Power of Co-ops

Banyan’s pioneering vision is to support a profusion of independent community-centered Web news cooperatives that provide their community and its people with the reliable information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions.

  As a nonprofit organization, Banyan’s mission is to seed and then support both nonprofit and for-profit news co-ops. Its support will include mentorship, educational tools and powerful software that’s tailored for independent news co-ops, not only for publishing their journalism but also for providing automated marketing and tracking of co-op memberships, including processing of online membership payments.

Distinctive Nature of Co-ops

  What’s magic about cooperatives is that for a long list of industries they offer stable and replicable business models that work in economic settings too arid to support for-profit models — the kind of situation many communities are experiencing with journalism after seven grim years of plummeting newspaper advertising revenue that’s led to drastic cutbacks in original reporting.

  Co-ops take many forms, but all are governed on a one-member/one-vote basis. This approach ensures that news co-ops will cover their communities from the readers up more than from the experts down. Unlike public broadcasting “members,” members of standard for-profit co-ops get an ownership stake, a vote and a share of any profits—although profit is not the point: Like food co-ops, news co-ops are devoted not to investment aims but to serving their members’ needs. Members of nonprofit co-ops get no ownership stake (neither does anyone else) and, of course, no share of any profits because there can be none—but they do get a vote and a sense of authority.

  Some co-ops, including all credit unions, are nonprofits. Others are neither investor-owned nor nonprofit. Co-ops make up a growing but little-noticed segment of the U.S. economy—$3 trillion in assets, $500 billion in revenue, and $25 billion in wages. Most numerous in the United States are the more than 7,000 credit unions; every depositor is a member.

Advantages of News Co-op Structure

  A rock-solid integrity that undergirds news co-ops’ trustworthiness and their distinctively relational and accountable approach to journalism. Consumer cooperatives are, quite simply, the most trustworthy of entities. This is because hundreds if not thousands of readers of each news co-op will be voting members whose authority determines the co-op’s direction. In other words, in both for-profit and nonprofit co-ops the board, executive director and editor are accountable to their members, which is to say the community.

  A revenue stream that is tapped by reader-owned cooperative newspapers in the UKItaly, Germany, Switzerland and Mexico; web news co-ops are just beginning to emerge in the United States. This revenue stream, when combined with revenue from advertising, is what will make independent Web news co-ops thrive.

  An amplifier for civic netowrking:  The trustworthiness of the co-op structure will remove friction from the online communities that, nourished by news co-ops’ journalism, will form in Banyan-supplied software. This will make this civic networking more effective and thus of greater value to readers—and to democracy.

  A hands-on democracy workshop. Co-ops are democratic institutions; each member gets one vote, and at annual meetings they may cast votes to elect directors, who will hire a community news co-op’s editor and other staff. Banyan co-op owners will be the co-op community’s voters. But democracy is more than votes cast, and community-level co-ops offer many ways for members to work together within the co-op and in the community it serves.

Attracting Member/Owners

  Banyan recognizes that most fundamentally, a new co-op has two parallel marketing goals:

  1) attract a critical mass of founding members through the efforts of its organizing committee, then encourage them to use viral tools in Banyan’s software to pull other people into the gravitational field of the co-op’s journalism.

  2) enroll as many readers as possible as paying co-op members.

  To enable independent news co-ops to achieve these goals, Banyan provides software that will do much of an affiliated co-op’s marketing work: When a reader first clicks to rate an article or engage in the Banyan community, the software will respond in a minimally intrusive way to welcome the new reader and start getting her or him acquainted with Banyan as a co-op that supports its readers and their community. The software will then deliver automated requests to join the co-op that proceed through several steps as time passes and the reader’s activity evolves.

  The more deeply engaged a reader is, the likelier she or he is to become a member. Drawing readers into deep civic engagement is a double success: It better achieves the Banyan goal of strengthening democracy while improving the chances of the reader becoming a co-op member. News co-ops must deliver enough value to their readers that a significant fraction will find becoming a co-op member, and making continuing annual payments, an irresistible idea.

Membership Benefits

  The news co-ops’ bedrock benefit will be journalism that fulfills the value proposition of delivering news and features that readers will find relevant, respectful and trustworthy. Banyan understands that Web journalism must be free to all who want to read it; the added value that will inspire readers to become members will come from further benefits, some tangible and some intangible. First, the intangibles

  Voting membership: Standard news co-ops offer members a rare opportunity to own a chunk, albeit small, of a vital community institution; in nonprofit co-ops as well, membership offers a sense of self-worth from helping to ensure the future of an institution that makes a constructive difference in a member’s life and community.

  Civic network: A sense of belonging and power from using the online civic networking tools in software Banyan will supply to news co-ops it supports, working with others to advance an issue that matter to them—and to make a contribution to their community.

  Visibility: The software will include a reputation algorithm that ranks people who comment or participate in their co-op’s civic networking spaces. The system will give more prominent display to comments from participants with higher rankings; being a paid-up member will add reputational points and thus boost ranking and visibility.

  Integrity: In an Internet/cable news era that’s awash in exploitive and manipulative “journalism,” standing on the side of trustworthiness through the co-op approach to news offers a sense of ethical rightness.

  Accountability: Co-ops provide a sense of control over the direction of the journalistic enterprise; each member will have a vote in the election of their co-op’s board, which will hire its editor and other staff.

  Tangible benefits:

  Profit distribution: Each member of for-profit news co-ops will receive a share of their co-op’s year-end surplus. (The payments are expected to be modest; in many years there will be none because profit isn’t the goal—serving the members’ and community’s need for reliable news and information is the goal. And in nonprofit news co-ops there are no profits to share.)

  Relationship with the Institution: Members get a vote and thus a voice in their co-op. Banyan envisions supporting news co-ops that provide members a regular newsletter about their site that not only informs them of developments but also asks their opinions and guidance about improvements in the site.

  Discounts: Banyan will encourage news co-ops it supports to establish relationships with trustworthy local merchants who are willing to offer discounts to Banyan members.

  Banyan will always be on the lookout for other benefits that news co-ops its supports can offer.

  Banyan expects co-ops to test many membership price points and payment options. It recommends a basic membership costing $36 a year, which is works out to a dime a day, a vanishingly small amount even for the poor; a household membership at $60 a year, and other membership levels ranging up to $500 annually.

Price and Payments

  With this pricing structure, a news co-op with 2,000 basic members would gain no less than $72,000 per year from membership payments alone—enough to pay the salary and benefits of the site’s editor, and then some. It remains to be seen how many members will choose the higher levels of membership.

  As a Web-based service, all but a few membership payments will be made online; software Banyan will supply to news co-ops it supports will process the online payments.

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The Banyan Project is a nonprofit organization founded from the thinking of 30 senior journalists, academics, Web developers, sociologists and researchers, business and financial strategists, and advocates for strengthening democracy brought together by Tom Stites. Members of this Board of Advisors are listed below; click on names to see bios.

Stites shaped Banyan's model as a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He is now helping a committee of community leaders who are organizing Haverhill Matters, the nation's first community Web news co-op in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Read more about Banyan Project.