Sustainability Session (9:30 a.m.)

Here are some notes from our session on sustainable economic models, convened by Donna Liu.

Liu discussed a hyperlocal, community-generated news site that she started, It began with a grant from the Knight Foundation but, going forward, will need to find new sources of funding. Right now the site is hybrid, with some paid contributions. It includes stories, a feed aggregator, and a blog and it gets about 200 visitors per day.

Tom Stites described the Banyan Project, which advocates for a co-op model in journalism. The premise is that we need, but are currently lacking, models that are both replicable and sustainable. While some models are sustainable and seem to be thriving, they are not replicable in all communities. The co-op model stands to leverage affinities and institutions in the pursuit of greater efficiency, i.e., dispensing with costs related to subscriptions, advertising, etc. The readers would be the owners and would have voting power in electing the editorial (i think?) board.

People asked a lot of good questions about Banyan, including:

  • can you interlink the co-ops? in the digital environment, people like to move within and outside of their affinity groups (Tom said yes)
  • is it true that co-ops only arise out of economic need or market failure? aren’t there other cases of successful co-ops?

We had a very interesting discussion about affinities and someone (I’m sorry I didn’t get all the names!) made a great point that, re affinities, tech and sports are the candy and municipal budgets are the broccoli.

We discussed ways that the co-op model is similar and different to listener-supported radio. Readers, according to Stites, would have a greater stake in the content and a greater sense of ownership.

People provided examples of cases where readers/listeners/users were also creators. There was a town in Canada with a radio station that anyone could call into and report news. Doctoral students in communications at the University of Illinois all had keys to the library.

Stites clarified that Banyan is intended to serve a population that is neither affluent nor poverty-striken. Mainstream news covers personal finance and health largely for the affluent.

A librarian from Massachusetts issued a reminder that we can’t assume universal access to the internet. Research into broadband penetration has found that we’re at saturation in households with incomes of $50,000+.

Janet Jay, who has written a book on saving public libraries, said that we need to weave in the candy with the broccoli and pointed to Jon Stewart as an example of someone who has done this well. She also stressed the point that marketing is not a bad thing and public libraries need to embrace it. They can do things like invite sports people in to talk to kids.

People pointed out that libraries are taxpayer funded while newspapers are not and this led to a brief reflection on the NYTimes paywall and the acknowledgement (by the Times) that not everyone would pay. If some people pay and others get in free, is it a model of the rich subsidizing the poor or the unwilling? Is that okay and is it a viable alternative to a co-op model?

We transitioned into a discussion of revenue streams. Maybe the Banyan model is one way, but a news organization might need several. Libraries also need multiple revenue streams and need them to be reliable.

It was pointed out that there is a disconnect in many communities among those who value education and are willing to fund it, but don’t translate that into funding for libraries.

Someone pointed out that people have never wanted to pay for news and we see that better now, in the online environment. This led to discussion of bubbles and whether there is an advertising bubble (Doc Searls says this) or if it’s a newspaper bubble (Clay Shirky). David Weinberger explained the argument that it’s a newspaper bubble, such that ad rates were always inflated for print newspapers and we know that now. In the online environment, where people pay per click, the rates are more accurate. And as it turns out, cheaper than we thought.

Donna Liu asked where the search industry is in this conversation and expressed the need to bring capitalist engagement to civil society. We discussed whether Google has a responsibility to contribute to the organization and intelligent display of information. Someone brought up Google’s recent decision to give content farms lower rankings. Is that the right thing to do? Is it censorship? What is the difference between censorship and curation?

We talked about what we would say to the capitalist enclave, i.e., what would be the elevator speech to the Google executives? Weinberger suggested that if all news sites go the way of the Times, Google will have no news to index. When it was confronted with a similar situation w/books, it just went ahead and scanned them. Maybe just invest now in making sure news content is accessible?

Are we suggesting that Google fund local communities’ engagement and are we okay with that?

Do we need to get away from describing libraries and news outlets as charities?

What is the role of government? Should we own our information in a manner that is similar to that with which we think we should own our education and health care?

Someone described the co-op model within ethnic media, where engagement is thriving and described New California Media’s work to educate sponsors and its growth to a large-scale project, New American Media.

This is an incomplete list and I’m sorry for anyone’s name that I spell incorrectly, but some participants included:

Karen Gill
Anne Raci
Celeste Bruno
Alexa Pearce
Aimee Picchi
Saul Tannenbaum
Irene Van
Troy Espe
Andrew Ott
Ruth Urell
David Bollier
Alpha Delap
Caroline Nappo
Evelyn Messinger
David Weinberger
Christine Saed