Tom Stites’ Banyan Project: Will Co-op Journalism Work?

Feb 24 2011 in Home Page, JTM News by JTM

Tom Stites explains The Banyan Project to a group at Ivar's Salmon House

Journalism, says Tom Stites, should be: 1) relevant to people’s lives, 2) respectful of everyone, and 3) worthy of their trust.

Relevant. Respectful. Trustworthy. What’s so hard about that?

Nothing, really, but too much journalism today falls short of those goals, according to Stites, founder of The Banyan Project, a nascent national pilot effort still in the development stages.

Stites was just in Seattle for a few days to talk with people here who are trying to encourage and create more relevant, trusted, ethical and abundant journalism.

The Washington News Council invited about 25 local journalists, civic activists, public-relations professionals, academics and others to meet with Stites at Ivar’s Salmon House on Monday (Feb. 21) to learn more about Stites’ project.

Stites is currently a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. He also won the prestigious “Game Changer” award last year from the WeMedia organization, in a national competition decided by online votes. He was also one of the first journalists to take our TAO of Journalism pledge for Transparency, Accountability, and Openness.

Journalism That Matters Pacific Northwest co-hosted the event, thanks to Anne Stadler and Mike Fancher. They (and I) are active members of the JTM Collaboratory that has been meeting regularly since a large JTM gathering in January 2010 at the University of Washington. Stites also met with several co-ops in this region to explore possibilities and exchange ideas.

His plan is to use the “consumer co-op” model to create a new kind of journalism built on a “bedrock of trust and integrity,” whose citizen members will support it and sustain it. The co-op plan would allow “no possibility of structural conflict of interest,” Stites said, which can be a problem with other forms of journalism that are funded by advertisers, subscribers, individual donors and increasingly by foundation grants. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: The word structural was inadvertently omitted from my original text.)

Stites envisions several Banyan “turnkey franchises” around the country, whose co-op members would practice “relational journalism” and observe a “covenant of behavior” online. He calls it a “civic networking space” where citizens would confront issues and possibly take action. They would be more engaged because, as co-op members, they would have a stake in the outcome, and a “deep sense of ‘stakeholderness,’” Stites said.

Questions from the group raised concerns about the need for such a new effort given the proliferation of hyperlocal neighborhood websites, the robustness of ethnic media outlets, and the explosive growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks that allow people to get news and information from sources they trust, including their friends.

Other questions focused on financial viability and how to “monetize” the project. Stites hopes it will be funded by coop members, advertisements, administrative fees, philanthropic donations, “crowd fueling” and ancillary sales of products or services. But he conceded that he “hasn’t yet raised a cent” to support the project. Stites acknowledged that he was formulating a “Plan C” for journalism, but stressed that we also need a “Plan D, E, F, G, and so on” until we find something that works.

So the future of The Banyan Project – as with many other new journalism efforts these days – is uncertain. Banyan is a good start, but whether it will seed, take root and grow – like its namesake tree – remains to be seen.

This article was originally published by John Hamer on the Washington News Council‘s site.

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