The Banyan Project is organized around three master metaphors: the banyan tree, call and response, and community organizing. Each offers insight into the Project.
A banyan is a fig tree (Ficus benghalensis) whose branches produce slender vines that gravity pulls toward the ground. Ones that touch down in a fertile place take root. These thicken into subsidiary trunks that hold up the horizontal branches and allow them to spread for great distances. A single banyan can thus grow to cover two to three acres. Here’s a photo of one that covers a city block on Maui, Hawaii, and survived the disastrous 2023 fire there.
The banyan tree is the heart of a three-way metaphor that controls this project. First, this distinctive tree is a great biological metaphor for the World Wide Web: The tree has a main trunk at the center and DNA that sets general rules that determine how its branches and subsidiary trunks spread. The web version has no visible trunk, but at its center is the World Wide Web Consortium, which likewise sets general rules for the overall enterprise and its spread. The centers of neither the biological nor the digital sides of this metaphor issue detailed instructions.
The Banyan Project started with three senior journalists over coffee at a conference, kicking around ideas for reshapinging journalism in ways that would strengthen our increasingly battered democracy. The conversation took root and attracted more and more people. It needed a name. We decided that the name had to keep us focused on how the web works or, in this digital age, our effort would likely fail. Tom Stites, who had emerged as Banyan’s leader, happened to see a banyan tree while traveling in Florida and immediately acquired the URL.
The conversation yielded a new model for community news co-ops that fits the web/tree metaphor beautifully. The model’s DNA defines standards for Banyan community news co-ops wherever they take root and become subsidiary trunks that support an enlarging Banyan canopy. As with the biological banyan, the news Banyan will achieve this without tightly controlling the direction of growth; growth will happen opportunistically, where fertile soil is welcoming to the tendrils of new journalism efforts. Banyan’s DNA will also ensure the integrity of journalistic and software standards shared by the subsidiary trunks.
Trust growing out of integrity is what fertilizes this organism’s growth. Banyan’s model is based on consumer cooperative ownership because co-ops are the most trustworthy form of business enterprise: News co-ops will develop from readers who choose to become co-op members — the Banyan model is structured so there will be no conflict between the interests of a news co-op’s managers and the interests of the readers the co-op serves. The entire structure of the model must be grounded in integrity, and every decision that’s made must be examined for its impact on Banyan’s trustworthiness.
The banyan metaphor offers some nice overtones to associate with the journalism of integrity: 1) it was under a banyan tree that the Buddha was said to be sitting when he achieved enlightenment; 2) in their native India banyan trees are a symbol of permanence; 3) the word banyan comes from Sanskrit meaning trader, because traders found banyan trees a good place to spread their wares.
Call and Response
Call and response is a standard practice in many folk music traditions, most familiarly the blues.
As a metaphor for the Banyan Project, the call is the news and feature report produced by independent community news co-ops seeded and supported by Banyan.
The response comes when the readers engage with the journalism in the digital public square that’s built into the Banyan publishing platform; responses can range from a shrug, to clicking approval of the story, to commenting, to joining a digital forum on the topic the story advances, to starting such a group if none for the topic exists, to emailing suggestions to the editors, to volunteering photos or video or reporting. And people can propose new ideas for deploying forums for other community purposes — a tool library, say, or a forum for job-seeking leads.
The readers’ responses provide nourishment for the next day’s call. The call and response metaphor is at the heart of Banyan’s professionally led collaborative journalism. All of this is community engagement far more powerful than legacy news models could ever deliver. Civic engagement is the seedbed for citizenship at all levels. Finding new ways of journalism that strengthens democracy was the goal of that original coffee conversation.
Community organizers bring people together to exert their combined personal power to make change that benefits their community. Banyan’s aim is not only to foster and support reliable community journalism but also to provide readers with tools that help them use the power of networking to strengthen democracy both in their municipalities and in communities of interest they form around issues.
Social theorists and observers of America’s culture dating back to de Tocqueville have marveled at how we form voluntary associations and have seen these associations — from civic and fraternal organizations to co-ops and mutual insurance companies and on and on. Banyan will be a seedbed for such voluntary associations. It will engage hands as well as minds in democracy.