Another kind of media is possible

Jan Exner
Fortunately, more than thirty years after the revolution, co-operatives are no longer looked upon with disdain. This alternative to ownership is even expanding. Apart from the well-known agricultural, housing or construction co-operatives, there are also popular gastronomic co-operatives in Prague or Brno. These are the ones where people go to drink and eat well while at the same time supporting a good cause. However, there is less talk about companies that try to feed their clients culturally and satisfy their intellectual thirst, i. e. co-operative publishing houses.
Do they exist in our country? They do. We could, however, count them on one hand, even after losing a few fingers while working the circular saw. Among the first that - we hope – are messengers of things to come, we can find the publishing and media co-operative Kulturní noviny or the book publishing house Idea. Let's make up for the mentioned deficit and talk more about them. But before we do that, it's worth remembering that they both have something to build on. One of the most important publishing houses between the world wars and the first Czech publishing house based on the idea of ​​a co-operative, not a private business, was Družstevní práce. It was founded in 1922 and in the same year the first book was published, The Most Beautiful World by M. Majerová. It ceased operations in 1957. A few months before the 1989 revolution, the opposition writers founded the Atlantis co-operative publishing house. Four years later, however, it was transformed into a „Ltd.”…

They wanted to give meaning to writing

I will not typeset for those State Security guys anymore!“ a typesetter and typographer by the name of Miroslav Švejda said in the editorial office of Literární noviny one Friday evening in 2009 – and he left. The serious disputes that the editorial office had with the new owner of the newspaper thus escalated and led to the termination of contracts with all editors and proofreaders.
The previous editor-in-chief, Jakub Patočka, and editor Jiří Plocek began to seek support for establishing a new platform, but they did not agree on the concept, although they both maintained contacts with political guru Jaroslav Šabata. While Patočka founded Deník Referendum, Jiří Plocek, Miroslav Švejda, Petr Kovář and sixteen other pioneers founded the Kulturní noviny co-operative. Among the first members were the above mentioned Jaroslav Šabata, philosopher Erazim Kohák, molecular immunologist Václav Hořejší and writers Eva Kantůrková and Alena Wagnerová.
The main task is to publish the eponymous periodical and other occasional publications. On a broader scale, it is the culturally activating effort, which includes discussions, conferences, support for certain initiatives, but also the alternative model of publishing itself. We currently have sixty members from all over the Czech Republic,“ says Petr Kovář. „The newspaper was created because we wanted to write and we already had some experience and ideas on how. The co-operative was formed because we wanted to find an alternative model for publishing newspapers independent of the political or commercial ambitions of a dominant owner or patron,“ he adds.

Main principles: equality and democracy

Why this form of ownership? „Ownership relations in co-operatives are regulated by the Act on Co-operatives. One member - one vote, regardless of the amount of the deposit, this is the principle for which we agreed with this form. The second possibility is that of democratic decision-making. Therefore we chose the form of a co-operative, even though there is more administration associated with this form than with an association, but it ensures that the principle of democratic decision-making cannot be violated,“ explains the co-operative member Kovář.

Of course, publishing online newspapers of this type and organising discussions is not a business. They depend on co-operative deposits, which are not inexhaustible, and on the gifts of conscious readers. „In the past, we also received some one-off support from our partnered publishing house Die Tageszeitung (German newspaper, also published by a co-operative – author's note) and from the subsidy program of the city of Brno,“ notes Kovář. Occasional collections for specific activities bring in some funds.

So if decisions are not made by the one who contributes the most, how does it work? The members’ meeting elects a Board of Directors. The Board oversees day-to-day operations and entrusts the editor-in-chief with managing the newspaper. The degree of involvement of individual members is, of course, voluntary. In addition to the four-member Board of Directors, there is also a three-member Audit Committee, but otherwise most members, Kovář admits, are almost inactive. „A certain sign of change in this direction was the establishment of working groups to mobilize and organize members for specific thematic activities, so that more people became involved in the creative core for a while, but we did not manage to maintain the intensity of the working groups,“ he sighs.

How is it even possible to measure the success of a co-operative publishing company, when it is not about profit or power? „Publishing another issue of the newspaper means success, getting a new inspiring person to write an author's article for us means success… It would be a success – though this is not the case – if new young members were joining the team. Otherwise, we prosaically measure our success by the number of people reading our texts or their citations in other media or initiatives,“ adds Kovář from Kulturní noviny.

From idealists to publishers

You can't change the world by reading, but you can definitely change your view of it! That is the motto welcoming visitors to the webpage of Idea, a publishing house that has been around for just two years. „We all love books, which is why we wanted to expand the Czech bibliodiversity, support non-profit projects and give a voice to individuals and groups that would otherwise remain unheard. At the same time, our ambition was to bring in interesting literature from abroad and from history,” describes Vendula Bittner. Who? „We are an independent co-operative publishing house whose goal is to bring alternative visions, theories and ideas to the public debate. Our priority is to connect various fields from economics and sociology to philosophy or political science, knowing that no isolated science is able to sufficiently consider the challenges of society and the limits of the environment,” she explains.

Originally they were four. Everyone knew each other from the Idealisté.cz association, which brought together like-minded people interested in politics and the world around them. It is clear why they chose to work together in a co-operative. And they plunged in headlong, full of ideals. „We were strongly convinced that there would be demand for our books,“ says Bittner.
Their very first shot was a hit. The collection Budoucnost (Future), in which a team of authors led by Apolena Rychlíková reflects on what the „new left“ is, is hard to come by today. Donut economics, a book that presents a new way of thinking, with environmental and social sustainability at its centre, will soon be up for reprint. They are all equal co-operative owners and have the same vote regardless of their contribution. They use it at regular meetings, online at this time.

When we mention the contribution, it is, of course, the registered capital. Add to it the personal loans of co-operative members. „Apart from projects that are not profitable at all or minimally, we are also trying to develop ones that would equalize our long-term balance sheet. Each book sold thus helps to create another,” he explains.

And how does a book publishing company measure its success? „When our books are liked and sold. Messages from satisfied readers will always warm us at our co-operative heart,” a co-operative member from house Idea lets us sneak a peek into their “income book”.

Through the previous lines we have broadened our horizons to include a media co-operative scene. It is well worth supporting, it is inspiring, and although it does not aim to tell us what to change a collapsing system into, it shows us possible alternatives and makes us think about them.
Czech version of this article was published on 9th May 2021 in the online analytical magazine Argument (
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