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Banyan Project planning its first community-owned news co-op

Tom Stites and others are betting that a news site owned by community members can be sustainable, and they’re starting in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Ownership matters.

It matters in New Orleans, where Advance Publications is cutting The Times-Picayune’s print edition from seven days a week to three — and gutting the staff — despite earning a profit and paying bonuses in 2010 and 2011.

It matters in Chicago, where Tribune Company — which may soon emerge from bankruptcy — got rid of its hyperlocal reporters at the Chicago Tribune and replaced them with Journatic, which outsources coverage, in some cases to the Philippines, and which until recently used fake bylines on some of its stories.

And it matters in the Boston area, where GateHouse Media — the national chain that owns more than 100 community newspapers here — is preparing to unveil a centralized in-house content farm whose work could eventually find its way into eastern Massachusetts.

Newspapers, the source of most local journalism, are weighed down by chain ownership and corporate debt. Independent online news sites are a promising alternative. But for-profit sites like The Batavian and Baristanet are too small to provide the full range of community journalism that was typical a generation or two ago. And larger nonprofits like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are rare, in part because the IRS has put a hold on new ventures.

So what can be done? Later this year, a community news site based on an entirely different ownership model is scheduled to debut in Haverhill, Mass., a blue-collar city of 60,000 about 45 minutes north of Boston on the New Hampshire line. The site, to be called Haverhill Matters, will be cooperatively owned, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. Neither for-profit nor nonprofit, the site, if it is to succeed, will depend on the goodwill and support of its members. And it is designed to be easily replicated in other cities and regions.

“What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

Haverhill Matters will be the first visible manifestation of the Banyan Project, an idea that veteran journalist Tom Stites has been working on for several years. I recently met Stites, whose long resume includes editing stints at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and Mike LaBonte, who chaired the site’s local organizing committee, at a restaurant in Haverhill to discuss their plans. (LaBonte stepped aside a short time later, citing health issues and the pressures of a new job.)

It was something of a reunion. I’d written for Stites several times when he was editor of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s denominational magazine. I knew LaBonte through his volunteer work as an editor at NewsTrust, a social network that evaluates journalism for qualities such as fairness and sourcing; he’d led several workshops for my students.

What attracted Stites to the co-op model was his belief that newspaper executives, in their relentless pursuit of high-end advertising, had abandoned all but their most affluent readers. It’s a subject he has spoken and written about passionately, including at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst and in a series for the Lab last December.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters are aimed at serving “news deserts,” a term Stites consciously adopted from “food deserts” — that is, lower-income urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food restaurants proliferate. The idea is that a lack of fresh, relevant news can be as harmful to civic health as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be to personal health.

That all sounds good, but where will the money come from? Stites said that Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money, and advertising. I told him that sounded exactly the same as the model used by nonprofit sites such as the New Haven Independent. Stites responded by emphasizing the benefits of membership in a co-op.

So let me draw a few comparisons between the Banyan model and the Independent. Stites hopes to sign up some 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in a little more than $43,000 annually. The Independent asks for readers to pay $10 to $18 a month voluntarily; editor and founder Paul Bass told me he’s got about 100 voluntary subscribers paying a total of about $13,000 a year, which comes to less than 3 percent of his site’s $450,000 annual budget. Given that the Independent has been around for nearly seven years and serves a city twice the size of Haverhill, Stites’ goal is ambitious indeed. But there are differences in terms of the incentives.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters would be free, as is the Independent. But in order to participate on the Haverhill site using community tools that Stites promises will be unusually sophisticated, readers will be asked to pay — a request that would become a requirement after several months. The Independent, by contrast, does not assess any mandatory charges. In keeping with the cooperative model, paid-up Banyan members will elect a board, which will in turn select the full-time editor. Readers will also be able to become members by contributing labor rather than time — perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog that appears on the site. If it works, in other words, a Banyan site would foster a sense of ownership and participation that other models lack.

“This is different from a hyperlocal news site,” Stites told me. “This is a community institution owned by a widely distributed, large number of community members. It has to be owned by members of the community, and they’ve got to support or it doesn’t happen.”

The next few months will be crucial ones. Currently, Stites is trying to raise money for the launch with a pitch at Spot.us. He and the organizing committee are planning a community meeting in Haverhill this September. And if all goes according to plan, Haverhill Matters will go live by the end of the year.

Stites is planning to launch Haverhill Matters with two paid staff members: a full-time, professional editor with roots in the city and a “general manager” whose job would be to build a community around the site and to write. Beyond that, his ideas for covering the news are evolving. Journalism students from nearby Northern Essex Community College would be involved. High school interns might be put to work assembling a community calendar. In our conversation, it came across as amorphous but potentially interesting — worth watching, but with compelling, useful journalism by no means assured.

Strictly speaking, Haverhill is not entirely a news desert, but it comes pretty close. The nearest daily, The Eagle-Tribune, is based in North Andover and owned by CNHI, a national chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. The paper publishes a daily Haverhill edition and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But LaBonte told me that both were a far cry from the days when the Gazette was an independently owned daily paper.

“That was a thriving daily at one point,” LaBonte said. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

By early 2013, one of the answers to that question might be a start-up website called Haverhill Matters.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net. His book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, The Wired City, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2013.

Photo of Haverhill by Fletcher6 used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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