The Banyan Project is pioneering a sustainable and replicable business model for Web journalism that serves the broad public of everyday citizens and engages their civic energy -- thus filling a gaping need of the U.S.'s troubled democracy.
Original reporting of news has been withering as newspapers have lost half their advertising revenue since 2006 and cut their staffs by a third. On top of that, the hope that citizen journalists and Web news sites would come to the rescue has proven spotty. As a result many communities, particularly less-than-affluent ones, have become news deserts. Without news as nourishment, civic engagement starves -- as does the informed electorate that’s so crucial to democracy.
Banyan presents a much-needed remedy: a self-sustaining model that rests on the sturdy foundation of cooperative ownership. Readers will own Banyan sites the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions -- which have shown how well co-ops can spread from community to community, coast to coast.
The news co-ops will be community-strengthening institutions that can thrive in local news deserts, filling civic voids with original news and features. Bottom-up reader ownership -- each member will have a vote in electing the board that hires the editor -- ensures that the editors will deliver reliable information that the community’s people need to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Further, Banyan's distinctive publishing software will amplify the power of the journalism by offering readers digital civic networking tools to organize for constructive community change.
Banyan, which is incorporated as a Massachusetts nonprofit, is the invention of 27 senior journalists, business and financial strategists, researchers, and advocates for strengthening democracy brought together by Tom Stites, the journalist and entrepreneur who founded the project and leads it. The nonprofit's mission is to seed news co-ops, support their development, and offer them turnkey licenses for its powerful software and other services.
After three years of development -- including Stites's shaping the business plan as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard -- a committee of civic leaders in Haverhill, Mass., is hard at work organizing co-op No. 1. The National Cooperative Business Association, seeing promise in the Banyan model, is supplying a crackerjack co-op development consultant to guide the committee’s research and organization efforts. Market research is returning encouraging results: 57% of respondents in this middle-income city of 60,879 say they’d spend as much as or more than they do now to get better community journalism.
In parallel, the Banyan nonprofit, working with a Web developer with expertise in building online communities, is creating software that will be more powerful than any single co-op could expect to build on its own – especially its civic-engagement tools. The software represents the primary need for capital. Fittingly, Spot.us's tax-deductible crowdfunding is the most democratic approach to raise it.
The urgency of our democracy’s predicament was highlighted by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy:
"The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance. But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. . . . How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities."
Banyan’s model strengthens democracy three ways: 1) broadening the informed public; 2) strengthening civic engagement, and 3) offering hands-on direct democracy to members of news co-ops that, like all co-ops, are governed on a one-member-one vote basis.
For details of the Banyan business model, see BanyanProject.com.
And here's a bio of Banyan founder Tom Stites.