Among the more intriguing business models for news organizations is the co-op. They’ve been slow to get started, but their time may finally be coming. For years I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch a demonstration site in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which ended up falling short. The Mendocino Voice is transitioning from for-profit to a co-op that will be owned by employees and readers. And the Voice is not alone.
Last week I sat in on a webinar called “Cooperatives in a Changing Media Landscape,” part of the Next Gen Entrepreneurship online conference. Two people immersed in co-ops discussed their experience: Kevon Paynter, co-founder and executive director of a project called Bloc by Block News, which reports on news in Maryland and aggregates the work of other publishers; and Jasper Wang, the co-owner and vice president of revenue and operations at The Defector, a mostly sports site founded by former employees of Deadspin, which in its heyday was part of the Gawker network. The moderator was Olivia Henry, a graduate student at the University of California in Davis.
The two projects are very different. The Defector was born big, launching last year with 19 employees — 18 of them editors and writers — and 10,000 subscribers. It currently has 39,000 subscribers. According to Wang, everyone is being paid a salary. The lowest is $58,500, with the possibility of making more depending on how much revenue the site is generating. (It’s more complicated than that, but never mind.)
“We’ve been financially sustainable since pretty early on,” Wang said. The site is owned by the employees, he added, with everyone participating in the governance of the site.
For those of us who are concerned about the local news crisis, Bloc by Block is intriguing. Paynter said the spark for it came during the 2016 election. When he went home to New Jersey to vote, he said, he knew who he would cast his presidential ballot for — but he didn’t have a clue about many of the other offices that were also being contested.
“I had no idea who to vote for when it came down to the local issues,” he said. He added that when he started talking with people after the election, many told him they simply vote for one party, Google the candidates or “we kind of make a guess the night before.”
Bloc by Block is supported by nonprofit foundation money, including Maryland Humanities; Paynter sees covering the arts and culture as part of his local news mission. The project is developing a mobile app that will allow users to see news from multiple publishers. Noting that there are more than 130 newspapers in Maryland, Paynter said, “There’s a discoverability issue, and we want to solve for that.”
Unlike The Defector, Bloc by Block is what Paynter calls a “multi-stakeholder cooperative,” with ownership shared among readers and the publishers whose news is being aggregated. Readers themselves can cover local governmental and neighborhood meetings, he added.
“It’s really about civic engagement as well as news,” he said, explaining that he wants his audience to “not simply be passive consumers of information but active participants.”
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We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.
They say that crises come at you gradually, then all at once. At least I think that’s what they say. I know that’s how I experienced the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment, I’ll talk about the gradual part. Following that, the all-at-once.
For a long time, the coronavirus was a real but distant threat. At a faculty meeting in early February, we talked about trying to have some sort of get-together for our Asian students to acknowledge what their families were going through back home. A month later, as we were about to go on spring break the first week of March, I remember telling someone that we probably wouldn’t have any problems when we came back because our Chinese students would no doubt stay in Boston rather than hazard a trip abroad.
My own spring break was spent in Mendocino County, California. It was a reporting and research trip aimed at learning as much as I could about The Mendocino Voice, a two-person digital news organization that was transitioning from a for-profit model to cooperative ownership. On Monday I landed at San Francisco International Airport, picked up a rental car, and began the two-and-a-half-hour drive north — a drive I won’t describe to you because the Voice’s managing editor and co-founder, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, told me that’s the clichéd opening written by every reporter who parachutes in for a few days.
The trip was exactly what I was hoping for. Baumann and the other co-founder, publisher Kate Maxwell, are the sort of hard-working, idealistic young journalists who are well-suited to coming up with new ideas for independent local journalism. I hung out at a small Super Tuesday event the Voice sponsored upstairs at the Ukiah Brewing Company, accompanied them on a few stories, and spent more than three hours interviewing them in a windowless upstairs office in downtown Ukiah that they rent from a public radio station. I also got to drive through the redwood forest and out to the Pacific coast for interviews in Fort Bragg and Philo.
But when I wasn’t working, I was checking my phone — and the news about the new coronavirus (I don’t think they were calling COVID-19 yet) was becoming ominous. The New York Times was reporting that so many people were dropping their travel plans that airlines were canceling flights. I wondered if I’d be able to get back on Friday. As I was reading this, I was in a bar-restaurant next to my hotel that was filled, cheek by jowl, with customers in various states of inebriation. They obviously weren’t concerned about getting sick, and at that point neither was I.
Things started to get more real on Thursday, March 5. I showed up a few minutes before 9 a.m. for a news conference at the county offices in Ukiah, which are contained within a modern one-story building a bit outside the city’s center. Kate and Adrian had told me such news conferences are generally held outside — not because of the threat of disease, but, I imagine, to take advantage of the nice California weather. This morning, though, about 50 reporters and county employees crowded into a harshly lit meeting room.
“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. And though there were no cases in Mendocino County at that time, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps (these days, I’m sure, not even elbow bumps would be recommended), stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors, and staying six feet away from each other.
As she spoke, we were all about six inches from each other, but no one seemed concerned. And I should note that even though California has been a hotbed of COVID-19, Mendocino County is so remote and sparsely populated (about 88,000 people live in an area that’s two-thirds the size of Connecticut) that, even as of this past Monday, only 11 people had been diagnosed, with no reported deaths.
Later that day I interviewed Kate and Adrian about their plans for the Voice. I don’t think it occurred to any of us that whatever plans they were making were about to be upended.
I flew home to Boston on Friday. In contrast to the packed plane I had taken to San Francisco, there were a lot of empty seats. I appreciated the extra room and, yes, given that the coronavirus was becoming a bigger and bigger news story, I was relieved that the seat next to me was empty.
As we were about to get off the plane, I struck up a conversation with an older woman from Guatemala who had flown to Boston to visit her family. I asked her what she was planning to do for fun. Her response: Probably visit the casino.
I hope she made it before it was shut down — and that she and everyone close to her have remained healthy.
Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.
For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.
“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.
“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”
Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)
At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.
“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”
Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.
“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”
By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”
In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.
“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”
The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.
“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”
Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.
“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”
Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”
Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”
And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”
For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.
“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”
The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.
“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.
Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?
Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.
Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.
We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well.
We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”
Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15. We’ve done 15 or so since.Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”→
UKIAH, Calif. — About 15 people had gathered on the second floor of the Ukiah Brewing Company. The television in the corner was tuned to CNN, and Sen. Bernie Sanders was speaking. This was a pro-Sanders crowd. Nearly everyone stopped what they were doing so they could listen.
Then the band downstairs started playing, and that was the end of that.
I’m here this week learning about The Mendocino Voice, an online news organization started three and a half years ago that is in the process of moving toward a cooperative model of ownership — an innovative step that could help ensure the project’s future. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.”
The Super Tuesday party, which drew a total of 25 to 30 people, was organized by the Voice as a way of bringing the community together to watch not just the presidential results but to find out who had won the primary elections for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. There are five supervisors, and three of the seats were contested.
There’s no question, though, that most people were mainly interested in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders won California easily on a night when the chatter was about former Vice President Joe Biden’s emergence as the clear (though hardly dominant) frontrunner. I was told that Mendocino County, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, is even more pro-Sanders than the rest of the state. That was certainly true at the Ukiah Brewing Company, where the folks I spoke with expressed their enthusiasm for Bernie over burgers and beer.
“I think the possibility of having a socialist Democrat in the White House is really exciting,” said Rayna Grace, citing Sanders’ “solidarity with the Palestinian people” as well as his support for Medicare for All and for canceling student debt. Her companion, Silver, who declined to tell me her last name, added, “I’m just excited to see a candidate who reflects my radical values.”
Even the only non-Sanders supporter I spoke with said he preferred Sanders to the candidate he actually cast a ballot for — Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I thought Warren is electable. I don’t know if Bernie is electable,” said John Haschak, a member of the board of supervisors. “Maybe my political calculation is a little off, but we can’t have four more years of Trump.”
Unfortunately for Warren, Haschak’s political calculation turned out to be more than a little off. Warren suffered the worst of what has been a series of bad nights for her, as she came in third in her home state of Massachusetts, behind Biden and Sanders. (WGBH News Senior Political Editor Peter Kadzis breaks down the Bay State results here.) In just a few months, Warren has gone from being the frontrunner to having to do some serious fence-mending with her constituents.
Like many people, I’ve visited California’s urban centers of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. But this is the first time I’ve been in the rural north. The population of Mendocino County is just under 90,000. Yet, geographically, it’s about two-thirds the size of Connecticut (population 3.5 million) and larger than Delaware (nearly a million).
As is the case in many other places, Mendocino County suffers from a dearth of reliable local journalism. Most of the papers in the county — including The Ukiah Daily Journal, the only daily — were absorbed into the MediaNews Group conglomerate years ago, and have been systemically gutted by the chain’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital.
Maxwell and Managing Editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the Voice’s only full-time staff members, are themselves former MediaNews employees. Though their office — a tiny second-floor room that they rent from a low-power FM radio station — is in the inland city of Ukiah, the county seat, they have positioned the Voice as a county-wide news service. As such, they regularly drive two hours to Fort Bragg, on the Pacific coast, as well as to other parts of the county.
This is weed-and-wine country. The “cannabis economy,” as Baumann calls it, is dominated by so-called back-to-landers, hippies and former hippies who moved to the area in the 1960s. So it’s no surprise that Sanders is the favorite here.
Yes, I did meet a few non-enthusiasts. Before the party, Baumann and I talked with voters outside a polling station at the county offices, where we encountered an older couple who’d cast their ballots for Biden and a volunteer firefighter who’d taken a Republican ballot and voted for President Donald Trump. Overwhelmingly, though, the folks we met had voted for Sanders.
“We’ve been diehard Bernie supporters since the last election,” Moriah McGill told us.
Given Biden’s strong performance across the country Tuesday, it’s no exaggeration to say that voters like McGill, Grace and Silver saved the Sanders campaign. Whether that will be enough to stop Biden is a question for another day.