Earlier this year, I wrote about the rise of an emerging business model: the digital news co-op. Now, eight months later, taking a second look, we have seen two important developments. First, newly launched news co-ops are gathering steam in Baltimore and West Virginia. At the same time, the nation’s first such co-op, in Akron, Ohio, has stopped publishing.
The good news: Bloc by Block News maryland, in Baltimore, fresh from shaping its business plan as part of the Start.coop accelerator program, began publishing a weekly newsletter in April that presents headlines, summaries, and links to stories selected from many area news organizations. It started with only 60 subscribers—mostly personal contacts of founder Kevon Paynter. But a short 31 weeks later, the list is approaching 2,000 people, and the venture has launched a website where fresh curated material can be posted daily.
Nor is the Baltimore publication a unique case. Black by God | The West Virginian (BBG), led by founder Crystal Good and aiming to serve Black residents throughout the state, is close behind with a weekly newsletter, and it has just distributed its second quarterly print publication. BBG has applied to be part of the next Start.coop class, as has The Pittsburgh Independent, led by Brian Conway, who is assembling co-founders.
Additionally, The Hartford Times is on the cusp of launching as a co-op in Connecticut’s capital city, and conversations exploring news co-op ideas are gaining traction in many other communities—including Cambridge, Massachusetts—as civic entrepreneurs search for optimal business models to ensure robust and trustworthy news coverage for their communities.
News co-op models are gaining adherents as legacy newspapers continue to fade and fold far faster than digital news sites built on nonprofit and for-profit models have been taking root; news deserts continue to spread.
Nowhere has the news co-op conversation attracted more participants than in the News Co-op Study Group, whose archives are available on the web. Its organizer, Davis, California-based co-op advocate Olivia Henry, says that it attracted about 100 members and that monthly Zoom discussions regularly attracted about 25.
The Baltimore Co-op’s Vision
One of the regulars at the News Co-op Study Group gatherings has been Paynter, whose digital news operation just launched this past April. Bloc by Block, like all the news co-ops that are getting started now, is a bootstrap effort at this stage. The keystone of the Bloc by Block vision is a web/mobile app to deliver its news in a world where people constantly use their phones. Its ambition is large. Among its goals is to “train our readers to become citizen journalists to share what’s happening in their own backyards.” The publication is centered on the belief that “everyone has a story, and every story deserves to be told.”
Bloc by Block could have tried to finance its effort with big bucks. But, Paynter said, “Rather than waiting for an investor to fund our larger vision, we’re starting at where we can. We’re proudly building an audience.”
Sign up for our free newsletter
Subscribe to the NPQ newsletter to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
A Co-op Shutters in Akron
Not all news in the co-op media world is positive, however. In Akron, Ohio, the news co-op known as The Devil Strip recently ceased publishing. The publication’s name comes from the local slang term for the grassy berm that lies between the street and the sidewalk next to it.
Unlike news co-ops taking form now, The Devil Strip started out in print as a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a web presence, only deciding later to become a co-op. On October 15th, The Devil Strip informed staff that the venture could no longer pay their salaries, and three days later they were laid off.
Normally, that would be the end of the publication, period. But one thing about news co-ops is that they can generate enormous community support. Six of the nine board members have resigned, but three are carrying on. On Twitter, @TheDevilStrip and #SaveTheDevilStrip streams lit up. A GoFundMe drive with a $75,000 goal quickly leapt to about $22,000, but then stopped when a consensus formed that it would be wise to hold back until there was clarity as to what was driving the financial losses and what strategy would be required to remedy them.
An online Frequently Asked Questions posted by the remaining board members says that “the situation unraveled quickly” and that they are “are working diligently to collect information and understand what led to the paper’s sudden closing.” A membership meeting was held on October 27th, largely to answer questions, and the remaining board then conducted a survey. According to an update to members posted on the Devil Strip website, 75 percent of 279 who responded voted to push on; only 17 percent voted to close down, and eight percent abstained.
“If this had been a for-profit effort,” Henry of the study group said, “it would be all over now. But as a co-op, there is still civic energy in the membership. This is positive.” Indeed, to have 279 people respond to a membership survey, even one that’s conducted online, is impressive. Even so, whether The Devil Strip can be revived seems doubtful. That said, the three remaining board members have pledged to recruit additional new board members and to “work with members to develop a sustainable plan going forward.”
Building on Lessons Learned
In Silicon Valley, failure is seen as part of the process of creating successful companies. By and large, that has not been the co-op view. But regardless of what details emerge from Akron, the fact that the first media co-op did not succeed out of the gate is not particularly surprising. What is important is whether others—be that a revived Devil Strip 2.0 in Akron or the co-ops emerging in Baltimore, West Virginia, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere—can build more successful business models.
In Baltimore, at least, Paynter is taking a slow but steady community building approach. It’s not flashy, but it may prove more lasting than the effort in Akron. He says that growth to date has come from Facebook and Instagram ads, as well as conversations with prospects to explore the value of local news and how news organizations can better serve people and communities. In October, Bloc by Block conducted its first community event, held at a local farmers’ market.
“We’re gaining exposure,” Paynter said, “as well as testing to see the type of people who would find it valuable to join such a co-op.” The plan is for a multi-stakeholder membership structure so that both readers and employees will be voting member/owners. “We have a strong outline for our articles of incorporation and bylaws,” he added, “and are doing the community listening work as well as handling all the legal aspects before we officially register.”