By Dan Kennedy
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.”