A Great Idea: Community Coops to Reinvent Local Journalism

The market has rendered its verdict on serious journalism:  it just ain’t profitable enough.  This is a serious bodyblow to democratic accountability because there are now fewer independent watchdogs over powerful institutions, which can carry out their work in semi-darkness confident that nosy reporters will not be exposing abuses and scandals to the light of day. 

So what is to be done?  I just participated in a interesting one-day conference aimed at exploring how librarians and journalists might collaborate to reinvent serious, community-oriented journalism.  The Beyond Books conference at M.I.T.’s Media Lab showcased a number of intriguing proposals and experiments, but one that caught my eye is the Banyan Project, which seeks to organize community coops as a new financial and institutional support for community journalism. 

Tom Stites of Newburyport, Massachusetts, is the moving force behind the idea.  One reason that newspapers are failing, Stites argues, is because they are geared to a dwindling sector of affluent readers and ignore the great middle of Americans whose earnings are between the third and seventh decile.  Readers didn’t abandon newspapers; newspapers abandoned them.  Stites believes that consumer-based coops could support “high-quality, Web-based journalism that serves less-than-affluent everyday citizens and engages the civic energy of this huge public.”

I think this is a terrific idea because it is doubtful that market forces are ever going to find serious journalism profitable enough to support, even in some notional Web-based incarnation such as hyper-local news combined with search-driven advertising.  In any case, most market-driven models will not address two core problems that afflicted the now-crumbling business models for journalism:  a structural bias toward serving the more affluent readers and an editorial conflict-of-interest between advertisers and readers.

Coop-based journalism is not entirely novel.  Stites notes that there are national coop newspapers in Germany and Mexico that started thirty years ago, and another in England that started 130 years ago.  There are also coop radio stations in Canada.  Interestingly, there are no journalism coops in the U.S. 

The kind of coops envisioned by the Banyan Project would differ from “listener-supported” public radio in that coop members would get an actual vote in hiring the board, which in turn hires the editor.  Readers of coop newspapers would in fact be the “owners” of the community journalism in a meaningful, functional sense. 

It is true that Web contents would be available to anyone, allowing “free riding” by those who choose not to pay membership dues.  In this sense, the Web-journalism coop would resemble donation-supported public radio stations.  But on the other hand, coop donors would be able to set policy and hire/fire staff:  a significant distinction.  And they could show their civic engagement and pride by supporting the coop.

Stites has brought together an impressive board of advisors for the Banyan Project, including senior journalists, academics, Web developers, sociologists and researchers, business and financial strategists.  Perhaps the most appealing idea of the project is its vision of a new type of “relational journalism.”  As the project’s website explains:

Software tools will invite reader/users to participate in the journalism by contributing many forms of information and feedback; this will enable Banyan editors to have unusually deep knowledge of their reader/users and to network with them to create news and features they find deeply relevant. Because Banyan will be a consumer co-operative, with shareholders strictly limited to reader/users, the editors -- gatekeepers -- will be directly accountable to tend their gates in ways that serve their reader/user/owners. Banyan will pioneer covering the news from the reader/users up, not from the experts and institutions down. The Web, and Banyan's visionary approach, makes this kind of relational journalism possible; in print newspapers, it is unthinkable.

The economics of the project make sense, too, because the coop model aims to capture the “affinity relations” of readers for the commons, rather than allow a corporation to privatize and monetize those online social relationships in the manner of Facebook or Google.  Here’s how Stites describes the Banyan Project’s value proposition:

1) integrity and trust have become vanishingly scarce in the U.S.; 2) people yearn for trustworthy information and institutions, whose scarcity gives them value; 3) this will generate demand for Banyan’s journalism and 4) make it possible to monetize Banyan's integrity the way that other intangible values, such as status, are routinely monetized. To ensure that its editors live out Banyan's value proposition, the venture will be structured to make them accountable to the reader/users who are its only owners.

I could imagine that a motivated community with a rich civic tradition could rise to the challenge of the Banyan Project.  Get your town’s credit union, public library, League of Women Voters, Boy and Girl Scouts and enlightened business leaders to rally behind the vision, and begin to raise funds for operating expenses if not an endowment. 

Unlike a business, a Web-journalism coop would not require huge overhead, advertising, printing presses or a large staff, particularly if citizen-journalists and bloggers from the community are invited to contribute content.  With a seasoned editor, community support, and a versatile Web platform that curates community information in new ways, the coop could invent a satisfying, homegrown genre that no outside corporation could begin to match.  Imagine, too, a federation of such commons-based journalism coops.

As it happens, a group in the Seattle area is attempting to pull together something similar.  The Puget Sound Civic Communications Commons is currently exploring the creation of a new Web hub called OurCommons, which would “support storytelling, resource exchange, news and appreciative conversations that nurture civic engagement and community resilience.” 

The CCC aspires to help grow the “connective tissue” for a healthy community by building a “common civic infrastructure” so that “all of us can see ourselves in a common context.”  It further explains that the CCC “would be a common civic space, growing from the many existing resources in neighborhoods, communities, the non-profit sector, government, and business. The commons will be built by many hands with widespread ownership and responsibility.”

Amidst all the focus on market-driven “solutions” to the journalism crisis – micropayments, Web paywalls, hyper-local corporate platforms – it’s refreshing to encounter some serious commons-based proposals like the Banyan Project and Puget Commons.  If you have any ideas or funds to contribute, get in touch with Tom Stites or the Puget Commons effort.  Here’s hoping that the organizing and mobilizing to get such ideas launched can succeed.  We need some new experimental prototypes, and soon!