Master Metaphors

The Banyan Project is organized around four master metaphors: the banyan tree, call-and-response music, community organizing, and the Prius. Each offers insight into the Project.

Banyan Tree

A banyan is a fig tree (Ficus benghalensis) whose branches produce slender vines that gravity pulls downwards. If they reach the ground in a fertile place, they take root and 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 more than an acre. Here’s a photo of one that covers a city block in Maui, Hawaii. The banyan tree is the central metaphor for this project.

In the biological banyan, the main trunk is the progenitor of all the tree’s branches, which spread and spread as the tree matures, and of the supporting subsidiary trunks that establish themselves locally across a broad territory. This happens in accord with banyan tree DNA.

In the metaphorical banyan, the main trunk — the nonprofit Banyan Project — will provide the DNA that defines the standards for all the tree’s widely distributed community news co-ops, the subsidiary trunks that support the Banyan canopy. As with the biological banyan, the nonprofit will achieve this without tightly controlling the direction of growth; growth will happen opportunistically, where fertile soil and sunlight are welcoming to new journalism efforts. Thus the Banyan Project’s character is also akin to that of the World Wide Web, with its nonprofit main trunk taking a role akin to that of the World Wide Web Consortium, ensuring 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 become co-op members, so there can be no structural 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 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 folks music traditions, most familiarly the blues.

As a metaphor for the Banyan Project, the call is the news and feature report produced by community news co-ops trained and supported by Banyan.

The response comes when the reader/users engage with the journalism; responses can range from a shrug, to clicking approval of the story, to commenting, to joining an issue 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 offering further suggestions for future stories on the same issue, to volunteering photos or video or reporting, to submitting an article for publication.

The readers’ responses provide nourishment for the next day’s call. The call and response metaphor is at the heart of Banyan’s collaborative journalism.

Community Organizing

Community organizers bring people together to exert their combined power to make change that benefits their community self-interest. 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—as the seedbed and lifeblood of democracy. Banyan will be a seedbed for such voluntary associations. It will engage the hands as well as the mind in democracy.

The Prius

Most publishing businesses are complex combinations of systems, but the Banyan model synthesizes an unusually large number of them. In an era of uncomplicated but hard-to-sustain Web journalism systems, some find Banyan’s complexity daunting.

But Banyan sees this complexity as the best way to support an array of stable and sustainable community journalism institutions.  An automobile with only an internal combustion engine is a complex combination of systems, and the Prius has two kinds of engines and an unprecedented mechanism to optimize the way they work together—yet no automobile is more reliable.


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The Banyan Project is a nonprofit organization founded from the thinking of 31 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 Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Read more about Banyan Project.

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