We are pioneering a new model
for community-energizing journalism.
Local newspapers are shriveling, and the trustworthy news coverage that communities need for civic and economic health is shriveling with them. Papers are dying far faster than digital news sites are taking root, hence a crucial pillar of democracy’s infrastructure is crumbling. And politically deceptive “pink slime” websites are rushing into the news desert vacuum.
This makes the need more urgent than ever for solid new models for community journalism that can thrive in the digital future — and the Banyan Project is a robust response. Our mission is to help seed independent news cooperatives in underserved communities, then offer support to help them succeed. Success means not only restoring lost local news but also stirring greater civic energy through community engagement than legacy news models ever did.
Banyan took a strategic approach to find a new model that 1) delivers professionally edited and trustworthy news coverage; 2) invites and empowers exceptional levels of civic engagement, community spirit and people helping one another; 3) sustains itself financially in the Digital Age, and 4) is easily replicable, community by community and coast to coast. Further, the model must deliver on Banyan’s value proposition: Readers will experience its journalism as relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust.
The model that resulted is not just more tweaking of a once-mighty commercial model for selling news that, after collapsing in print, has been imported to the web. Instead we have a civic venture built on the robust foundation of consumer co-ops, with reader-members owning the source of their news the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions. News co-ops will have hundreds if not thousands of members, depending on community size. By law the members of all co-ops elect their boards by one-member/one-vote democracy.
What makes Banyan’s model genuinely new? First, its pioneering approach to deep reader engagement and, second, co-ops’ centuries of success in monetizing what motivates co-op membership. What motivates Banyan-model news co-op members? Their caring for their community — civic power.
Vital Grassroots Community Institution
As Banyan has designed it, the news co-op is not just a news site but rather a vital grassroots community institution that makes its news coverage free for all in the community to read.
The co-op’s heart is a lively digital public square where news coverage inspires and nourishes conversations. This amplifies the journalism’s value and, because parts of the square are open only to members, it helps attracts a significant fraction of readers to enroll; the more people care about the health of their community, the likelier they are to become paying members.
The square is built into Banyan’s publishing platform and offers easy-to-use digital tools that Banyan has created to invite people to come together to explore issues, organize for constructive community change, and find ways to help one another. Each co-op can invent ways to use the digital square to meet other community needs — might some find ways to use the Banyan model’s digital heart to start bringing their divided communities back together?
The platform also invites members to offer feedback and news coverage ideas, helping the editors make coverage decisions from the bottom up, not just from the experts down. Members are also welcome to take part in crowd sourcing of reporting projects. All this’ volunteer energy can significantly enrich news coverage — it’s the same kind of civic energy the web can unleash to fuel Wikipedia and much open-source software, only on a community scale.
Deep Engagement Leads to a Virtuous Circle
This depth of engagement sets Banyan apart from current local news models, which work to create relationships between readers and their sites, with donations the goal. Banyan’s co-op model creates relationships among a community’s people as well, with civic power the goal. This richer engagement strengthens civic health and creates far greater value to attract people with civic hope to sign up as paid and voting co-op members.
A classic virtuous circle is the logical result: The more a news co-op engages people in building hope for community advancement, the more paying members it should attract; the more paying members it retains, the more members should be inspired to choose premium fee options at renewal time.
The more revenue a co-op thus generates, the more staff it can hire, the more impactful its journalism can be, and the more its community should advance — which should generate still more hope and attract still more paying members.
Our model has attracted interest from people in more than 60 communities from coast to coast and we have drafted business plans tailored for small cities or large suburbs, for clusters of small rural towns, and for the Black communities of big cities. If you are interested in exploring a Banyan-model news co-op where you live, check out this page.
Fairness Baked into Co-op Structure
Diversity, equity and inclusion are built into the co-op structure. The co-op model’s grassroots nature and invitation to engagement opens the door wide to diversity — but this is not automatic even in a model as welcoming as Banyan’s; attentive management is crucial.
One-member/one-vote co-op governance means equality no matter who the member is; as for equity, Banyan’s model offers not only standard and budget membership fees but also free scholarship-memberships to people who receive means-tested benefits such as food stamps. And every co-op member receives a small piece of ownership equity.
Inclusion? Think about the deep engagement the digital public square invites from all members.
Each independent news co-op’s editors will aim news coverage to serve the broad public of less-than-affluent everyday citizens we call the Banyan public, not just for the upscale people who newspapers, public broadcasters, and current digital sites tend to cultivate. The Banyan revenue structure aims to make co-ops self-sustaining despite ominous advertising trends.
Banyan support for new news co-ops will include a comprehensive guide for organizing a co-op, templates for business planning, and help with plans for enrolling founding members.
In short, independent news co-ops that use Banyan’s model will be democracy-strengthening community institutions of, by and for their communities. In you’re intrigued, learn more on our Starting a News Cooperative page.
Watch Banyan founder Tom Stites lay out the power of the Banyan idea.
As local newspapers fade, more and more communities across the U.S. are left with little or no trustworthy original reporting. This underscores the need for a new model for journalism that can revitalize the informed electorate and civic engagement that are the foundation of democracy. Read More
Banyan’s forward-looking model for independent local news co-ops combines several strategies with long track records, including consumer cooperatives, advertising-supported news, and peer networks. Read More
Day-to-day coverage of community institutions and happenings that co-op members and other readers experience as relevant, respectful and trustworthy — and that engage readers in the news effort and with one another to work for constructive community change. Read More