Local Cooperative Paper

Local news is in decline.  Stories of local papers being consolidated into titanic media conglomerates, shedding staff, cutting back on reporting, or all three are ubiquitous.

This puts people who want quality local news in a bind.  The only way to support your local paper is to buy it, but who wants to pay for crap content?  I think this is where the cooperative model (maybe not-for-profit, but not necessarily) could step in.

Restructuring local news under the co-op model solves the bind, by giving subscribers a say in how the paper is managed.  The standard profit model was always a bad fit for small local news organizations anyway; after all, how much competition can there possibly be among newspapers in small towns?  Co-ops are better in these near-monopoly conditions, because they’re more responsive to their members than companies with a monopoly are to their customers.

There are, of course, lots of potential problems with co-op news.  Some major ones are:

  1. Putting together the capital to create a co-op in the first place.
  2. Structuring the organization so that journalistic integrity is preserved, even in the face of membership displeasure.
  3. Maintaining financial viability.

#1 is a challenge, but in the past 10-15 years or so the exact conditions that have been putting pressure on standard local news operations actually make funding a cooperative news organization easier.  A news organization isn’t dependent on heavy machinery any longer (no need for printing presses), and prioritizing online content means the physical assets required to start up a paper are minimal.

Crowdfunding is the other half of the answer to #1.  Rather than relying on a benefactor or trying to convince a bank to give out a risky loan, startup cash can come directly from the initial members.  This has the secondary benefit of gauging the degree of interest in the venture – if crowdfunding fails, maybe the news co-op isn’t meant to be.

#2 – preserving journalistic integrity – is a challenge for any news organization, usually addressed by maintaining a “wall” between advertising (revenue) and content.  Hopefully a co-op news organization would rely more on subscriptions and less on ads, potentially reducing that conflict.  Still, the potential exists for the organization to be taken over by a particular interest group and run for them.  A strong editor, picked for their journalistic abilities and not subject to having each of their decisions individually scrutinized by a board, would mitigate this possibility.  In reality, though, there is no way to completely fend off the danger.

#3 – financial viability – is in many ways the simplest challenge to address (though not the easiest).  It’s a case of setting up membership, subscription, and advertising rates that are realistic and maintainable.

Let’s take Thurston County as a test case.  Assuming such an organization starts with a bare-bones staff of one editor and two journalists, realistic yearly costs might be $300k (assumes about $100k/year for each staff member, including salary, benefits, and associated overhead like software, office rental, etc.).  Thurston County has about 275k residents.  You would want to launch the organization with 3-6 months of operating expenses, so you would aim for a Kickstarter campaign of at least $75k, and hope for more like $150k.  You would also want enough revenue to cover costs, obviously.  If you were to aim for about 1% of the Thurston County population, that would put monthly subscription rates at $9/month – a reasonable proposition.

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