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Jan. 16, 2014, 10 a.m.
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Will 2014 be the year the Banyan Project finally takes flight?

The idea of a news cooperative — owned by the community it covers — is closer to getting a real-world test in Massachusetts.

Having overcome a series of logistical obstacles, Haverhill Matters, the Banyan Project’s long-delayed demonstration site, appears to be on track to launch sometime in 2014. Banyan’s founder, veteran journalist Tom Stites, hopes the pilot will foster the rise of local news organizations that would be cooperatively owned and managed, similar to food co-ops and credit unions.

“We enter 2014 with some momentum. We’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to build it. We’ve been picking away at this thing for a couple of years,” Stites said at an organizational meeting on Tuesday evening. “This is the kickoff, right now here tonight, of the pivotal year. If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”

For some years now, Stites, who’s worked as an editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune among other places, has talked about fostering news co-ops in so-called news deserts: communities underserved by traditional media. (Here’s a story I wrote for the Lab about Banyan’s Haverhill plans in 2012, and here’s a followup I wrote last May.)

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston, is covered by a corporate daily and an affiliated weekly, both of which are headquartered in nearby North Andover. The city is also home to an online radio station currently seeking a low-power FM license and a robust community television operation, both of which will partner with Haverhill Matters.

Since last spring, a committee of local volunteers has been working to get Haverhill Matters off the ground. At Tuesday’s meeting, held on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex Community College, Stites and seven committee members agreed on a rough timetable:

  • By next month, the Haverhill Matters website will go live with a message to the community in an attempt to generate interest and paying members.
  • By late March, committee members will have recruited 30 people to become founding members (at $250 a piece).
  • Those 30 founding members will, in turn, recruit another 170 founding members (for a total of 200) to provide Haverhill Matters with an initial budget of $50,000.
  • Once the money is in place, an organizer will be hired to get the site up and running.

Reaching the $50,000 threshold will trigger something else as well — the site’s first journalism project. Stites proposes asking the co-op’s members for ideas about a significant piece of enterprise reporting. Those ideas will be put up for a vote, and a freelance journalist will undertake the winning assignment, all the while soliciting the community for suggestions, documents, and the like.

The goal, Stites said, is to use the crowdsourced reporting project to generate more interest in the project. Anyone will be able to read Haverhill Matters for free. But in order to post comments and take part in the site’s online community, people will have to become members — either by paying $36 a year for an individual membership or, as with a food co-op, contributing labor. But rather than bagging groceries, a Haverhill Matters member might write a neighborhood blog.

Fully staffed, the site would have a full-time editor, a full-time general manager who would also be engaged in the journalistic side and a part-time office manager who could also offer technical support.

The process laid out Tuesday was a somewhat convoluted one, which brought some sharp observations from Amy Callahan, an English professor who runs the journalism/communications program at Northern Essex. Her basic question: Why not start a small, minimally funded news site as soon as possible and give it a chance to grow over time? Why wait until $50,000 is in the bank?

Callahan’s questions were good ones. But having watched the process unfold since last April, I’ve come to see that launching a co-op is not a simple matter. There are numerous rules and regulations that must be followed in order to make sure that it’s viable and run by the members. Starting a nonprofit or for-profit news site is simple by comparison.

I can also understand the need to hire and pay a full-time organizer. “I’d love to believe it could be done more incrementally,” said committee co-chair Mike LaBonte. But the site needs a paid organizer, he added, “because we’ve been doing this with the spare time we don’t have.”

If Haverhill Matters succeeds, Stites hopes it will lead to news co-ops around the country. The Banyan Project, a nonprofit1, would sell these nascent co-ops software and advice, which Stites believes would make it easier for local organizers. Haverhill Matters would not be the first news co-op (that distinction belongs to a site in Hawaii), though its status as the pilot for a more ambitious project makes it notable.

There’s no question that innovative approaches to providing local news are needed. Newspapers continue to struggle. AOL wiped Patch off its books Wednesday, spinning it off and handing majority control to an outside investment firm. And though there are a number of independent local news sites, there’s a ceiling on how many are feasible: Few people possess the necessary combination of journalistic skills, technological acumen, and entrepreneurial ambition to run one successfully.

Banyan promises something different — community news produced by a community-owned news organization. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on Haverhill in 2014.

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 dankennedy.net. His most recent book, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), tracks the rise of online community news projects.

Photo of banyan tree by Jeff Stvan used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. This post originally said incorrectly that Banyan is a for-profit.
POSTED     Jan. 16, 2014, 10 a.m.
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