Power of Co-ops

 

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

Banyan’s support to affiliated co-ops will include mentorship, educational tools and a powerful publishing platform that’s tailored for independent news co-ops, not only for publishing their journalism and engaging their readers but also for providing automated marketing and tracking of co-op memberships, including processing of online membership payments.

Most valuable to independent news co-ops that affiliate with Banyan is its fully developed new business model — and especially the new revenue stream from membership fees that it delivers; the model is designed to deliver far more value to members than membership offers from PBS, NPR and existing web-based news sites.  This should lead to deeper market penetration and a more robust revenue stream.

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 a grim decade 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 returns but rather 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 the 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 their community.

A revenue stream — annual membership fees — that has long been tapped by reader-owned cooperative newspapers in ItalyGermanySwitzerland and Mexico; due to Banyan, web news co-ops are just beginning to emerge in the United States. This revenue stream, when combined with advertising revenue, is what will make independent digital news co-ops thrive.  Banyan’s membership model offers significantly more value than what’s offered by PBS, NPR and web-based news sites built on for-profit and nonprofit models. [See Membership Benefits, below.]

An amplifier for civic netowrking:  The trustworthiness of the co-op structure will remove significant 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

A new news co-op’s central task is to attract a critical mass of founding members through the organizing committee’s volunteer efforts, incentive grants, and a professional co-op organizer.  This approach is quite similar to the long-proven startup methods of food co-ops.

After the critical mass of founders is reached and news coverage begins, a new co-op has two parallel marketing goals:

1) attract a flood of readers, then encourage them to use viral tools in Banyan’s publishing platform to pull others 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 digital tools 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 that kicks off a powerful marketing mechanism:  A popup will welcome this new person to the news co-op’s community and ask for the reader’s email address, saying that once that’s done he or she is welcome to engage.  The system will then send an email that explains the site as a news co-op that supports the community and its people — and offers an opportunity to enroll as a member immediately — or to become a provisional member with full benefits for 90 days.  For those who choose to be provisional members, the software will  deliver automated requests to join the co-op that proceed through several steps as 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 news co-ops as crucial community institutions that must deliver the news for all to read for free; the added value that will inspire readers to become members will come from further benefits, some tangible and some intangible. First, the intangibles:

Relationship with the Institution: Members get a vote and thus a voice in their co-op. The co-ops will provide members a weekly newsletter that not only informs them of co-op developments and asks for news suggestions and collaborations as well as their opinions and guidance about improvements in the site.

Civic network: A sense of belonging and power from using the online civic networking tools in the Banyan-supplied publishing platform to affiliated news co-ops — the tools facilitate working with others to advance issues that matter to them and thus to contribute to their community.

Visibility: The software includes 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 members 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:

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.

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 — profit isn’t the goal, rather it is serving the members’ and community’s need for reliable news and information. And in nonprofit news co-ops there are no profits to share.)

Discounts: Banyan will encourage affiliated news co-ops 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 $60 a year, which is works out to only $5 a month; budget memberships will be available at $36 a year, and other membership levels will range up to $500 annually.  No-cost scholarships are available to the poor.

As a Web-based service, all but a few membership payments will be made online; Banyan’s publishing platform will process the online payments.

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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. 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.

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