Power of Co-ops
[For list of membership benefits, scroll down]
Banyan’s pioneering vision is to seed and support a profusion of independent community-centered Web news cooperatives that each provide their community with the trustworthy information its people need to make their best life and citizenship decisions.
Most valuable to independent news co-ops that adopt Banyan’s model is its fully developed new business model — and especially the strong revenue stream from annual membership fees.
In Banyan’s model, co-op members will own their community news sites the way depositors own credit unions and shoppers own food co-ops. This grassroots ownership will be widely distributed — hundreds if not thousands of local people, depending on community size.
News co-op members receive an array of benefits starting with a modest equity share and a vote in annual meetings; further benefits are listed below. These membership benefits offer far more value than comes with PBS, NPR and existing web-based news site memberships.
People who hold the deep memberships Banyan’s model delivers also receive a share of any profits — although profit isn’t the point: Like food co-ops, news co-ops are devoted not to investment return but to serving members’ needs — in this case the need for trustworthy news and information that nourishes civic engagement that strengthens their lives and their communities.
Offering deep memberships should lead news co-ops to deeper market penetration than public broadcasting achieves — to and more robust membership revenue than existing digital news models generate.
Banyan has designed a powerful publishing platform tailored for news co-ops, not only for publishing their journalism and engaging their readers in a digital public square but also for providing automated marketing, processing and renewing of co-op memberships.
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 standard for-profit models — the kind of aridity thousands of U.S. communities are now experiencing with local news.
Co-ops take many forms, but all are governed on a one-member/one-vote basis. This approach gives news co-op members a voice and ensures that editors will pay careful attention to their needs. This should tip the scales so that editors will make coverage decisions based not just on experts and officials but also on feedback from members, thus adding a bottom-up flavor.
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. These, like food co-ops, news co-ops, electric co-ops and others owned by their end users, fall into the category of consumer co-ops.
The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives offers a fine 30-minute video webinar on co-op basics, called Cooperatives 101.
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. Cooperatives are, research shows, the most trustworthy form of business ownership. This is because a co-op’s voting members constitute the authority that determines its direction: The board, executive director and editor are accountable to their members, which is to say their community.
A strong revenue stream — annual membership fees — that has long been tapped by reader-owned cooperative newspapers in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Mexico; thanks 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.
An amplifier for civic networking: The trustworthiness of the co-op structure will remove significant friction from the digital public squares that, nourished by news co-ops’ journalism, will form in Banyan-supplied publishing and civic engagement 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 publisher. 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.
Self-suffuciency. The Banyan model of news co-ops is designed to be not only self-sustaining but also largely self-capitalizing when starting up, thanks to lessons learned from the long-proven start-up approach of new food co-ops. Initial capital comes from aggregating the modest co-op membership payments from founding members. This generates hope that news co-ops can form in communities that have become news deserts after their newspapers died and digital sites that require investors or philanthropy have not found a way to take root.
A new news co-op’s central task is to attract a critical mass of founding members through an organizing committee’s volunteer efforts, incentive grants, and a professional co-op organizer.
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.
Banyan expects affiliated co-ops to test several membership price points and payment options. It recommends a basic membership costing $60 a year, which 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.
So that all in the community can be active members in news co-ops, no-cost scholarships are available to people who qualify for means-tested benefits such as food stamps.
How Automated Membership Marketing Works
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 otherwise engage in the site, the software will respond in a minimally intrusive way that kicks off a powerful marketing mechanism: A popup will welcome this new person, ask for the reader’s email address, and then open the door to digital engagement.
The system will immediately send the new user an email that explains the site as a news co-op that supports the community and its people — and offers the option of enrolling as a paid full member immediately or as a provisional member with full benefits for up to 90 days at no cost.
For those who choose to be provisional members, the software will deliver automated requests to become paid members that proceed through several steps as the reader’s activity evolves.
The more deeply engaged readers become, the likelier they are to become members. Drawing readers into deep engagement is a double success: It better achieves Banyan’s goal of strengthening communities and 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 paying continuing annual fees, an irresistible idea.
List of 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 to their lives, respectful of them as people and worthy of their trust. 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 doings but also asks for news suggestions and collaborations as well as their opinions and guidance about improvements in the site.
Civic potential: A sense of belonging and power from using the digital public square in the Banyan-supplied publishing platform — the tools facilitate working with others to advance issues that matter to them and thus to contribute to their community. Even members who rarely or never engage can benefit from knowing their support enables this community engagement to thrive.
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 reputation 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.
Voting membership: News co-ops offer members a rare opportunity to own a chunk, albeit small, of a vital community institution; 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 community and the lives of its people.
Profit distribution: Each member of a news co-op 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.)
Discounts: Banyan will encourage affiliated news co-ops to establish relationships with trustworthy local merchants who are willing to offer discounts to co-op members. Ideally, public-facing businesses will become business members of co-ops in exchange for listing pages, advertsing rate card discounts, and other benefits.
Banyan will always be on the lookout for other benefits that news co-ops its supports can offer.