As the foundation of American journalism continues to crumble, entrepreneurial reporters are turning to a 250-year-old European reporting model: the co-op. News cooperatives have long thrived in Europe—in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany—and in Mexico, too. Yet, with a few exceptions they never really took root in the U.S.
That may be changing. Kickstarter users alone have sent over $10 million to "over 2,000 journalism, periodical, radio, and podcast projects," company spokesman David Gallagher said. To try and attract more, this month the company created a devoted journalism page, which is already humming along: A drone-reporting effort was fully funded in five days. A new culture magazine that launched this month is at 150% of its goal. The question is not whether some news co-ops will succeed (they already are) but whether the co-op news model can tackle some of the most important beats, with the most intimidating cost structures.
Deca is one such example: It aspires to publish the kind of long-form international investigative stories that you’d expect from a major news operation. Four days after launching on June 12, Deca reached its $15,000 fundraising goal. They quickly upped it to $35,000 and, with contributions ranging from $10 to more than $1,000, they’re on target to meet it.
Deca’s goal is to release one big new story each month. The first, And the City Swallowed Them, is an investigation of the murder of a 22-year-old Canadian model in Shanghai. It’s available as a Kindle Single for $2.99, or through a yearly subscription for $15. An app, for the same price, is launching this summer.
"There seems to be an appetite for it," says McKenzie Funk, one of Deca’s founding members. "Now we are going to find out if they want it so much that they’ll download the stories."
While a Deca author takes in the most revenue from single story sales, each Deca member gets a portion of proceeds, which are paid out in dividends at the end of the year. In short, they will either make or lose money together.
"We need to be each other’s insurance," Funk says. "As with publishing, you don’t always know what the blockbuster will be."
Deca took its inspiration from Magnum, the photo co-op that was founded in Paris after World War II. The members are unified by a common sense of purpose, and the hope of making some money—maybe even a bit more than they would if they simply continued to publish books and articles in magazines, though they aren't giving that up just yet, either.
Tom Stites’s Banyan Project is tackling a problem as big as Deca’s: Filling the hole left by closures of thousands of local newspapers over the last decade. Stites, a veteran of great 20th-century newsrooms like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, is launching the country’s first scalable co-operative local news website.
Stites believes co-op models never caught on in America because times were never so desperate. He and a dedicated group of local volunteers are drumming up support to launch a news site in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a city of 60,000 that is badly in need of reporters. Haverhill Matters, Stites’s pilot site that is expected to get off the ground this year, has been years in the making. "Co-ops are slow," Stites notes. "They are not fast."
Stites says Haverhill Matters will need 200 founding members paying $250 to get off the ground. They have a little less than a quarter of that number right now, and Stites says momentum is building. To make the model work long term, Stites estimates that the co-op will need 4,000 members—each paying the equivalent of $1 per week. "It’s equity," he says, "but this isn’t about making money."
The funds will pay for a full-time manager and full-time editor who will have a set freelance budget—both will report to the co-op’s elected board of directors.
Will the co-ops work? Kickstarter says they’re responding to a demand in the market, "The industry is in flux and people are trying to figure out what’s next, so it seems like a natural area for us because so much of what is on Kickstarter is about innovation," Gallagher says. Stites puts it more succinctly. "We shouldn’t have to do this. But we have to."
[Image: Flickr user Diego Saldiva]