarchy means we grapple as a whole team with difficult questions. Although we have team members responsible for our strategy, we don’t passively rely on them – we’re all steering the ship.

At our AGM, the membership guides the Cable’s co-operative decision making.

This means everyone in the Cable staff team has a say on big decisions. At our fortnightly team meeting we make decisions ‘by consent’ – in this system, proposals get the green light if they’re considered ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’. There are no majority votes, and concerns or criticisms of what’s been proposed are integrated into our plans, usually improving them.

The approach, called Sociocracy, was developed by the Quakers and is often used by workers’ co-ops. When it works well, it draws on the collective intelligence of all those involved. 

Steep hierarchies can be dangerous precisely because they inhibit this collective intelligence. People with lower status may spot errors or problems but feel inhibited from speaking out, or not listened to when they do. This is something the aviation industry has paid attention to for some time. 

Most commercial flight accidents happen because of human error, and research indicates that if power differentials within the crew are too great, subordinate officers are less likely to question their captain’s errors and voice their concerns. In a steep hierarchy, it feels risky to question the person in charge, even when the warning lights are literally flashing. 

These power differentials so often play out along the same old lines of gender, racial and class inequality that we see in wider society. And yet, those with experiences of marginalisation often see and understand the failures of the systems, and what alternatives we need, most clearly.

Through our decision-making process, we hope to draw on our diversity of perspectives. Everyone has a chance to speak in turn when discussing a decision, so we don’t rely on individuals’ confidence to get their voice heard. The process also actively makes space for and encourages dissent. We all see things from different angles and by surfacing all of our questions, concerns and creative workarounds we can sometimes collaborate to make decisions far better than anything we could have come up with alone. 

This process can seem time-consuming – but hasty plans that staff don’t buy into often cause big (and time costly) problems further down the line for management. Our plans are signed off, and often finessed, by the whole team.

No system is perfect, but we’ve been reviewing and improving ours for almost a decade now. It takes patience and respect – hardly a bad thing – and ultimately, the ability to commit to moving forward over perfection, part of the Sociocratic ethos. And – with your support, particularly during our latest membership campaign – the Bristol Cable has proven again and again our ability to do that.

If you want to help sustain the Cable’s work, to keep us moving forward and prove a new way of doing local media, become a member today or raise your contribution. Thank you!

Cait Crosse is a freelance facilitator working on systems change, currently working with the Cable. Cait was previously the Cable’s Community and Events Organiser.

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