Our Response: New Resources, New Model

 

As newspapers wither and die, democracy cries out for journalism to be rescued. Banyan is responding with a robust new model for independent community news that’s strategically designed to thrive in the digital future — and to do its part in ensuring  the informed electorate without which our democratic republic is lost.

Democracy’s deep need is new models that deliver on four strategic objectives.  They must 1) provide professionally edited and trustworthy community news coverage;       2) sustain themselves financially; 3) invite and empower civic engagement and community spirit, and 4) be easily replicable, community by community, coast to coast.

Almost all digital news efforts to date have taken tactical approaches to strengthening existing models transferred to the web from the disappearing age of print; after a decade of effort, some people have concluded that there’s no way to meet all four objectives — and, alarmingly, newspapers are dying far faster than digital community news efforts on existing models are taking root.

But Banyan has developed a strong new approach that does deliver on all four goals — and we are committed to proactively seeding independent news sites on this model, which is designed so that affiliated sites are grassroots institutions with a mission to fulfill their community’s needs for original reporting and vetted information. 

What’s most novel about Banyan’s model is that it’s built on the sturdy foundation of consumer cooperative ownership, along the model of food co-ops, credit unions and long-established reader-owned newspapers in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Mexico.  

Our model draws it’s strength from:

Solid revenue: Annual co-op membership fees provide a strong new revenue stream for Banyan-model community news co-ops, as they have long fueled the co-op newspapers in Europe and Mexico.  The fees are an annual all-you-can-eat version of the money that food co-op members spend in co-op stores shopping for food.  Added to a continuing but modest stream of advertising revenue, plus proceeds from grants and crowdfunding, the membership fees make it possible to pay the staff and other expenses.

Inherent trustworthiness: Co-ops’ customers and member/owners are the same people, which makes co-ops the most trusted form of business ownership.  In this era of fake news, disinformation, and social media manipulation, trust is a scarce resource that attracts readers and inspires them to put value co-op membership. So Banyan has leveraged in designing its model to maximize trust and thus invite freely shared collaboration among readers to amplify the power of a co-op’s journalism, leverage the productivity of a co-op’s staff, and strengthen civic engagement.

Association synergy:  The Banyan Project itself has a national focus and a simple, proactive mission: to seed independent community news co-ops on the model it has created, then support them with quality services to help them succeed. At the heart of these services is a distinctive publishing platform that is far more robust than local sites can be expected to create for themselves.  It is designed to maximize the time local co-op staffs have for covering the news by minimizing IT effort and automating important aspects of cultivation, enrollment and renewal of co-op memberships. Further, Banyan-affiliated sites’ editors and the executive directors strengthen one another by sharing best practices in moderated professional learning communities.

Volunteer energy:  Web-era peer networks have unleashed vast amounts of freely shared collaboration, but only in trustworthy spaces. Think Wikipedia and certain open source software projects, such as Linux. Banyan’s publishing platform is designed to safeguard trustworthiness and encourage similar collaboration in a local civic context by inviting readers into issue forums to engage with other readers to work for constructive community change.  

There is no exotic new invention here. Banyan merely synthesizes disparate but proven resources in the service of community web journalism and civic engagement. The synthesis makes it possible for independent news co-ops using Banyan’s model to draw from the sources of revenue detailed below, and thus to thrive even in news desert communities that lack the advertising dollars to support dying newspapers or, for that matter, web news sites that rely primarily on advertising revenue.

The consumer cooperative form is the bedrock for Banyan’s model. We chose this base not only for its inherent trustworthiness but also for its strength and stability in economic settings too arid to support for-profit models; this has proven true for a long list of industries the world over.

In fact, people rarely come together to shoulder the voluntary work of forming a co-op except in response to the market failing to deliver something needed. For example, the number of credit unions exploded during the Great Depression when banks failed and credit dried up.

The Banyan Project is a response to a similar drying-up, that of reliable news and information in an ever-expanding number of communities.

The co-op form figures in all four of the main revenue streams the model draws from:

Annual co-op membership payments. Long a staple of European co-op newspapers, this stream has yet to be tapped in the U.S.

Advertising. To help local advertisers adhere to the news co-op as a community institution, the model includes a special business-sponsor category of co-op membership; for an annual fee these members receive a business directory listing, an advertising discount and other benefits.

Crowdfunding of major reporting projects. Co-ops’ trustworthiness makes them ideal for cultivating crowdfunding, which is peer networking monetized.

Grants. Because co-ops are by law oriented toward service to members rather than profits to investors, news co-ops will be able to seek grant funding for special projects or to ensure coverage of specific issues, such as the environment. Such grants will likely be sporadic and most will flow through a fiscal sponsor.

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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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