Users want to unite as a cooperative and buy Twitter. This is exactly what saved the German newspaper Taz 25 years ago – and has kept it in good shape to this day.

By Thomas Doennebrink

#WeAreTwitter and #BuyTwitter are the hashtags of the recently-started internet campaign to buy Twitter, the online service that has been operating in the red for years.

The kicker: Interested buyers want to turn Twitter into a “platform coop”.

US author Nathan Schneider‘s article in the Guardian mid-September, entitled “Here’s my plan to save Twitter: let’s buy it”, was the kick-off. The scholar-in-residence in media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder has long been an advocate of building “platform cooperativism” to create alternatives to the mighty  Silicon Valley internet businesses, and to counter their “platform capitalism”. He was a co-organiser of the first Platform Coop conference in November 2015 in New York, where these ideas were discussed for the first time on a broader base and with an immediately increased reach.

“But what if we changed Twitter’s economy? What if users were to band together and buy Twitter for themselves?” he writes, in a nod to the repeated commentaries from Wall Street bemoaning that Twitter is not profitable because it doesn’t expand fast enough, and how – following the logic of eternal growth mania – it should be swallowed by an even bigger bird. Pointing to the growing international movement of  platform cooperativism, he  counters with a new logic: users should be the owners of Twitter.

Nathan Schneider bespeaks that this isn’t actually a new idea. Back in 1923, a little football team called the Green Bay Packers began selling shares to their fans, instead of being traded around by billionaires. According to Schneider, this led to affordable tickets, sold-out stadiums with tasteful advertisements… “an all-around successful, sustainable business model for generations”.

Berlin’s leftish-alternative newspaper Tageszeitung, popularly know as Taz, has taken a similar path. Founded in 1978 as a bottom-up, grassroots project, it had enormous financial problems from the beginning. In 1991 it was threatened with bankruptcy and ruin. The majority of the editorial staff wanted to sell themselves out to a big investor – which never materialized. But others, like the newspaper‘s co-founder and prominent politican Hans-Christian Ströbele, were warning: “A capital investor will not tolerate in the long run that there are no profits”. In November 1991, the majority in an employee meeting finally decided to transform into a cooperative, whichshould be supported by the readership. In an enduring campaign, the newspaper called for supporters and cooperativists to sign cooperative shares of 500 German marks (almost 250€). This model turned out to be very successful, to this day! In the first year, roughly 2,500 people bought shares with a total value of more than 4 million marks (about 2 million €). Today, the media cooperative counts more than 16,000 members and stockholder equity of 12.7 million €.

Some paid their cooperative share in 20 monthly instalments; others gave 20 times the share price. In parallel, three different subscription prices were introduced: one reduced price for students and low-income earners, one normal and one solidarity price. For many years now, a number of subscribers voluntarily pay more, so that a quarter of total subscribers can pay less. This “solidarity method” also works for internet articles. Taz has declined to build a paywall, but asks for voluntary contributions instead. That way, they can raise a considerable part of their internet presence.

For this reason, Taz is one of the very few newspapers in Germany on a solid financial ground without future concerns. It was never dependent on advertising, from which they derive just 10% of its income. The slowly increasing foundation of cooperativists stay faithful to their newspaper – and the income stays fairly stable as well. The capital stock of the cooperative is raised by owners that do not expect interest,and who supply about half a million € annually for further investments. This is how the newspaper manages to continue without financing from outside capital. The cooperativists even raised the 20 million € necessary for the new building of the publishing house, due to be finished in 2017. You can check out the current status of the construction site here.

Similar to the Green Bay Packers football team, this #FairPlay also plays well for the newspaper Taz – for more than 25 years straight now. So again: #Buy Twitter? Taz has been there and done that!

There will be an update of this article released around the second Platform Cooperativism conference taking place in NYC from November 11-13, 2016. Feedback, suggestions, and recommendations as comments or private messages are highly appreciated.

Lead image: Wikipedia



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