Tagged: Nieman

A news cooperative as a potential business model? Great idea to explore!

If you get a chance, you should check out Tom Stitesthree-part series on the problem of financial sustainability for community news sites at Nieman Journalism Lab.

The series laments the continual business model failure for journalism, including non-profits AND profits and calls the result of that slump a burgeoning “news desert” for towns and cities across America. (FYI: He credits an essay in In These Times with birthing the term.) Stites lays out an idea for the cooperative model of journalism, either worker-owned or reader-owned, as a potential financial structure for news organizations. The idea is fresh one for a profession in dire need for something fresh. It deserves some attention.

And check out what he says about the project he is leading in Haverhill, MA (which incidentally, is right next door to where I grew up and so I know very well the scope of the “news desert” there):

The Banyan Project, which I lead, is building a reader-owned co-op model that’s designed to scale massively, the way depositor-owned credit unions and shopper-owned food co-ops have scaled community by community, coast to coast. Banyan has chosen Haverhill, Massachusetts — a middle-income city of 60,879 whose daily newspaper has devolved into an under-resourced weekly and whose radio station has shut down — as its pilot community. As a news desert, Haverhill has very little focused coverage of issues facing the community or of life-issue reporting that its people can use to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Presuming that the pilot thrives, Banyan envisions scaling with each added community site run by its own democratically run co-op with hundreds of local member/owners; a federation would provide the co-ops with turnkey licenses for sophisticated software and other centralized services.

Excellent project and I wish it well. I think we need to act fast in communities such as Haverhill. I fear that once people get out of the habit of consuming local news, it will be like getting out of the habit of exercise: that time hole becomes easily filled with other things and the notion of informing oneself about the local municipality becomes a quaint luxury. Inertia sets in and trying to retrain citizens means a learning curve (that right now might not yet exist).

(I do have one little nitpick though. As a former business reporter, I always get annoyed at statements like this from the third part of the series:

Few people know that co-ops are such a significant and healthy slice of our otherwise ailing economy — the U.S. government doesn’t keep statistics on them and, because co-ops are structured to build community wealth rather than investor wealth, business journalism largely ignores them.

Writing about cooperatives was a huge part of my daily writing, if only because it WAS about community wealth. From the cooperative dairy business in town (such as Cabot where I worked in Vermont) to the local co-op grocery store, we reported on these ventures if only because 1) they represented significant parts of those city economies, b) it was easy to get owners to comment on the business, c) it was easy to get permission for photos and other art, d) they tended to be fairly innovative compared to the corresponding chains and corporations, and d) they ALWAYS provided great color! Just saying.)