In an attempt to make web journalism sustainable and address the democratic deficit caused by the lack of local news coverage, American journalist Tom Stites has been working on developing a new model of community–owned journalism in the form of the Banyan Project.
A successful entrepreneur and well-established journalist, Mr Stites shaped the Banyan business plan while acting as the 2010-2011 fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
“Without news as nourishment, civic engagement starves — as does the informed electorate that’s so crucial to democracy at all levels,” said Mr Stites. “This feels bad for democracy is in local areas. There are many communities in the US that need these community based journalism co-operatives."
He further explained: “I have had to put a lot of energy into explaining the concept of co-operatives. These are essentially plan A — save the newspapers; plan B — swap to blogs, and either new forms will save the day. I have a plan C — co-operative journalism as a community institution. Community members would be well served with reliable information."
The first website of the Banyan project is due to launch in January next year. The Haverhill Matters website will be dedicated to covering news for the community of Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Mr Stites chose the Massachusetts city to put in practice the pilot project because he thought it was currently a "news desert community”.
“It’s a community of 61,000 people that has a very large population with very little journalism, a daily newspaper that circulates in 58 communities in a region that includes it and covers it, plus a weekly newspaper with one reporter only,” he said.
“When I showed up and started asking people if they were interested, they got it immediately. They understood that if the readers are members it would be really and truly a community of journalism; not something that is owned by someone else and called a co-op.“
Tom Stites also praised the support he has received from the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and Harvard University. At the annual NCBA conference he explained his idea of co-operative journalism and gained support from various academics. The NCBA hired a business development specialist to work on the Banyan Project. Harvard University also gave Mr Stites a scholarship for a year and granted him access to resources to create a this business model.
“The support from the NCBA was invaluable. Harvard also gave me that credential and made it easier for me to open other opportunities. The idea has turned a lot of heads; if it were not for all of those good people it would be a lot harder. The fact that they believe in it is very important.”
Tom Stites also received guidance from Harvard political professors and pro bono legal assistance through them.
The Banyan Project is based upon the idea that “people deeply dissatisfied with journalism are willing to pay” and so far people in Haverhill have expressed their interest in becoming members of the co-op. Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money and advertising.
A key aspect of the Banyan Project is developing sophisticated software. This will not only be used for Haverhill Matters website, but also for each journalism co-op that will be created over the years, as part of the wider Banyan project. Tom Stites hopes the Banyan Project will become a federation of journalism co-ops.
“Haverhill will license the software from Banyan and once it becomes self-supporting and more co-ops are created to ensure the central organisation Banyan is sustained we can cover national news from a co-op perspective, not neo-liberal economics of major corporations. A different flavour of news just as legitimate just as well written,“ added Mr Stites.
For the Harverhill co-op, Tom Stites hopes to sign up 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in around $43,000 annually. Banyan's publishing software will amplify the power of this journalism by inviting readers to join others in its civic networking space to organise and engage in a constructive community change.
The Banyan Project is supported by a group of 27 senior journalists, academics, web developers, sociologists and researchers, business and financial strategists, and advocates for strengthening democracy brought together by Mr Stites.
He has supervised reporting that has won an array of major awards including the Pulitzer Prize and has held editorial positions at various major publications including The New York Times, The Kansas City Times, UU World or Unitarian Universalist.