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Tyee fulfills 1888 prediction for media funding

The Tyee's current campaign for reader-funded election coverage is fulfilling a business model first proposed in an American Utopian novel published 121 years ago.

Looking Backward 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy, was a sensational best-seller when it came out. It inspired countless "Bellamy Clubs" and even a "Nationalist Party" intended to implement the novel’s ideas.

Bellamy's hero, Julian West, goes into a hypnotic trance in the basement of his Boston house in 1887, and wakes up in a socialist Utopia in the year 2000. West explores a society in which everyone earns the same salary, regardless of their job in the "industrial army"—and gets paid by credit card.

The uniform salary is enough for everyone to live comfortably, and authors can publish their own books if they want to pay the printing costs. Julian West can understand how the one-off costs of a book could be affordable, but how could a newspaper or magazine survive?

Dr. Leete, West's guide to Utopia, explains it this way:

"The newspaper press is organized so as to be a more perfect expression of public opinion than it could possibly be in your day, when private capital controlled and managed it primarily as a money-making business, and secondarily only as a mouthpiece for the people."

"But," said I, "if the government prints the papers at the public expense, how can it fail to control their policy? Who appoints the editors, if not the government?"

"The government does not pay the expense of the papers, nor appoint their editors, nor in any way exert the slightest influence on their policy," replied Dr. Leete. "The people who take the paper pay the expense of its publication, choose its editor, and remove him when unsatisfactory."

"…But how is it practicable?"

"Nothing could be simpler. Supposing some of my neighbors or myself think we ought to have a newspaper reflecting our opinions, and devoted especially to our locality, trade, or profession. We go about among the people till we get the names of such a number that their annual subscriptions will meet the cost of the paper, which is little or big according to the largeness of its constituency.

"The amount of the subscriptions marked off the credits of the citizens guarantees the nation against loss in publishing the paper, its business, you understand, being that of a publisher purely, with no option to refuse the duty required.

"The subscribers to the paper now elect somebody as editor, who, if he accepts the office, is discharged from other service during his incumbency. Instead of paying a salary to him, as in your day, the subscribers pay the nation an indemnity equal to the cost of his support for taking him away from the general service.

"He manages the paper just as one of your editors did, except that he has no counting room to obey, or interests of private capital as against the public good to defend. At the end of the first year, the subscribers for the next either re-elect the former editor or choose anyone else to his place. An able editor, of course, keeps his place indefinitely. As the subscription list enlarges, the funds of the paper increase, and it is improved by the securing of more and better contributors, just as your papers were."

"How is the staff of contributors recompensed, since they cannot be paid in money?"

"The editor settles with them for the price of their wares. The amount is transferred to their individual credit from the guarantee credit of the paper, and remission of service is granted the contributor for a length of time corresponding to the amount credited him, just as to other authors. As to magazines, the system is the same."

The Hook will monitor the failing North American media market to see whether others adopt Bellamy's prophetic business model.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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