Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
As local news outlets shift to subscription, they wonder: What should Facebook’s role be?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Jan. 27, 2020, 8 a.m.

Can perennial hopes for local news co-ops ever turn into reality?

One of the most prominent attempts, in Haverhill, Mass., is shutting down before ever launching. But its chief booster keeps hope alive.

After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.

The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.

A former top editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the founder of several print and online publications, Stites hasn’t yet given up on his idea. But he admits that he’s frustrated by the lack of interest from prospective funders.

“I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business,” he says, “knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them.”

I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch Haverhill Matters from the beginning, writing about it in my 2013 book on new forms of online community journalism, The Wired City, and over the years for Nieman Lab and for my blog, Media Nation. (Click here for a complete index of my Banyan coverage.)

I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media. A few communities here and there are trying the concept out, from Mendocino, California, to Boston and Cambridge, to rural Maine.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.

Dan Kennedy: The volunteers who were trying to launch the Banyan Project test site, Haverhill Matters, recently announced that they was shutting down after nearly a decade. You chose Haverhill as a promising community to try out your idea of a community news co-op, something that could be widely replicated if it proved successful. Why do you think the site never got off the ground?

Tom Stites: Lack of fundraising success was the killer. Adding to the difficulty was a challenge that comes with all new business models: Not only must the intrepid leaders of the pilot effort launch a new venture, which is hard and risky under the best of circumstances, but at the same time they must also wrestle with the never-before-tested learning curves that inevitably bedevil new models the first time out.

I hasten to confess that fundraising was not Haverhill Matters’ responsibility but rather mine, as president of the Banyan Project, which is pioneering a model built on the sturdy base of consumer co-op ownership. Banyan is about strengthening our battered democracy by strengthening journalism and, ultimately, by widening and deepening the informed electorate. Our approach is to seed local news co-ops like Haverhill’s, then support them with professional services to help ensure their success. So raising money to help seed and support Haverhill Matters was very much Banyan’s charge.

You might say that Haverhill Matters slowly bled to death as momentum drained away. We got off to a gloriously fast start with support from the National Cooperative Business Association, but then illnesses took two crucial leaders out of action, one after the other. We lost months. Then we lost more months because it took me so long to raise the modest funding needed to develop custom digital tools for a publishing platform tailored to making our new model thrive.

Then, when it came time to incorporate Haverhill Matters as the first reader-owned news co-op in the United States, we could find no model bylaws we could adapt to our needs. If we’d had money in the bank we’d have just hired a lawyer. But we didn’t, so we went looking for pro bono help. The first volunteer lawyer faded away without writing a word. So did the second. The third did a beautiful job. But we lost more months — and still more momentum. And then came the day when there was so little energy left that Haverhill Matters, with no funding in sight, threw in the towel.

I can’t help but think that if funding had come through at the right time Haverhill Matters would have been up and publishing for at least a couple of years by now.

I approached 32 foundations in pursuit of multiyear funding so that Banyan could staff up and, starting with Haverhill, launch at least 20 news co-ops in three years. While many funder doors never opened even a crack, others opened wide and resulted in serious conversations. None of the foundations ever said they found Banyan’s business plan wanting, and none ever asked me to negotiate a less ambitious roll-out. Most were just uninterested.

I’ll never be able to thank the Haverhill team enough. These volunteers are smart, experienced, respected, civically engaged people who remain devoted to the idea that their city needs way more and deeper news coverage than its very modest existing news resources can deliver.

Kennedy: There are hundreds of examples across the country of interesting, innovative projects covering community news, both for-profit and nonprofit, even though there aren’t enough of them to offset the decline of local newspapers. There’s even one in Haverhill — WHAV, a nonprofit news-oriented radio station. What advantages do you think a co-op would have that more traditional forms of ownership lack?

Stites: Many operating news sites are indeed interesting ventures that are innovative and civically useful when viewed in the context of their communities. I know some of their proprietors, and I admire and cheer them on. That said, Banyan’s model is designed to significantly raise the bar on community participation and civic engagement.

First, let’s think nationally — and rationally — about disappearing news coverage as a grave wound to our already battered democracy.

Research at the University of North Carolina funded by the Knight Foundation shows that about 15 percent of all U.S. communities that had their own newspapers in 2004 now have no news coverage whatsoever, either in print or digitally. Think about that — in 15 years at least 1,300 U.S. communities have become news deserts.

Existing digital news models are taking root way slower than newspapers are dying, which means that news desert communities are spreading fast. Democracy can’t be brought back to health without an informed electorate, and how can people living in a news desert be informed about their community’s doings and get engaged?

This is an existential threat to democracy, and a passion to repel this threat is what fuels Banyan.

From this national perspective, the Banyan model’s biggest advantage is its proactive mission to seed news co-ops wherever there’s a need and community volunteers are devoted to leading the way. There are no such seeding efforts for nonprofit or for-profit sites, and waiting for local people with the right skills to come together and start their own sites isn’t resulting in very many of them.

Banyan would provide affiliated news co-ops with a high-quality tailored digital platform, IT support, membership-building expertise and other services to ensure that all co-ops have all the expertise they need even if it’s not present in their communities. The affiliated co-ops’ relationship with Banyan would be a lot like a franchise, except that Banyan would take a very modest fee for its services — and it wouldn’t dictate editorial approaches.

People in 33 communities from coast to coast, plus one in Paris and one in the Sudan, have inquired about Banyan helping to seed sites on its model; the most recent query arrived in my email this week from central Michigan. And this has happened even though we’ve made zero effort to attract inquiries — without funding, we don’t now have the resources to help them get going.

Three communities — Cambridge, Mass., Black Boston, and in rural Maine — have qualified leaders long poised to get going as soon as Banyan funding comes through. There’s likely no way to restore news coverage to all 1,300 news desert communities, but it’s a national emergency to find ways to start as soon as possible and move as fast as possible. Banyan is designed for exactly this, and it’s shovel-ready.

Kennedy: The news co-op idea depends on deep community participation. I think at one time we were all excited about the contributions that citizen journalists, as we used to call them, could make, but those hopes haven’t really panned out. Could news co-ops be a way to revive that idea?

Stites: News co-ops done right not only depend on deep community participation, they create it. Co-ops are little understood in the U.S. but they’re a powerful way to make businesses work, even in places where weak economies don’t support customary business forms.

So Banyan is strategically designed to be very different from existing community online news models, and its model rests on the bedrock of civic engagement. Banyan thinks of news co-ops as grassroots community institutions whose mission is to meet their community’s news and information needs and, at the same time, to broaden and deepen civic engagement and community health.

Our model is distinctive in that it’s designed not just to cover and deliver quality community news but also to deliver it in a way that both broadens and deepens civic engagement. No model has ever offered such depth of participation.

News is not so much an end product as it is civic nourishment, and the digital issue forums Banyan has developed as part of its publishing platform give readers ways to engage in community conversations about issues they care about.

At the heart of news co-op engagement is membership. News co-op members get pride of ownership in an institution whose mission is to fulfill their community’s news and information needs as a free community service; they get a small piece of equity and even get a vote in electing the co-op’s board, which hires the site’s editor and general manager. Can there be any deeper form of engagement than ownership? Or a more powerful ownership benefit for many than the civic possibility of a healthier community? Our model projects that each co-op will have hundreds if not thousands of members widely distributed in its community, depending on its population.

Banyan-model news co-ops will not only deliver quality local news coverage but also catalyze civic engagement through issue forums built into the publishing platform that Banyan has developed for affiliated news co-ops. The issue forums offer an easy way for people to engage in conversations about issues they care about — and maybe even find ways to make constructive community change.

Further, a news co-op’s members will receive an email every week that offers news of their co-op’s doings and asks for suggestions about what needs covering, feedback on stories published in the previous week, and, among other things, ideas for new questions of the week — another engagement-building tool.

Deeper reader engagement means deeper civic engagement. I love what I once heard Ben Berkowitz, founder and CEO of SeeClickFix, say: “Potholes are the gateway drug for civic engagement.” Bingo.

Kennedy: What have you learned since you first conceived of the Banyan Project that you wished you knew then? For instance, might it have helped move things along in Haverhill if you’d launched first and then started raising money so that people would have understood what they were giving to?

Stites: You bet. Think of how much easier it would be to organize news co-op No. 2 if its organizers could show prospective founding members a robust No. 1 as a guide to what their community would be getting. Many existing sites, both nonprofit and for-profit, are hanging on by their financial fingernails, and several have expressed interest in converting to co-op — that includes the query I got this week.

I have also worked with the Mendocino Voice, a California site that initially incorporated as a for-profit business and now is converting to co-op. If Banyan’s fundraising had been successful, there’s a good chance that Mendo Voice would already be affiliated with Banyan. But we don’t yet have the resources to do this, so I’ve given the Mendocino leaders a copy of Banyan’s comprehensive and meticulous business plan in the hope that it will make their lives easier by allowing them to adapt whatever they need as they do their planning. I’ve also given the plan to two other sites, one in the Pacific Northwest and one in the Midwest.

I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business, knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them. Oakland Local in California tops this list.

Kennedy: What’s next for Banyan?

Stites: I have one remaining active conversation with a prospective funder, which I hope will end with a yes. But this will likely take months.

I’ve tried all the funders I could find that might be interested in Banyan, and after more than a decade I’ve decided to call off the hunt for more — it can take a year to get a new funder conversation moving. This said, I’d be happy to talk with anyone who has funding ideas — or who is a funder I’ve failed to find that sees Banyan as appealing.

Meantime, I’m redirecting some of my energy to writings and public speaking aimed at bringing the stories of news deserts communities to life and showing the impact on their civic health. And I’ll be eager to be supportive of anyone else who’d be interested taking over the helm. Want to see the business plan? Just let me know.

Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a panelist on “Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on Boston’s WGBH-TV, and a columnist for WGBHNews.org. His most recent book is The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.

Map of Haverhill, Mass., from 1876 via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

POSTED     Jan. 27, 2020, 8 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
As local news outlets shift to subscription, they wonder: What should Facebook’s role be?
“Look, I know you got that Facebook comment, but it’s the vocal minority. There’s a silent majority who are actually paying for our work.”
The new folks in town are an untapped audience for local news (even if they don’t stay forever)
“I started to recognize the value of local news as a journalist, yet spent no time on it as a local resident of Washington, D.C.”
Nonprofit news organizations are becoming more diverse, but they still lag behind the communities they cover
More than half of all nonprofit outlets have either no people of color or “only a small percentage” within their ranks. The vast majority — more than two-thirds — do not have a single person of color in leadership at the executive level.