A Hyperlocal Co-op Hopes to Bloom in Community ‘News Desert’

Share this:

Longtime print journalist Tom Stites (a former editor at the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, among other positions) says more and more communities are becoming a “news desert.” Failing, he says, are not only traditional local media – print and radio and TV – but even new digital sites, whether for-profit or nonprofit. To make this desert bloom, Stites formed his Web-based Banyan Project, whose model is the co-op, the economic and social structure for sizable minority chunks of the American power industry and  agriculture, as well as credit unions and housing developments, but very little in media. We asked Stites what his “third-way” media approach is all about.

First, what does “Banyan” mean?
To quote from our project website, “The banyan tree, like the World Wide Web, grows where and as far as fertile conditions take it, constrained only by its DNA. The metaphor has served wonderfully as a constant reminder that Banyan’s business model must fit with the Web’s DNA; any mismatch would constrain growth. But Banyan is not the best name for the service the project conceived. We plan to operate community co-op sites under the YourTown.Matters.co-op naming scheme, e.g., Haverhill.Matters.coop.

What’s the company’s mission?
It is social, focused on the needs of the democracy that makes our republic a republic. I’m hoping to see a proliferation of digital-era community-level models that 1) have the resources to do the original reporting a community needs; 2) sustain themselves as businesses, and 3) are easily replicable from community to community in the way that newspapers, community radio stations and city magazines were replicable from community to community in the era that’s now withering.

If shoring up newspapers is Plan A and digital efforts to date are Plan B, Banyan is Plan C.  But Banyan’s Plan C is still unproven, and even if it surpasses my wildest dreams it won’t be enough to replace all that’s been lost.  I think democracy demands not just a Plan C but a whole alphabet of plans, out to Z and maybe farther.

Explain why and how community news cooperatives, which exist virtually nowhere in the U.S., can succeed and make the news desert bloom.
Almost all co-ops arise in response to market failure.  If people can’t get something they need from the marketplace, or can’t get it at a fair price, one option is to band together to form a co-op and get it for them.

The Banyan model is based on the idea that people value reliable community news enough that, when their news sources dry up, they’ll band together to start institutions to deliver it to them again. From the Banyan experience in its pilot city, Haverhill, Mass., it’s very clear that many people will gladly pay annual co-op fees to make sure that their community has access to robust journalism.  What we don’t know yet is whether there are enough such people to ensure that Haverhill Matters — the name of the site — will become a sustainable institution. That’s what the pilot is testing.

Banyan’s mission is to seed news co-ops like Haverhill’s and then offer them turnkey packages of services, leading with high quality software that’s tailored for community co-ops. In short, Banyan-affiliated co-ops will be community institutions that are owned by a large number of widely dispersed residents and whose purpose is to fulfill the community’s needs for reliable information.

The Banyan model is based on the idea that people value reliable community news enough that, when their news sources dry up, they’ll band together to start institutions to deliver it to them again.

The Banyan model also looks to advertising as a revenue stream for its affiliated co-ops.  Other streams will include donations above the modest cost of co-op membership as well as grants and crowd-funding — all from the co-op’s community.

Why did you choose Haverhill, Mass., near Boston, to test your proposition?
I was looking for a community large enough that we could attract a critical mass of co-op members without achieving deep market penetration. Haverhill has 61,000 residents, with more than 20,000 English-speaking households.  It also has a proud history and a solid sense of itself.

Banyan’s mission is to serve the broad public, not just the affluent readers sought by metro newspapers as well as by Patch and some other Web-based news efforts. Haverhill has some wealth, and some poverty, but it’s mostly a middle-income city.

It’s been 14 years since Haverhill had its own daily newspaper, and its community radio station has also folded. It is served only by a weekly newspaper with one full-time reporter and by The Eagle-Tribune, a regional daily published in a nearby community.

What really sealed the deal in Haverhill was the enthusiastic welcome to the Banyan idea from a wide array of community leaders, many of whom are on the Haverhill Matters organizing committee.

When will you be launching Haverhill Matters?
The launch date is uncertain, but should be sometime in 2013.  I’m not comfortable being more specific because launching a co-op is a bear of a job. Members of the community co-op, who are volunteers, have to do the hard work of organizing it and raising the funds needed to get it going, and it’s hard to tell how long that will take, especially when it’s the first of its kind. W we expect a lot of learning-curve collisions.

I’m confident that we’ll have a simple website up and running before September is out — the designer and developer are at work and the money is in hand to pay them.  This will be Haverhill Matters’ first public face, a marketing and organizing tool that will tell people what’s coming and give them a place to sign up to be kept abreast of developments, to become charter members, and to donate.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

Image courtesy of Flickr user vice1.