Maybe we’ve been looking for models in all the wrong places. To find the elusive secret to making web journalism sustainable in community after community, maybe we need to take a peek behind the curtain into the secret sector of the economy.
For years now, people have been trying to devise business models for online community journalism that are both sustainable and replicable, but the usual sectors aren’t delivering: Only a few isolated for-profit sites are generating enough advertising revenue to support themselves while producing the original reporting that’s so crucial to civic health and democracy; on the nonprofit side, there are nowhere near enough philanthropic dollars to support enough sites, at least not for long (see part one of this series). And the idea of public-sector news publishing gets tangled up in the First Amendment.
It’s common to think these three sectors are all there are, but there’s a fourth — the cooperative sector — which future-of-journalism efforts are just starting to explore. U.S. co-ops take myriad forms and represent $3 trillion in assets, $500 billion in revenue, and $25 billion in wages; they include 7,794 credit unions and 864 utility co-ops that distribute electricity over 75 percent of the nation’s land mass. Few people know that co-ops are such a significant and healthy slice of our otherwise ailing economy — the U.S. government doesn’t keep statistics on them and, because co-ops are structured to build community wealth rather than investor wealth, business journalism largely ignores them.