Our Pilot: Haverhill Matters

A dozen community leaders in Haverhill, Massachusetts, are hard at work creating Haverhill Matters, the pilot Banyan model news co-op. It will launch in 2014, licensee No. 1 of the Banyan Publishing Corp.‘s software and related services.

Haverhill Matters’s Web address is Haverhill.Matters.coop. Banyan has secured the matters.coop domain; presuming that the pilot succeeds and the project scales, sites in other cities will follow the same subdomain naming scheme, e.g. Oshkosh.Matters.coop.

The Haverhill Organizing Committee is refining Banyan’s outline for a launch plan and optimizing it for their city. The basic plan has four stages; each is expected to undergo several iterations in response to learnings from the ways the public engages and responds. 

Stage I

The first step toward a pilot site was to bring together the organizing committee, which is made up of community leaders concerned about the deep erosion of reliable community journalism in their city of 61,000 people. Most are leaders of local institutions with large constituencies.

The committee has drafted an open letter that’s their public commitment to raise local money and in-kind resources needed for a successful launch. To fuel the launch, committee members have agreed to:

• Organize and produce a major public meeting to kick off a co-op membership drive.

• Promote charter co-op memberships in any way possible: emails to constituents, web page buttons, posters in high-traffic spaces, inserts in snail mail statements, etc.

• Open doors for sales of sponsorship advertising to community-spirited local businesses and organizations. 

Organizing Committee members include leaders of Haverhill’s public library, community college, community access cable system, clergy association, League of Women Voters, the area’s biggest social service agency, a local credit union, and TeamHaverhill, a visionary civic organization. Other members are the principal of a regional advertising agency, and the retired director of the United Way.  

Stage II

The public kickoff meeting later this year will follow on the heels of the launch of a preliminary website whose focus is marketing rather than delivery of news. 

At the event the committee will sign up charter members of the co-op, gather names and email addresses of attendees, and urge all to become advocates for Haverhill Matters by visiting the new website and usingtools it offers to encourage their friends check out the new venture and become members. Kickoff meeting speakers will include Tom Decker, national director of cooperative development for the National Cooperative Business Association, which is supporting the pilot launch by hiring a co-op business expert to conduct its formal co-op feasibility study. 

Highlights of the preliminary website:

Content: The home page centerpiece will be the open letter signed by all members of the Organizing Committee, telling the community they are committed to making Haverhill Matters happen, explaining its importance to the community, and urging people to become charter co-op members. 

The letter will have prominent “learn more” links. These will lead the curious to a page that lays out how the community will benefit from Haverhill Matters, details plans for news coverage, and shows a mockup of the full site’s home page. This page will also ask people to click to sign up to be kept abreast of developments, offer feedback, volunteer to help with the launch, get in touch with the project’s leaders—and to become charter co-op members. Every page in the site will also feature a donate button.

To give the preliminary site a distinct Haverhill flavor and to demonstrate the co-op’s dedication to reliable information, the home page will also give prominent display to one feature of the many that readers will get when the full site launches: the Local Information Bank. This feature will offer a wealth of links to reliable community resources where people can use the Web to make their lives better, including by helping one another.

Promotion: Organizing Committee members and other advocates in Haverhill will personally email others in the community who they think will be enthusiastic about the big reporting project, offering a link to the website and urging them to get acquainted and sign up, offer feedback, etc. Haverhill Matters leaders will be interviewed on community access cable and Web radio programs.

People who sign up as charter members will be enter a credit card payment but it won’t be charged unless the pilot achieves a critical mass of members and the co-op is formally formed. (Critical mass will be determined by a financial analysis being conducted by a co-op business development expert the National Cooperative Business Association has hired to support Banyan.)

Objectives: Establish the project’s credibility among Haverhill’s early adopters and influencers, converting as many as possible to charter members and advocates; capture names and email addresses of interested people, sign up some charter members beyond the advocate group.

The information this stage generates will be invaluable in helping design the presentation of Stage III.

Stage III

This will be the “grand opening” of Haverhill Matters, designed to draw the entire community into engagement with the co-ops’s efforts.

In this stage the website will present a four-stage crowdsourced reporting project as its centerpiece feature, replacing the Organizing Committee’s letter on the homepage.

This major reporting project will offer promotion opportunities at every stage, give the community a way to take part and otherwise experience the collaborative nature of Banyan journalism, and yield major piece of journalism of significance to the community. 

To further acquaint the community with a very different flavor of the journalism that the full Haverhill Matters site will present, this stage will also add the life-issue reporting feature syndicated by the Banyan nonprofit—items that are concise and relentlessly useful to less-than-affluent readers, offering people immediate ways to take pressure off their lives and the lives of their loved ones as they grapple with personal finance, health and job challenges.

Promotion: The crowdsourcing project is designed to offer repeated occasions to fuel viral spread of engagement with Haverhill.Matters. Organizing Committee members will kick this off by urging their constituencies to engage with the project; at the same time, people who offered their names in Stage II will be asked to urge their friends to join the fun. 

As the list of names builds, the co-op leaders will set up and promote in-person meet-ups where people can learn about community resources that the site offers links to—the regional time bank, for example—and, in the process, deepen engagement and gather still more names and prospective members.

When the crowdsourced reporting project is published, a vivid link in the presentation will urge readers to click to join forces with others in the software’s civic engagement space to use its digital tools to organize for constructive community change on the issue the project addresses —and to invite others to join in. The presentation will also make a formal ask not only for memberships but also for donations to help defray the cost of the reporting project. This will test crowdfunding potential.

Objectives: Get so many more community members to click to engage with Haverhill Matters that the critical mass of prospective co-op membership is achieved; get as much revenue as possible from a donate button, and community-based sponsorship ads and any other sources that can be cultivated; from the responses, assess the potential for local sponsorship advertising, national advertising, and crowdfunding; presuming critical mass, use the data generated to secure a loan that will ensure adequate working capital to develop the pilot into a complete and self-sustaining journalism co-op. A relationship with the New England Cooperative Fund has been already been established.

If membership is short of critical mass after the first crowdsourced reporting project publishes the process will be repeated, this time starting with a significant base of charter members and email addresses of the curious.

Learnings from the Stage III experience will be hugely helpful in designing the presentation of Stage IV. 

Stage IV

When critical mass is reached, it’s roll-out time: The charter members’ credit cards will be charged, the staff will begin work, and day-to-day community news coverage will begin as the full website goes live.

A fresh crowdsourcing project will be set in motion and the civic engagement spaces will be introduced as a fundamental aspect of Haverhill Matters that reinforces its character as a community-stregthening cooperative institution. 

In addition to inviting readers into conversations about crowdsourced features, the editors will propose questions of community interest every week and invite people to click into the civic networking space and work for constructive change. These additions will open new doors for continually attracting still more community members to engage with the site—and to become members.

Promotion: In addition to the opportunities baked into the crowdsourced reporting projects and civic engagement conversations, in-person community-resource meet-ups will be a permanent part of the co-op. And the software will track and analyze reader behavior and help the co-op leadership refine its automated membership marketing. 

Objectives: Continue to build site engagement and membership numbers, generating revenue enough not just to sustain but to thrive. This revenue will come from three broad categories: 1) continuing co-op membership payments; 2) advertising, especially sponsorships from businesses and institutions in the community, and 3) donations from individuals and institutions. 

Crowdsourced Reporting Project

Stage I—Welcome people to Haverhill Matters in the main story and invite them to nominate ideas for reporting projects that could make the biggest constructive change in their city, focused on what’s needed rather than on malfeasance. The deadline for ideas would be three weeks from the day the site goes live, after energetic promotion and viral spread yields enough ideas to offer a serious choice.

Stage II—Replace the initial story with one in the same space that asks community members to cast a vote for the idea they think would do the most good, and to ask their friends to do the same; this will be an occasion for another round of promotion from the Organizing Committee and other advocates, plus emails to addresses captured in Stage I. The promotions will urge people to come to the site, read all the ideas, and vote for their favorite. 

Stage III—Replace the Stage II story with one that announces the community’s reporting project choice and urges community members to send in any information, photos, video, etc., that would help the reporting effort; this would be the occasion for still another round of promotion, announcing the winning idea and urging all in the community to submit info. The main story would explain that all the ideas will prove of great value to the way Haverhill Matters reports about the community in the future; it will also include a link to click through to a page showing the votes cast for each idea.

As soon as the winning idea is announced, the reporter (a seasoned freelancer or a volunteer with significant professional experience) will go to work on the story.

Stage IV: The reporter’s finished effort is published in the main space, with an invitation for readers to click into a civic engagement forum whose goal is to get readers learning from and working with one another while working to bring about the constructive change in whatever area the project explored. This will be occasion for still another round of promotion—and a direct request for memberships and for donations to support major reporting projects like this one, which will be a recurring aspect of Banyan-affiliated co-op news sites. Further, the site will promote an off-line meetup for people interested in trying to bring about constructive change in the area the reporting explored. (This would have to be facilitated.) 

Related Marketing Tools

  • A prominent box on every page whose aim is to seduce readers to click through to a landing page that tells about the co-op and its benefits, asks people what they think their community needs and how  Haverhill.Matters could help, and asks readers to sign up as co-op members. One approach would be a dynamic display that rotates provocative questions about the nature of Haverhill Matters and invites people to click to get the answer. 


  • A donate button on every page

  • Testimonials

  • Viral tools that readers can use to invite other people to the co-op’s site.

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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.