Power of Co-ops

[See membership benefits, below]

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 modeland especially the strong membership revenue stream. News co-op members receive an array of benefits including a modest equity share and a vote in annual meetings. This is designed to deliver far more value to members than memberships in PBS, NPR and existing web-based news sites.  This should lead to deeper market penetration and more robust membership revenue.

Because of the extent of value that members receive, Banyan refers to its co-op memberships as “deep membership.”  News co-op membership also conveys 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’ needsin this case for news and engagement that strengthens their lives and communities. 

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 many communities are now experiencing with journalism.

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; 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 form of business ownership. This is because each co-op’s voting members constitute the authority that determines the co-op’s direction:  The board, executive director and editor are accountable to their members, which is to say their community.

A strong revenue streamannual membership feesthat has long been tapped by reader-owned cooperative newspapers in ItalyGermanySwitzerland 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. 

Attracting Member/Owners

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.  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.

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 an email that explains the site as a news co-op that supports the community and its peopleand offers an opportunity to enroll as a member immediately or to become a provisional member with full benefits for up to 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 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 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 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 platformthe 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 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.

Tangible benefits:

Voting membership: 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 community and the lives of its people.

Profit distribution: Each member of standard 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.)

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. 

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The Banyan Project is built on the thinking and experience of 32 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.

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