The weird thing about the slow death of American newspapers is that, contrary to popular assumption, their audience isn’t shrinking. In fact, depending on how you measure it, readership has actually grown since 2000, says Dean Starkman at Columbia Journalism Review (October 18, 2012). If you count even a small fraction of users who read a newspaper online–say, a core 10 or 20 percent who visit a site like ChicagoTribune.com once or more a day–circulation goes back to 1990s levels (or higher).
The danger is that, despite high demand, communities will be underserved by outlets that can’t survive in an online culture. But there are alternatives, says Michael Johnson at Shareable(December 4, 2012). One of the most interesting is the Banyan Project, a planned network of news co-ops that aims to make newsrooms less dependent on dwindling ad revenue and bureaucratic conglomerates.
Like other co-ops, the Banyan model posits that, left to their own devices, for-profits simply won’t support core social goods if the price isn’t right. That’s where communities come in. Spreading cost and risk could help newsrooms navigate an uncertain future, while also bringing critical coverage to places that most need it through democratic member-reader control. Already well-established in places like Germany and Mexico, if it catches on here, the co-op model could bring the news back to the communities that need it most.