by Payton Bruni
More than ten years ago, Tom Stites was inspired to start a journalism-strengthening initiative that evolved into the Banyan Project. The project went on to develop a business model for community-scale online news co-ops that are designed to thrive in news deserts. Banyan is now setting out to proactively seed news co-ops throughout the U.S. and to provide them with quality support services so they succeed. Banyan-model news co-ops, in a similar fashion to food co-ops, strive to serve their members by offering reader benefits and activating engaged communication with their communities. Banyan is currently working with community leaders to launch a pilot news co-op in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Once enough funding has been accrued, Banyan plans to launch 20 news co-ops across the U.S. over a three-year period.
Project Goals: Stites said Banyan’s mission is to supply the energy and resources news co-ops need to get started and thrive in news desert communities from coast to coast. “I just want journalism to be strong and play the crucial role it plays in our democracy,” said Stites.
Tools and Technology: Banyan structures its publishing platform through the Largo WordPress theme and uses the commercial program NationBuilder for membership tracking and database management. It has also developed, as part of the platform, an array of digital tools that draw readers into civic engagement with one another and others that invite them to collaborate in the news process. News co-ops that affiliate with Banyan will use this platform and receive a multitude of other resources.
Impact: Stites said the Banyan Project’s major impact at this early stage lies with 28 communities across the United States that suffer from inadequate coverage and have expressed interest in seeding a Banyan-model co-op. “It’s not a secret but there has been no push (to advertise), so to get 28 different communities saying ‘Hey we want to do this’ is kind of astonishing to me,” said Stites, who added that some of the communities are rural news deserts. “To be able to find a way to bring a community together around what’s happening in rural places is a very appealing idea.” Stites said he is working with allies, including Bates College, on plans to launch six rural co-ops throughout the state of Maine.
Organization Background: Banyan is a nonprofit organization that primarily operates on grant funding and donations, but aims to sustain itself through fees for services supplied to affiliated news co-ops. Banyan is seeking to build $3.7 million in funding in order to achieve its goal of launching 20 news co-ops over a three-year period. News co-ops around the country that affiliate with Banyan will each be independently incorporated community organizations that turn to Banyan for services, including its sophisticated publishing platform.
Project Resources: The Banyan Project is supported by 31 advisors and a corporate board of seven directors, including Stites, who serves as chair. Between individual donations and grant funding, including an Innovation Fund Grant through the Knight Foundation and The Institute for Nonprofit News, Banyan has received over $60,000 for building up the project and its resources.
Here’s how it happened
Roughly ten years ago, the idea for the Banyan Project began as a conversation among Stites and friends concerned about the future of journalism. “When this started the newspaper model had not yet fallen off the cliff, but it was headed to the cliff because the readership was falling pretty drastically,” Stites said. With the goal of preserving journalism driving them forward, Stites and his colleagues began brainstorming ideas to help the industry in any way they could. This led to a value proposition. “I got to thinking, ‘Well, what if we wanted to do a value proposition that actually made people want to rush toward your journalism rather than fade away from it?’” The answer ended up being Banyan’s core: “to provide journalism that readers will experience as relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust.” The search for ways to fulfill this value proposition led to the model that Banyan is now pioneering.
Here’s what worked
1. Aiming big
Banyan’s ambitious goals have attracted followers and funders as well as the community leaders in Massachusetts who are at work organizing Banyan’s pilot co-op. Stites said that as the industry of journalism declined and news deserts spread, the need for a self-sustaining and easily replicated new business model became more vivid, and it was for this reason that he decided to take on such a large-scale project as Banyan.
Taking things one step at a time
With Banyan it has been important to handle different aspects of the project in pieces. Building the business model, acquiring project funding, creating a website platform, and everything else tied to the large-scale project has required a significant amount of time and energy to accomplish. “This is a slow process, but it is a powerful process,” said Stites.
3. Laying foundations on a solid base
Stites said Banyan has been successful to this point due to the core strength of its model, which introduces a new revenue stream to local co-ops from the modest annual fees paid by members. This power is amplified by the fact that relationships with each co-op’s most important stakeholders – its reader/member/owners – are baked into the model’s foundation. Further, Banyan’s proactive seeding and support for news co-ops is designed to keep the failure rate far lower than the rate that has plagued existing for-profit and nonprofit community news efforts. As the process has learned its way forward, Stites said, the business model has been “getting stronger and stronger.”
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Spending more time on fundraising
Stites explained that one of the biggest hurdles he had to face was learning where to look for funding and where not to look. He said, “If I would have put more energy into raising money and learned some of my lessons about it sooner, we would be lots farther along.”
2. More staff and more volunteers
A committed team has been crucial to the success of the Banyan Project, but even more project members could have moved things along faster. “We learned that we can’t just do this with volunteer energy, that it requires a professional organizer’s help,” said Stites.
3. Taking care of legalities
Given that news co-ops aren’t exactly common in the U.S., it was a challenge for Banyan to sort out some parts of the organization. Stites said, “It took two years finding a pro-bono lawyer who would finally incorporate us, because no one has ever written bylaws for a news co-op before.”
Here’s what else you should know
- Early recognition: In 2010 We Media awarded Stites and the Banyan Project with the Game Changer award for inspiring a better world and leading change through media.
- Feasibility of news co-ops: Banyan foresees that a “bare-bones” news co-op will likely only require two full-time staff members, an executive director and an editor, plus a generous freelance budget.
- Pilot in Progress: Banyan’s pilot news co-op is underway and picking up steam. The Haverhill co-op website is still under construction but can be found here. Banyan says future co-ops will ideally follow a similar naming scheme for their news websites (“Oshkosh.Matters.coop” for example).