A Model of Democratic Functioning: the Linewaiters’ Gazette of the Park Slope Food Coop

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Starting a new project? Have some questions regarding procedure and protocol? Find someone who is already doing it well and adapt what they’re doing. It may sound too simple, but it’s the philosophy behind many successful collegial and professional endeavors, and a key to success.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Linewaiters’ Gazette, the newspaper published by members of the revered Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn. The PSFC is genuinely governed by its membership (over seventeen thousand members and counting) who make all major decisions through a clear, transparent democratic process at the monthly membership meeting they call the General Meeting (GM). In addition to the benefit of active, democratic decision-making, members can earn workslot credit (their “member time investment”) twice a year for attending a GM, so these meetings are well attended (400–500 each time), often by an ever-changing array of members.

Its Board of Directors, created to fulfill the corporate requirements of New York State law, holds its meeting in front of everyone at the tail end of each GM. At Park Slope, the board approves — “accepts the advice” — of every GM decision, as expressed by the membership vote. In the unlikely event the board determines that a GM decision presents a fiscal threat to the coop, the board would draw the line, but, in the words of a longtime member, “If something is really dumb, the General Meeting is not going to approve it in the first place.”

Information, Debate and Mediation

The Linewaiters’ Gazette (LWG) plays an integral role in keeping the membership informed, stimulating the discussion and debate process necessary for sound decision-making. In every issue, the LWG prints its editorial policy, which takes up a column on the back page, ensuring that contributors adhere to the policies concerning respect, fairness and anonymity. Publication is overseen by two co-coordinating editors who are members and receive only workslot credit for their efforts. Carl Arnold, currently one of the two co-coordinating editors, says, “No one would dream of challenging the editors’ ability to earn workslot credit for what they do.”

Co-Coordinating Editor Alison Rose Levy says the LWG fulfills a mediating function for the coop, endeavoring always to enable fair and judicious discussion of issues among members. In her words, “. . . to serve the membership [of a co-op], a newspaper needs editorial independence, otherwise it can be influenced or censored.” Among the stated goals for the LWG is to provide the coop with a forum for internal discussion and debate — an independent medium as a check on official lines and ideas. Editors and reporters value their role in the provision of a free press for the discussion and promotion of cooperative philosophy. Their editorial policies flow from these, and other, underlying goals.

Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library

A Look Inside the Newspaper

The result of the editorial policy is a very newsy tabloid replete with articles on coop events, business, products and meetings. Add to that a few letters to the editor, recipes, a community calendar and classifieds. Include the evolving editorial policy and the essential information about “Our Governing Structure” (an instructional and informational guide to the General Meeting), and every two weeks you have a newspaper that will stay around the house as a handy reference until the next issue arrives.

The LWG is published bi-weekly in print and online, and is available free to all coop members. The paper publishes articles that pertain to the coop and its mission. The editors accept submissions of articles, reports and letters to the editor from members, as long as they comply with established standards, which are on the PSFC website and in print. They do not publish “accusations that are unnecessary, not specific, or not substantiated by factual assertions,” but neither do they shy away from controversy. This policy means that they will print criticism as long as it is deemed necessary, specific and factually substantiated. Further, their guidelines for “Voluntary Articles” state that a submission “can criticize but not attack Coop practices and personnel; if critical, it must present positive solutions; it cannot be solely or mainly opinion. It must strive to make a positive contribution to the understanding of the reader on a topic.”

A Further Look at the LWG’s Staff and Their Policies

The Gazette staff is headed by the two co-coordinating editors, who work with a team of eight or so article editors to publish a fair, balanced and independent paper. The coop’s website states, “The work of creating and publishing the Gazette is shared by four teams of coop members doing their workslot as part of the Gazette Committee.” However, this committee is not a “Committee of the Board.” At the Park Slope Food Coop, there is no such thing — committees are beholden directly to the membership, not to the board.

Co-Coordinating Editor Alison Rose Levy says that it’s extremely rare for issues of LWG governance or policy to come before the General Meeting. “In the nineteen years I’ve been on the Gazette, first as a reporter, and later as co-editor, I could probably count those occasions on one hand. Because this is a cooperative, rather than a standard business enterprise, the principles of cooperation are always at the forefront. This means that the different perspectives of members, the General Coordinators, and staff are handled through a usually amicable process of dialogue. It’s about listening and building trust.” If there is an issue requiring resolution, it can “usually be resolved within the democratic General Meeting structure,” says Arnold.

Although there is no workslot dedicated to fact-checking, the article editors responsible for each issue (with some assistance from paid staff) do minimal fact-checking. LWG policy states, “Writers are responsible for the factual content of their stories.” If a reader sees a glitch in the content of an article, he or she is free to respond to it in the next issue of the paper.

Part of the policy on respect includes thoughts about the respectful use of coop members’ time: “The Gazette is a collaboration among coop members. When submitting, please consider the impact of your words on the writers, editors and production staff who use our limited workslot time to try to produce an informative and cooperative publication that reflects the values of our coop community.”

A true democracy can exist only through free and unimpeded discussion and debate. That is the job of this newspaper. Thanks to the Linewaiters’ Gazette for a constructive and cooperative example!

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Karla Guererri has been a Co-op Member-Owner for several years. She works in the field of education and lives in Troy.