New News Co-ops: Evolution Happens

Once shunned for its suspiciously reddish tinge, the word “cooperative” may have regained utility, and credibility, in the vocabulary of journalism business models.

As the newly formed Chicago News Cooperative appears to demonstrate, it’s not just a way of organizing journalists when the traditional model is failing; it’s also a means for undercapitalized commercial media companies to offload the expense of maintaining their own local/regional newsrooms.

A New Type of News Nonprofit
Though I don’t think we’re quite dealing with a new dawn for anarcho-syndicalist worker’s coops, the emergence of the Pocantico community — a diverse group of investigative-news nonprofits that have banded together to share resources and multiply impacts — has been followed by this more regional, heartlands venture.

The Chicago News Cooperative, as reported by Poynter, will get its startup funding from the MacArthur Foundation, and support from local public radio and TV outlets.

Its first major client will be the New York Times; the CNC will produce two original pages of content for the Gray Lady’s Chicago edition.

It’s telling to note that a major commercial news outlet such as the Times is now embracing nonprofit newsrooms as an affordable source of quality local/regional coverage. A similar effort is emerging in San Francisco, with the Times getting local content from the semi-cooperative (and semi-controversial!) Bay Area News Project.

Emerging Trends
The Times also dipped its toe in the nonprofit waters earlier this year, offloading onto Spot.Us the expense of sending a freelancer reporter to the Pacific Garbage Patch. The breakthrough crowdfunding service (disclaimer: My own project is an ongoing partner) has raised more than $6,000 for this purpose — though one wonders why a multi-billion-dollar media corporation couldn’t have shelled out the dough itself; are there are some murky lines being crossed?

Regardless, the breakthrough here is the twofold acceleration of new trends in organizational and revenue development:

  • Journalists are self-organizing into cooperative business organizations that are more responsive to their needs than existing commercial and “dinosaur” nonprofit structures. 
  • Commercial news outlets, starved for resources and battered by Wall Street economics, are increasingly turning to lean nonprofit service providers to develop public-interest coverage that is not viable under a for-profit business model. (The Associated Press offers a precedent for this, though that agency itself is a dinosaur, and potentially vulnerable to increasing competition from smaller, emergent nonprofit networks and agencies.)

The “market pain” is clear. Unless there’s some dramatic change in journalism business models nationwide turn for the better for commercial journalism business models, these new trends will come to define news production in the 21st century.

Traditional for-profit news outlets, meanwhile, could largely become hollow brands, mass-market vehicles for lighter content about sports, entertainment, political “chatter” and requisite ambulance chasing, and turning to nonprofit third parties for the serious stuff that doesn’t quite capture eyeballs en masse like Octomom.

Whether this is a final state for 21st century journalism, or just another step in the transformation of the news sector, remains to be seen.

But there will be much, much more of it.

3 thoughts on “New News Co-ops: Evolution Happens

  1. This new foundation-created entity — is it really a cooperative? — is setting out to serve the tiny and affluent minority of Chicagoans who tune to the cultural frequency of The New York Times, public television and public radio. Finding ways to add quality reporting for this public is wonderful, in Chicago, the Bay Area and elsewhere. But what about the vast majority of less-than-affluent people who read and tune elsewhere — and who have been comprehensively ill-served by newspapers and TV since long before their business models started to crater?

    The Chicago Tribune long ago started instructing its editors to tailor its content for people in the top two quintiles of the income distribution, the readers its upscale advertisers want to reach. The Trib and the many other metro dailies that follow this formula thus discard the distinct interests of 60 percent of the public — and The Times and public broadcasting aim at an even more elite audience than The Trib. (Disclosure: These assertions come from lived experience: my former employers include The Times, where I once was the night national editor, and The Tribune, where I held positions including associate managing editor and worked with Jim O’Shea and Jim Warren, both fine people and fine journalists.)

    These days I lead the Banyan Project, a group of senior journalists and their allies creating an wholly new model for serious journalism that aims to serve the less-than-affluent public and to be owned by a true co-op that’s owned by its readers (see My advisory board and I are in the hunt for foundation money, so I’m intensely curious what my old Chicago colleagues are up to.

    First, I wonder if calling this new entity a cooperative is misleading. A co-op is owned by consumers (i.e., a food co-op or credit union) or producers (Land O’Lakes is owned by the farmers and creameries whose milk it makes into its butter and cheese). So how is the Chicago News Cooperative a co-op? Who owns it, or who will own it? The press release announcing the CNC is vague; it does indicate that the entity does not yet have its own 501(c)3 and adds, “CNC is creating a network of additional supporters among individuals and foundations and plans to solicit membership in the cooperative as it expands its reach.”

    Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I can’t see CNC as owned by its readers and viewers. Would it be owned by its reporters, a producer co-op like Land o’ Lakes? Or is it a co-op in name only, the way public radio stations are membership organizations in name only? If it’s a cooperative in name only, what’s the point of being misleading?

  2. Tom, thanks as always for your insightful commentary. I confess that that exact question crossed my mind, however, I was primarily focusing on the vocabulary itself.

    In the past, I have been told by foundation folks that the word “cooperative” is too, well, commie, really, to get any traction in today’s funding world, which is focused on entrepreneurship and social ventures.

    In truth, that always burned me, because a co-op business is as entrepreneurial as any. Your Banyan Project is a consumer’s co-op … like REI! My own project seeks to build a producer’s co-op for independent journalists, though, again, in the past, I’ve been told to avoid that phrase.

    More to the point of your comment — yes, is this organization truly a co-op? Where are the founding documents defining it as such? Is the usage cynical, then, if it’s not truly a co-op?

    Now, I want to note, they’ll also have a standalone Web site as well as the NY Times pages. It could be they’ll be doing significant coverage there that’s off the affluent NYT/Trib-community’s radar …

    I’m thrilled the dialogue and vocabulary is becoming more accommodating, but agree that the proof is in the pudding!

  3. Jim O’Shea, the Chicago News Cooperative’s editor, was interviewed on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station that CNC is partnering with, and it turns out that its Chicago Scoop website will have a paywall; only paying co-op members will have access. Jim didn’t offer details, but it sounds like this outfit might actually be a co-op. We’ll see.

    Video is on the front page of the website, but it doesn’t have a discreet URL and may or may not still be there if you go to take a look for yourself.

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