We are pioneering a new model
for community-energizing journalism.
Local newspapers are shriveling, and the trustworthy news coverage that communities need for their 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.
This makes the need more urgent than ever for 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 support them with services tailored to help them succeed. Success means not only restoring lost news coverage but also stirring greater community engagement than legacy 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, 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 readers, and worthy of their trust.
The model that resulted is built on the long-proven foundation of consumer co-ops, with reader-members electing the boards of local news co-ops the way shopper-members elect food co-op boards and depositors elect credit union boards — by one-member/one-vote democracy.
What makes Banyan’s model genuinely new? First, its deep and pioneering approach to reader engagement and, second, its robust monetization of co-op members’ hope for their community.
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 the 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, find ways to help one another, and meet other community needs. In this process, communities discover their own distinctive grassroots voices.
The platform also invites members to offer feedback and news coverage ideas, helping the editors make decisions about coverage from the bottom up, not just from the experts down. The members’ voluntary energy can significantly enrich news coverage — it’s the same kind of voluntary energy the web unleashes 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 news models, which works to create relationships between readers and their sites, with donations the goal; Banyan works to create relationships among readers as well as with them, enriching their community’s civic health and resulting in paid voting memberships. Banyan thus offers far greater value to prospective 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 should retain from year to year, and the more members should be inspired to choose premium fee options at renewal time.
The more revenue a co-op thus generates, 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, and on and on.
Our model has attracted interest from people in more than 50 communities from coast to coast and we have shaped business plans tailored for small cities or large suburbs, for clusters of small rural towns, and for the Black communities of big cities.
Fairness Baked into Co-op Structure
Diversity, equity and inclusion are built into the co-op structure. The 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 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 voting members will be hundreds or thousands of local readers, depending on community size. The editors will shape news coverage to serve the broad public of less-than-affluent everyday citizens we call the Banyan public, not just for the upscale people newspapers tend to cultivate. The co-ops’ revenue structure is designed to make them self-sustaining despite ominous advertising trends.
Banyan resources for new news co-ops will include a comprehensive guide for organizing a co-op, templates for business planning, and plans for enrolling founding members, all supported by Banyan staff guidance. Ongoing support will include moderated online forums for editors and executives, problem solving with Banyan staff help, and updates to the publishing platform.
In short, independent news co-ops that use Banyan’s model will be democracy-strengthening community institutions — of, by and for their communities.
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