Can Local News Coops Fill the Civic Desert?

How Akron's Devil Strip is re-imagining journalism as community organizing.

A few weeks ago, I got together with Chris Horne, the founder and publisher of The Devil Strip, a local culture and arts magazine serving the city of Akron, Ohio, for a conversation about the potential of news cooperatives like his to revive and strengthen local civic life. As we have become a “disinformation society” where tens of millions of Americans are highly susceptible to false news, conspiracies, junk information and spectacle, I’ve grown more convinced that quality news has to be supported and valued as a form of public infrastructure. The same way we invest public funds in things like schools and libraries, as well as roads, water systems, sewers, and emergency services, we have to recognize that quality information isn’t something that the private market is going to deliver on its own. There are lots of promising experiments underway that are trying to address this problem, and what fascinates me about The Devil Strip is how, as Horne describes, it is trying to use cooperative ownership not just as a potential business model but also as a way to ensure that the journalism and engagement work it does truly serves the Akron community.

What follows is a shortened and edited version of our conversation. (If you want to read the full 5500-word transcript, it’s here.)

Micah Sifry: I’m really interested in this problem of civic renewal. Today we live in places that are not just news deserts, but they may also be civic deserts, places where the social contract is pretty frayed. There is a need for more deliberate community organizing. One of the vectors for that is coming from grassroots politics, be it electoral or around issues like Black Lives Matter.

Another vector for community civic renewal is coming from the world of journalism. But most journalists don’t think of themselves or even want to be community organizers. When blogging came along, Dan Gillmor, who was one of the very first mainstream journalists to, in effect, blog from his news column at the San Jose Mercury News, he opened it up to comments. He said my readers are smarter, collectively, than me. That’s a big admission, but it made his column a little bit of a community hub.

I think the Devil Strip is the first example I’ve come across of deliberately going further into forms of community engagement that we don’t usually see in journalism. You’re a co-op, which I really want to hear more about. And you’re not just a magazine that lands on people’s doorsteps or that they access through the web but there’s also a face-to-face component. How did you come to the conclusion that in order to fulfill your mission you need to be doing these kinds of things?

Chris Horne: The way the magazine started was almost like a co-op itself, though we officially only became one last year. When we started and I realized that I couldn’t do all these jobs by myself, and didn’t have funding to hire a staff, I just started looking around the community and finding people who had interesting perspectives and voices and asked them to participate. And initially, they were all unpaid too. They volunteered. But I realized that it was unfair that I’m using all these people’s free labor to build this publication that I alone own when their work is making this a true community product. It quickly became the ethos for the organization. Eventually we did make enough money to pay people and slowly grew but that core part of it remains vital to who we are.

About 250 people have come through the organization to contribute. Sometimes it’s one piece. And sometimes they’re there for years. An example of that would be Noor Hindi, one of our full-time reporters, who joined us some time around the second issue. She was an 18-year-old poetry student who was doing profiles on local writers and business owners and stuff like that. Then she got her teeth into some topics and proved that she’s completely capable of doing deeper investigative and explanatory journalism, without spending a day in journalism school or even taking a journalism class.

What we’ve tried to provide are the skills and the standards and ethics of journalism, so that we can equip our community to tell their own story, so to speak. All this was born in a relationship with our community itself and so formalizing that process was the next logical step, to make sure that our incentives internally are aligned with our community’s well-being. Having come from a legacy newsroom background in local news, worked at a McClatchy paper as a daily reporter and worked at a TV station and a Scripps station, it became very evident that the reason why I was so dissatisfied with the journalism was because the incentive structure is around attention.

….We’re not doing this for attention, we don’t do the crime reporting and things like bad weather and scandals. What we’re trying to do is help more people care more about Akron, so they’ll get more involved. And some of that is enlightened self-interest because we want to make sure that the work we do, the serious journalism we do on the difficult conversations and topics, resonates with people. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of statistics about how news turns people off. And so, we realize that there’s a tremendous opportunity to not only do community good but choose our audience, people who don’t have a regular news habit. So, instead of thinking about the Mavs, we’re thinking about community.

It takes longer to do that, and it takes longer to get to a critical mass where you’re financially solid, but I think long term this model is not only going to take care of us as an organization but it produces more community goods, more public goods. I could give two shits about saving local news, pardon my French. Local news can live or die but if local news can be a vehicle or a vector, as you put it, to civic renewal, now I’m interested. That’s the commitment we’re trying to make to our members. We say to them, ‘We need you, not just to be co-owners of this publication but partners in our civic renewal.’

I got one life. I live in Akron Ohio. I want it to be a better place, not just for me and my family and friends but for other people and their family and friends, right? And so we can’t stop at just informing the community, or just engaging the community. The role that local news can play, the role of the Devil Strip itself is trying to play, is to be that hub that can connect people to their city, in an engaged way.

Micah Sifry: I did a deep dive recently with a professor of journalism up at Michigan State University, Kjirsten Thorson (see “The Facebookification of Local Life”) who studied the local news ecosystem of Lansing. She was studying how the rise of Facebook as a factor in the news ecosystem warped how political topics were dealt with, because when we lose the local news function, the independent newspaper, other institutions, elected officials, community organizations, the police, the libraries, some nonprofits, they all can get their word out, they can use the web or tools like Facebook, to promote what they’re doing. But the role of an independent journalistic enterprise is it stands apart from that and can critique those things. It’s not like any of those other community players are going to do investigative journalism on themselves. So you lose the accountability function, which is really a troubling thing….

I want to stay on the core thing for a second longer. So you have a governing board. Are you a nonprofit? How did you go from being the publisher, and I guess hiring the editor and setting policies, to the way you make policy now?

Chris Horne: The short answer to how are we governed, and how we got there, has been slow and painful, especially since this pandemic. Our governing board has never met in person, because their first retreat was scheduled for a week after everyone was ordered to stay at home. So we’ve been doing this on video and emails, and it’s taken so much longer to get some of the core things done. I think if I were advising a group of people who want to do a co-op, no matter how it functions, I would suggest getting the group together and having the bylaws done before you launch. We didn’t.

What we did is we went and tried to rally members first, to make sure that people were interested enough to do this. We had the bylaws for the Banyan Project and Haverhill Matters [an effort to set up a news cooperative in a small city north of Boston that folded last year-MS]. Of course, Ohio’s laws are different. The way that we put this together is also not the ideal for how we do things in the future. It’s just how we wanted to start. So, to keep moving forward in a timely fashion, the staff nominated nine board directors and the membership voted to approve them as the representatives to facilitate this transition. The board has control over the budget.

Micah Sifry: How many shareholders do you have?

Chris Horne: Almost 1000. I haven’t checked this week what our number is, but it’s somewhere in there.

Micah Sifry: And those are people who can start out at a very low level, but the idea is you’re ultimately vested, when you’ve given $330 in total.

Chris Horne: For $1 a month you have the right to vote to run for the board, to serve on a committee, and you have access to the member benefits, and then you are fully invested for a lifetime at $330.

Micah Sifry: How much is that meant to be a sustaining piece of your budget? That doesn’t seem like that much money unless you get thousands and thousands of people to sign up.

Chris Horne: This is part of aligning our revenue with our mission. Once a member is vested, they then are considered member donors. We are building the membership. It’s not the NPR model where it’s like ‘hey we do this free journalism, will you support it because you love us,’ because that’s not sustainable, financially, because we’re only gonna get our diehards. We are aiming for a model where we have more standalone value. Think about something like Goodwill. They do job training but the stuff that people know them for is the thrift stores. That money then funds the job training, which is sort of the core of their mission.

In a similar sense we want there to be a standalone value to the membership where it is a direct path to that civic engagement that we’re talking about. This is the easiest and the best way for you to connect with your community to find people around shared interests and to get your hands dirty….The goal is to have a membership that can scale the sort of intimacy that we’re talking about, which we want to do through what we’re calling a small groups strategy, where we facilitate members connecting with each other over shared interests. This means leveraging our community partnerships, so people that really love indie films, we’ll call the local indie cinema and we’ll set up a speaker for you and a space for you to talk after the movie. Or you want to go on a guided hike? We’ll call the park system and we’ll have somebody set up something with you. Along the way we’re enabling them to connect with their neighbors and with the institutions that make this place unique.

Our first thought is, ‘Can we can we help more people care more about this place?’

Micah Sifry: …Are you familiar with Front Porch Forum, a neighborhood forum platform based in Vermont? What’s interesting to me about them is so they came at the same problem that you’re looking at, but from a slightly different origin point….It’s advertiser supported and every forum is maxes out at about 1000 households. It’s hyper local by design, you have verify your address, and every forum has a moderator who is paid to review posts before they get shared. What you receive on a daily basis is a digest of what your neighbors have sent into the forum in the last 24 hours. The hyperlocal element with the moderation means that you get a lot of the sort of mutual aid content. They reach roughly two thirds of the households in Vermont. People spend about 10 minutes a day on their local forum. It has increased people’s trust in their neighbors, it has increased people’s interest in local community as well as state government, and it has genuinely improved civic trust.

Share The Connector

Chris Horne: That looks just amazing,

Micah Sifry: Where it relates to Akron, is that Akron is a big city of about 200,000. When you say you’re trying to foster small groups, which I think is an awesome idea, the challenge is how much curation you can do. When we were running Civic Hall, we also had individual members and organizational members. And we’re sitting in the middle of Manhattan. So we’re drawing people from all over the city. And I think one of our biggest challenges which we never really solved was everybody’s there for good reasons, but how do you curate meaningful connections. Because people don’t organize themselves by magic. Our website, which was designed off of coworking software, didn’t do that particularly well. I don’t think there is a software platform that quite gets to what we probably need. What I think you have which is potentially quite good is the engine of engagement of local news and local culture. The challenge obviously is distraction, and that you also have competitors. How do you deal with the fact that there’s other news resources locally, and Facebook and the other kinds of ways that people connect? Does that help you or do you find that it’s hindering you?

Chris Horne: I want to answer that real quick, but I also want to take a moment on the previous part of the conversation. Editorially I’ve been playing with what we call our neighborhood network, and it is a similar sort of idea. I would love to learn more from what Front Porch Forum is doing, because that sounds extremely powerful to be able to create that kind of a group of people at that level of engagement. We want to be the place where you can have those conversations, and like you said, there isn’t a lot of software that makes it easy. We’re working with a developer to create a WordPress plugin for membership.

….What really hurts local journalism is that we’re not socially relevant anymore. You don’t need to come to us to find a job or to buy or sell a car, or to find a mate or a place to live. And you used to have to do all those things in the classifieds and we lost that and I think that has a bigger impact on who we are as an industry than the loss of money. So if, if we can figure out ways to regain that social currency and that social relevance, then I think we’ll cook.

I don’t disagree with any of the research on disinformation and misinformation and how these social networks do that. I’m a huge fan of Yochai Benkler’s book Network Propaganda….When I think about how that applies to what we do, we can stop disinformation and misinformation when people in our community trust us more than they trust the random bullshit they see on the social networks. Frankly, my goal is to get people off of those networks and into ours. And if it were just Chris Horne, owner of the Devil Strip, this is where I think it causes a problem. But if that platform is owned by the community itself then I feel a lot better about it. There are pitfalls, potentially, but I think of the safety valves and the accountability that we want to apply to other organizations — the accountability for us will be in that our owners are the people in this community that we’re supposed to serve.

Micah Sifry: …Last question: to what degree are you thinking about physically engaging people in place? What does that look like for you? My friend Joaquin Alvarado was doing a little bit around this with creating places like news cafes. I don’t think that if that was his term for it, but the example he gave me was Fresno in California, a midsize city that is that has a lot of local news creators, but they don’t have a home base. And so the notion was create a kind of studio, where all those people could get together, have some shared equipment, maybe facilities for podcasts or video type of stuff that is expensive to maintain individually, but throw in a bar and a cafe. So, how does that resonate for you — do you see that playing out for you locally?

Chris Horne: All of that! So we have a space that we share in a kind of business incubator but for creative people, like artists, musicians, sculptors, etc. It’s called Summit Art Space. It’s owned by the county and coincidentally enough is in the first home for the Akron Beacon Journal. We envisioned the space we’re in as a place to welcome in members to have conversations, to have readings, and to do things that brought the journalism off the page, which is a phrase that we use a lot. A lot of those times went sideways with the pandemic. My ultimate goal is to have our own building, where we can do a café.

A phrase everyone around here uses is, “Akron is a big little city.” It’s big enough to really get a good sense of your experiment working or not and it’s small enough that you can throw things against the wall. We don’t have a bookshop here, which drives me bananas. I would love to have our welcoming space basically be a bookshop, where we can host events and maybe our offices are upstairs and then our contributors can come in and use it and then this gets into towards the neighborhood network idea….I try to think as holistically as I can and try to use all the parts of the buffalo. I’m old enough to really love print, but also young enough to appreciate its limitations. Everybody has a different way of understanding stuff, and sometimes you need to kind of get your hands in it and so sometimes it might be having a panel conversation with some of the sources and the writer and having our members and readers be able to ask these questions directly.

We also are experimenting with a software platform for this that we’re calling the Commons. The idea is to have conversations that are built around trust. So it’s almost like a private Twitter, where you click a hashtag and you see all the stuff, but it’s filtered so there’s not a ton of crap and there’s not spam, these are people that you want to have a conversation with. Because we’re an arts and culture publication, we are connected to all the people who can do other creative projects with us. So, the sky’s the limit. It’s mostly trying to get the basics done right now and give us a good foundation for being able to accomplish this stuff because I don’t think we’ll ever lack for opportunities with new ideas. It’s more: can we execute on the ones that are in front of us.