West Highland Free Press – the UK’s only employee owned paper

The West Highland Free Press became Britain’s first employee-owned newspaper in October 2009, and as we move into our 4th year of employee ownership, we still remain the only UK newspaper to have followed this business model. To understand why we chose to become employee-owned, you first need a little back ground history about the Free Press and the industry as a whole.

The Free Press was founded in 1972, and since its birth, formed an enviable reputation for the quality of its hard-hitting, campaigning journalism as well as a keen sense of how a newspaper should represent and serve its local community.

From the outset the Free Press campaigned on land reform, community ownership of assets, renewable energy and the resurgence of the Gaelic language, so central to the culture of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  The Free Press helped shape a political framework where not only is the fundamental right of people who live and work in a community to have a say in its ownership now recognised, but Gaelic medium education and a dedicated Gaelic TV channel now form part of everyday Scottish life for those who choose.

We’ve helped make some progress and given a coalescing voice to our community, although we acknowledge there is much work still to be done. So it was against this backdrop that the Free Press, a newspaper that had campaigned so hard for community empowerment, decided in 2009 it was the best way to secure its own future and became employee-owned.

It kept the newspaper firmly rooted in the community it serves, secured its long-term future and legacy through practising what it so passionately preached, and importantly, kept the newspaper independent and out of the hands of many of the much larger, predatory, circling publishers.

It is this independence, secured by employee ownership, which will make such a difference to our community. Not so long ago, local newspapers were exactly what they said on their mastheads; locally owned and managed businesses, rooted in the heart of their communities. They were closely allied to the needs and aspirations of their communities. They acted as guardians of local democracy and acted as a voice to which a community could rally. I’m happy to say the West Highland Free Press still holds to these ambitions and responsibilities.

The tragedy of the decline of local newspapers and part of the reason the industry is in turmoil, is that many publishers jettisoned much of the local connectivity their titles enjoyed years ago. They did this willingly in favour of consolidating a cash generating, generic product more interested in bottom line profit and shareholder value than representing the communities they purported to serve.

When you consider how vitally important a role a free press plays in civil society and the democratic process, people should really question what gives any commercial organisation the right or need to control hundreds of newspaper titles covering vastly diverse communities? Where is the accountability to a local community when a corporate giant holds sway over the democratic discourse of so many people, but is solely answerable to its shareholders, the vast majority of whom have no stake in these communities?

At the West Highland Free Press we have proved you do not have to be a faceless, corporately bland giant to make a newspaper successful. What counts is well researched, well written content reflecting the needs of the community it serves and what better way of doing that through a company independently and locally owned by members of that same community? Shareholders and employees who have a real, tangible bond to their community.

These same members, whose own futures have been secured by employee-ownership, offering them long-term stability and rewarding jobs in their own community; a community we play such an important part in. As I say, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the legacy created by the West Highland Free Press entering employee-ownership.

It is also gratifying to know that in difficult economic times and the overwhelming malaise of those surrounding the newspaper industry we have demonstrated as a group of employees that employee ownership is a viable model even within a troubled business sector.

There will always be a place and future for newspapers, but not for those publishers who measure success and viability only by the size of dividend and profit margin. So I cannot think of a better time for anyone who values what newspapers can do for a community to create the UK’s second employee-owned publication!