Starting a News Co-op 

This may not be obvious, but civic energy provides the startup capital for news co-ops.  So starting one is an adventure quite different from starting other businesses or even nonprofits.  Instead of finding a few investors or funders to support your venture, starting a news co-op means using community organizing techniques to stir civic energy that inspires hundreds of founding members to enroll and make membership payments that, added together, provide the co-op’s initial capital.

The founding members’ payments are tangible dollars.  But their motivation for making the payments is the founding members’ hope that bringing robust and trustworthy news and information to the entire community will activate informed civic engagement that leads to a better place to live.

This kind of community organizing is the way almost every food co-op has been founded, and it fits news co-ops as well.  Co-op organizers expert at this kind of effort are available, so if you are new to starting co-ops, as most of us are, you can hire the needed expertise.

Robust and trustworthy reporting and information, available for free on the web for all to read, is the obvious product of a news co-op.  Less-obvious yet most fundamental is an increase in civic energy the reporting and information nourishes.  This leads to membership growth and engagement — quality news reporting attracts readers and inspires a healthy fraction of them to enroll as paying members so they can keep this important civic institution flourishing. 

There are two basic ways to start a community news co-op:  1) launching from scratch and      2) converting an existing for-profit or nonprofit news organization to co-op ownership.  Both are exercises in community organizing and require volunteer as well as and leadership energy.  In hundreds of communities around the U.S. that are most in need — news deserts where all original news coverage has died — launching from scratch is the only option. 

Co-ops are businesses without equity investors, so organizers need to sign up a large number of founding members to gather the funds needed to start news coverage.  Organizers will need to raise modest grant money in addition to the many small payments from founding members: Some funding is needed to cover pre-launch expenses.  And, if more money can be raised, it can be used as a matching grant to accelerate enrollment of founders and hasten the launch date.

However your news co-op starts, the organizing must never stop — the more energy coursing though the Banyan model the more members (and thus revenue) it will attract; the more the members are stirred to engagement, the more energy will be generated.  This is a virtuous circle, and keeping it energized is crucial management duty not common in the news business.

Co-ops take many forms but, by law, all are governed democratically on a one-member/one-vote basis; typically, co-op members vote to elect directors, who then hire the management. The Banyan model is a consumer cooperative, whose governing members are its end users. So news co-ops are governed by the votes of reader/members; widely known types of consumer co-ops are food co-ops, which are governed by the votes of shopper-members, and credit unions, which are governed by the votes of their depositor-members. By law, co-ops are oriented toward service rather than investment return.

The International Co-operative Alliance has established these seven Co-op Principles.  Note that the Sixth Principle is that cooperatives help other cooperatives.  So local credit unions or food co-ops, or perhaps an electric co-op in wide areas of the country, would be natural allies as you organize to launch.

If you’d like to explore the approach to launching a news co-op, explore this page.  And if you’re interested in exploring ways to start a news co-op and affiliate with Banyan, or otherwise getting involved, please contact us. 

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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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