Banyan Project eyes Haverhill for its first news co-op

This article was previously posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Ownership matters.

It matters in New Orleans, where Advance Publications is cutting The Times-Picayune’s print edition from seven days a week to three — and gutting the staff —despite earning a profit and paying bonuses in 2010 and 2011.

It matters in Chicago, where Tribune Company — which may soon emerge from bankruptcy — got rid of its hyperlocal reporters at the Chicago Tribune and replaced them with Journatic, which outsources coverage, in some cases to the Philippines, and which until recently used fake bylines on some of its stories. (On Friday, the Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic after a plagiarism complaint arose.)

And it matters in the Boston area, where GateHouse Media — the national chain that owns more than 100 community newspapers here — is preparing to unveil a centralized in-house content farm whose work could eventually find its way into eastern Massachusetts.

Newspapers, the source of most local journalism, are weighed down by chain ownership and corporate debt. Independent online news sites are a promising alternative. But for-profit sites like The Batavian and Baristanet are too small to provide the full range of community journalism that was typical a generation or two ago. And larger nonprofits like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are rare, in part because the IRS has put a hold on new ventures.

So what can be done? Later this year, a community news site based on an entirely different ownership model is scheduled to debut in Haverhill, a blue-collar city of 60,000 about 45 minutes north of Boston on the New Hampshire line. The site, to be called Haverhill Matters, will be cooperatively owned, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. Neither for-profit nor nonprofit, the site, if it is to succeed, will depend on the goodwill and support of its members. And it is designed to be easily replicated in other cities and regions.

Haverhill Matters will be the first visible manifestation of the Banyan Project, an idea that veteran journalist Tom Stites has been working on for several years. I recently met Stites, whose long résumé includes editing stints at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and Mike LaBonte, who chaired the site’s local organizing committee, at a restaurant in Haverhill to discuss their plans. (LaBonte stepped aside a short time later, citing health issues and the pressures of a new job.)

It was something of a reunion. I’d written for Stites several times when he was editor of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s denominational magazine. I knew LaBonte through his volunteer work as an editor at NewsTrust, a social network that evaluates journalism for qualities such as fairness and sourcing; he’d led several workshops for my students.

What attracted Stites to the co-op model was his belief that newspaper executives, in their relentless pursuit of high-end advertising, had abandoned all but their most affluent readers. It’s a subject he has spoken and written about passionately, including at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst and in a series for the Lab last December.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters are aimed at serving “news deserts,” a term Stites consciously adopted from “food deserts” — that is, lower-income urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food restaurants proliferate. The idea is that a lack of fresh, relevant news can be as harmful to civic health as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be to personal health.

That all sounds good, but where will the money come from? Stites said that Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money, and advertising. I told him that sounded exactly the same as the model used by nonprofit sites such as the New Haven Independent. Stites responded by emphasizing the benefits of membership in a co-op.

So let me draw a few comparisons between the Banyan model and the Independent. Stites hopes to sign up some 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in a little more than $43,000 annually. The Independent asks for readers to pay $10 to $18 a month voluntarily; editor and founder Paul Bass told me he’s got about 100 voluntary subscribers paying a total of about $13,000 a year, which comes to less than 3 percent of his site’s $450,000 annual budget. Given that the Independent has been around for nearly seven years and serves a city twice the size of Haverhill, Stites’ goal is ambitious indeed. But there are differences in terms of the incentives.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters would be free, as is the Independent. But in order to participate on the Haverhill site using community tools that Stites promises will be unusually sophisticated, readers will be asked to pay — a request that would become a requirement after several months. The Independent, by contrast, does not assess any mandatory charges. In keeping with the cooperative model, paid-up Banyan members will elect a board, which will in turn select the full-time editor. Readers will also be able to become members by contributing labor rather than time — perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog that appears on the site. If it works, in other words, a Banyan site would foster a sense of ownership and participation that other models lack.

“This is different from a hyperlocal news site,” Stites told me. “This is a community institution owned by a widely distributed, large number of community members. It has to be owned by members of the community, and they’ve got to support or it doesn’t happen.”

The next few months will be crucial ones. Currently, Stites is trying to raise money for the launch with a pitch at Spot.us. He and the organizing committee are planning a community meeting in Haverhill this September. And if all goes according to plan, Haverhill Matters will go live by the end of the year.

Stites is planning to launch Haverhill Matters with two paid staff members: a full-time, professional editor with roots in the city and a “general manager” whose job would be to build a community around the site and to write. Beyond that, his ideas for covering the news are evolving. Journalism students from nearby Northern Essex Community College would be involved. High school interns might be put to work assembling a community calendar. In our conversation, it came across as amorphous but potentially interesting — worth watching, but with compelling, useful journalism by no means assured.

Strictly speaking, Haverhill is not entirely a news desert, but it comes pretty close. The nearest daily, The Eagle-Tribune, is based in North Andover and owned by CNHI, a national chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. The paper publishes a daily Haverhill edition and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But LaBonte told me that both were a far cry from the days when the Gazette was an independently owned daily paper.

“That was a thriving daily at one point,” LaBonte said. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

By early 2013, one of the answers to that question might be a start-up website called Haverhill Matters.

2 thoughts on “Banyan Project eyes Haverhill for its first news co-op

  1. Jim Morrison

    Thanks for writing something even marginally hopeful about the future of local journalism. I’m a stringer looking for a full-time gig and lately I’ve started to question the wisdom of my decision not to become a dirt farmer.

  2. Esther Iris

    I’m guessing the people most likely to become members of the Haverhill co-op are those affluent readers Mr. Stites says are already well-served by newspapers.

    They’re the ones most likely to have the money for a membership and the time to write blog posts or cover municipal meetings. And what are they going to want to read and write about? Stories of interest to them and their neighborhoods.

    I guess those community college students could fill in the coverage gaps but would they be “members” or simply a source of free labor? And they might not live in the neighborhoods they’re covering, which would defeat the whole attempt to build a sense of ownership.

    I wish the project well and I think it’s an interesting concept but those are a few of the questions that came to mind as I read this.

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