The publishing platform that the nonprofit Banyan Project Inc. has developed for affiliated community-level news co-ops is tailored to Banyan’s multifaceted model — and it is far more robust than community-level news efforts can be expected to develop for themselves.
The platform’s foundation melds two powerful off-the-shelf software applications, and Banyan amplifies their impact with distinctive digital tools it developed. The platform’s public face is Largo, an open-source WordPress framework created and managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News and in use by more than 200 news sites in the U.S. and abroad. The platform’s back end is NationBuilder, a database integrated with an array of digital tools that’s popular with political, labor and cooperative organizers. Banyan’s hybrid platform was developed with $35,000 in Knight Foundation funding received when INN selected Banyan as an Innovation Fund Grant winner. Banyan’s digital tools are open source and available at no cost to any news site that can make use of them, whether they affiliate with Banyan or not.
The platform includes six crucial components, some of which arise from the tools Banyan is developing, some from Largo, and some from NationBuilder:
- CMS/Publishing: The platform brings together news, features and other information — text, still photography, audio, video and data display — into a seamless news presentation. In Banyan’s model, affiliated co-ops offer readers a variety of ways to read a co-op’s journalism in addition to going directly to its home page, with options from once-daily emails of headlines to RSS to email alerts.
- Collaborative Journalism: Easy-to-use collaborative journalism tools are crucial to co-ops’ success. They offer readers an array of possible responses: 1) click a box to say whether the story was helpful; 2) send the editors a direct message with suggestions, corrections or information for further stories, 3) post a comment about the story; 4) join an issue forum on the topic that the story advances, if only to read what others are saying; 5) invite other people to the issue forum; 6) start a discussion group if none on the issue exists; or 7) submit an article, images, audio or video for publication. These tools, along with analytics, are designed to provide a high volume of reliable and useful feedback to editors of affiliated news co-ops. The software also offers readers a chance to flag stories as offensive to the Banyan value proposition of relevance, respect and trustworthiness.
- Civic networking: The issue forums serve as a welcoming “public square” for people to come together in community, to learn from each other and other resources, and to use bottom-up web tools to harness the power of networking to organize in pursuit of constructive community change. The tools are designed to ensure 1) easy access by less-than-expert Web users and 2) a welcoming space in keeping with the value proposition of respect and trustworthiness. In addition, the platform opens community space for each school and other public community organizations. It also offers space for, or links to sites for, freecycling, resource swaps, time banks, and other activities through which people help each other to enrich their community.
- Viral Tools: Every page offers readers an array of easy ways to invite others to read an article or to invite them to join an issue forum discussion or otherwise engage. Such “viral” tools are built to engage news co-ops’ audiences in a trustworthy way — many new readers will arrive because someone they know has invited them.
- Back office: The platform includes a reader/membership database with a reputation-tracking algorithm that, among other things, alerts the editors to the members who add the most value to the site. It processes online membership payments and renewals, create reports for each affiliated site, and allows Banyan to analyze data from all affiliated sites to determine norms and to pinpoint successful practices that can be shared with all affiliates.
- Membership marketing: The software uses nearly frictionless techniques to help readers understand the value their news co-op’s community brings to their lives — and to make it painless for them to act on their understanding by signing on as paying members. It tracks and analyzes reader behavior to detect signals that the time is ripe to make special membership offers, and automates offer-presentation accordingly. Further, it helps enrich membership relationships in ways that maximize renewals.