Approach to Community News

A distinctive approach for covering and presenting local news—journalism for and with the community—is built into the Banyan model and its software. Community news co-ops that license the software and related services from the nonprofit Banyan Publishing Corp. will use our model as a base but have significant latitude to fit their coverage approach to their own communities.

Under our model, a professional editor directs not only freelance writers but also an array of dedicated co-op members and interns to create a robust community news report. Banyan-affiliated co-ops, as community institutions, are designed to engage as many community residents as possible, as outlined below.

The editor will be responsible for all that is published on the site, making sure that the content fulfills three ideals that underpin the Banyan model:

1) Journalism as the reliable information that people need to make their best life and citizenship decisions.

2) The value proposition that readers will experience the co-op’s journalism as relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust.

3) Commitment to serving the the broad public, not just the affluent readers newspapers tend to target.

In a time when journalism is widely distrusted and the term itself has lost fixed meaning, making these ideals explicit on co-op websites will let the community know what to expect. Fulfilling them creates trust, a value the co-op can monetize through memberships, and widens the potential universe of members.

The basics

  • Day-to-day coverage of institutions, issues and community happenings ranging from city council meetings to school sports, plus features that reveal the community and celebrate the lives of its people.
  • Regular coverage of topics including business, the environment, arts, and education.
  • Question of the Week, a feature that engages the community in the software’s civic engagement spaces, and in the process often turns up information that leads to news stories. Readers will be asked to submit questions they think are crucial to community betterment.
  • What’s Working, a weekly feature focusing on things that go well in the community an affiliate co-op serves.
  • Quarterly major reporting projects that use a four-stage collaborative process that engages the community in identifying what demands coverage, then in crowdsourcing to help the professional who will report and write the project.
  • Life-issue reporting, concise but useful items that help less-than-affluent people deal with the life issues that press on them and their loved ones, such as personal finance, health and jobs. The Banyan nonprofit will provide the items to affiliated co-ops, which may customize them for their community if they wish.
  • A local resource bank offering a wealth of links to reliable information, especially community resources that people can tap to make their lives better and to help one another, as well as a comprehensive calendar of community events.

The tone and writing style will reflect the lives and experiences of the broad public. Banyan will urge affiliated co-ops never to write in the jargon of experts and elites that is so common in the mainstream press; instead it will encourage focusing on the stories of regular people and tell them in the language they use.

Banyan’s software is designed to deliver journalism that is primarily text, supplemented with still images, graphics, video and audio. The devotion to text rests on Banyan’s mission to strengthen democracy, in which text has special power in that it engages reason more easily than images do.

The co-ops will offer the news not only through their websites but also in RSS feeds and a daily e-mail blast of headlines.

Staff and writers

The minimum staff for a Banyan-affiliated co-op will consist of two full-time professionals and a half-time administrator who serves as office manager, membership and advertiser service rep, and tech co-oordinator. In addition, an array of community members will engage with the news-gathering process, greatly expanding the news report that a small staff can produce. Ideally, all engaged will live in the community or otherwise have a sophisticated knowledge of it. Here’s the cast of characters:

Executive director —The person in day-to-day charge of all the co-op does. She or he will shoulder hybrid responsibilities, half publisher (optimizing all revenue streams and controlling expenses) and half community organizer (building community relationships, stirring civic engagement, and maximizing co-op membership). The co-op board will hire the executive director and he or she will report to them. The executive director will oversee the work of the editor, write a weekly column about goings-on in the community, and write a monthly newsletter for co-op members. She or he will have the option to hire a commissioned ad sales person if it seems necessary.

Editor —He or she will personally cover major institutions but devote most of her or his time to supervising the work of an array of freelancers, neighborhood correspondents and college and high school interns. She or he will select and assign freelance writers, including those who conduct the quarterly major reporting projects. Most fundamentally, the editor will ensure fulfillment of Banyan’s value proposition, journalism definition, and commitment to serving the broad public. This means that the editor will edit and approve every bit of content before it’s published.

Freelance writers —Experienced reporters who take specific assignments from the editor or who follow an topic such as business or the environment. All must be co-op members who work under a formal agreement as “producer members” with specific duties and who understand that the co-op’s editor will supervise them. They will be paid from the co-op’s freelance budget. (All non-staff writers, from top freelancers to high school interns, will work under this kind of arrangement; less skilled producer members, including high school interns, will receive modest honoraria.)

Neighborhood correspondents —A resident of each neighborhood or outlying community that a co-op serves will be recruited to round up brief items about what’s going on in the neighborhood and with its residents. The correspondents will be not be professionals but engaged residents.

School sports correspondents —Nonprofessional correspondents who track the progress of every school sport during its season. (Freelancers will be assigned to cover major games.)

College interns —Students recommended by faculty of local or nearby community colleges or commuter colleges who are looking for journalism experience, ideally students who grew up in or near the community that the co-op serves. The editor will work out each intern’s responsibilities individually.

High school interns —Students recommended by high school teachers who will help with nonjournalistic information-gathering efforts such as a community calendar of events (supervised by the administrator) and will produce one news article per semester (supervised by the editor). If the teachers approve, the article can be done as part of course work.

The readers will also play an important role in the news effort. Banyan’s software is designed to invite richer feedback from readers than legacy-model editors have ever known. This reader/editor collaboration is an expression of the kind of shared voluntarism that fuels peer networks of all kinds, from food co-ops to service organizations to Wikipedia—and it adds efficiency that means the Banyan model will significantly expand the scope of coverage possible with a small staff.

This widely distributed community engagement in the news-gathering process will give the editor an unusually clear view of the community’s information needs. This will allow her or him to routinely see into corners of the community that legacy journalism models rarely explore, and to make news judgments more from the people up than from institutions down.

Local resource bank

In a prominent space, the site will offer a vetted guide to Haverhill resources the broad public will find relevant, including:

• Weather widget, with links to local weather stations, and current moon stage widget

• Events calendar

SeeClickFix widget

• Widget that opens to a landing page that features links to obits that are posted on the websites of local funeral homes, updated daily—perhaps by the funeral homes. And perhaps the landing page would display sponsorship ads from the funeral homes.

• Schools—a page for every school in town, with the potential to grow into a highly interactive service akin to this one.

• Pets—lost pets and pets available for adoption.

• People Helping People: Links to the local time bank and care bank, resilience circles, GivingLine, freecycling, tool exchanges, swap sites and other ways community members can help each other and join forces on projects. Perhaps this is just a list in a box, or it could be a widget that shows one PHP site at a time, in sequence, and links to a landing page that displays every link with a thumbnail description of the service.

• Link to a weekly garage sale map and listings.

• Links to community-based organizations that meet the life-issue needs of community people, including health clinics, food banks, credit counselors, credit unions and other co-ops.

• Lists of all real estate transactions.

• Lists of all building permits.

• Links to all relevant governmental offices.

• In election years, links to lists of all campaign contributions by Haverhill residents and businesses.

• Widget that opens to a landing page that features links to Haverhill bloggers of all kinds, from mommy blogs on up, that have been vetted for decency.

• Link to profile pages for local business (if members) and local bands (ditto).

• Anything useful to the community that we can display straight out of an existing API (The Eagle Tribune offers local gas prices, for example; the ad-heavy haverhillusa.org links to a traffic API—and has loads of links to local resources that What Matters could easily match).

• As Haverhill Matters matures, we will strive to add microlocal data in the manner of EveryBlock: police activity, Yelp reviews, restaurant health inspections, whatever we can find ways to draw from API feeds—especially from City of Haverhill databases of public information. An interview with EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty offers insights.

Life Issue Reporting

Concise but practical items that help the broad public deal with the life issues that press on them and their loved ones should be among the most potent material news co-ops can offer.

Banyan’s software is designed so that the items will run in blog format in a prominent place on affiliated co-ops’ home pages. Even though these items will rarely arise from a community served by a Banyan-affiliated co-op, they will have local impact -– on the readers. Affiliated co-ops will be able to add local information to every item where there’s a local resource.

Here are three sample life-issue items that took less than an hour to research and write on day in the late spring if 2011:

Banks that Nibble at Jobless Benefits

People who receive their jobless benefits on prepaid debit cards can be subject to a variety of bank fees they can ill afford to pay, according to the National Consumer Law Center. The prepaid cards appeal to people who can’t get direct deposit because they have no checking account. Practices vary from state to state because state governments negotiate the terms of agreements with card providers. In many states, charges apply for using ATM’s, checking balances, and even for not using the card enough (“inactivity fees,” as high as $3). The law center’s report calls these fees “junk.” It is especially critical of a card issued in five states by U.S. Bank. Each state has only one card issuer, so it’s important to learn the charges imposed in your state so you can take steps to maximize how much of your benefits go to you and minimize how much goes to the bank. State-by-state charges are detailed at the end of the report.

Eating Late Hazardous to Weight?

To hold your weight down, don’t eat late at night. This is the finding of a study published in the journal Obesity. Northwestern University researchers followed the sleeping and eating patterns of 52 people over seven days. They discovered that eating after 8 PM was associated with a higher body mass index, suggesting that late-evening calories are more hazardous to your weight. Why? More study is needed to figure that out, the scientists say. Meanwhile, eat early.

Easy Ways to Save on Gas

Got a smart phone? Get an app that locates the cheapest gas wherever you are. Another app, Google Maps, helps you find routes that keep you out of heavy traffic, where gas mileage plummets. Check your tire pressure –- this can improve mileage by up to 3.3 percent. And slow down: Each 5 MPH you drive over 60 “is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas,” according to Fueleconomy.gov. Better yet, stay out of your car: Walk, ride a bicycle, or take the bus or train. Inexpensive intercity busses routinely sell seats for less than the cost of gas for driving between, say, New York and Boston; search for seats at GotoBus.com or at BusJunction.com. New York Times travel writers offer these tips and more for people planning summer driving vacations, but many can help you cut the cost of everyday local travel as well.

As soon as possible, a feature will be added to the software to aggregate the life-issue items, tagged by topic in a closed, searchable database. That way, when a particular problem enters a reader’s life, she or he can search for stories that might offer help.

Future Editorial Ideas to Test

• Ask readers to nominate people in the community who are doing things that make it better, and profile them.

• Run a personal essay contest and publish the best ones. Also with photos that reveal the community.

• Add wikis that help people find the best resources in their community in several areas.

• Set up a system to cover every little league game in every sport through parents or other stringers using smart phones and special Twitter hashtags to provide live updates – and get lots of people’s names “in the paper.” Also, offer live coverage of the community’s high school sports events.

• Offer discussion space in the Banyan site to every school in the community and to community-enriching organizations without their own websites.

• Run a crowdsourced effort to get the community to define Haverhill’s heart-and-soul attributes. Update it every year.

kickstartbanyan

Help launch Banyan to support our efforts to strengthen democracy. Please make a secure donation today.

signup

Sign up for our email newsletter.

getinvolved

Tell us how you can help a community news cooperative.

search

Loading

whoweare

The Banyan Project is twenty-seven senior journalists, academics, Web developers, sociologists and researchers, business and financial strategists, and advocates for strengthening democracy brought together by Tom Stites. Members are listed below; click on names to see bios.

Stites shaped Banyan's business model as a 2010-2011 fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He is now helping a committee of community leaders who, with support from the National Cooperative Business Association, are organizing Haverhill Matters, Banyan's pilot site in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Read more about Banyan Project.