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Lunchstorm: Wed., Dec. 3, 12 noon, RJI Room 203 -- Tom Stites and "The Banyan Project"

Tom Stites

Tom Stites grew up in Kansas City and spent his first career in America's major daily newsrooms before joining the non-profit world as an editor deeply concerned with public policy and ethical issues. Now he's launching The Banyan Project -- the work-in-progress name for a large-scale model for quality journalism that will thrive in a digital future. Stites' idea is to stitch together a network of independent, institutional journalism sources under a single banner using social-networking tools which support independent, fact-based reporting as well as the informed commentary of bloggers. Members of the Banyan community will pay $3 a month to support the journalism, he envisions.

Its first goal is to engage expert and thoughtful people in designing a comprehensive structure that converts a corner of the Web into a fertile seedbed for quality original journalism that will be produced by many independent entities. He writes in the Banyan mission statement that Banyan will "set the standards for independent sources of original news and service journalism tailored to be relentlessly useful to less-than-affluent Americans, a huge public now profoundly ill-served by mainstream media."

Among Stites' advisors on the project are the lead technologist for You Tube (Angus Durocher), the editor of the Poynter Institute's website (Bill Mitchell) and the famous investigative reporters James B. Steele and Charles Lewis.

Unique idea -- owned by a co-op?

One of the most unique ideas Stites proposes is that the Bayan community be owned co-operatively. He writes in his wiki:

"The need for integrity is what brings the discussion to co-op ownership. The current ad-revenue-based model of commercial newspaper publishing and commercial broadcasting has a built-in, structural conflict of interest and thus a lack of integrity: Publishers and broadcasters constantly address their readers and viewers as if they come first, but when push comes to shove, as it has now that advertisers are stampeding to the Web, it becomes plain that advertisers and shareholders do. True integrity in journalism means the publisher/broadcaster has no built-in conflicts and the reader really does come first. If the owners of the journalism entity are its core reader/users -– members of its community who step up to buy shares in the co-op -– no structural conflict is possible. The relationship is one-to-one; no third party has the standing to intrude on this; such an entity may accept advertising, but in its integrity it would turn away any that would exploit its community. Integrity yields trust. Thus co-op ownership lays down the foundation of trust that a large-scale Web 2.0 publishing venture needs if it is to attract a significant revenue stream from the community it serves."

The two biggest obstacles

In a recent email, Tom Stites wrote:

The advisory board now numbers 20. Skeptics have helped me refine the wiki copy. I shared early-draft pages with some wise people. The feedback has been quite positive and the skepticism I've encountered has proven invaluable in identifying obstacles Banyan needs to surmount -- and in fashioning defenses. The two biggest obstacles:

  • Many academics and funders seem to have trouble imagining quality journalism as anything other than the New York Times-Wall Street Journal-NPR-PBS norm and, by extension, they seem to have trouble imagining people as customers for any kind of quality journalism if they don't appreciate The Times et al; the defense this inspired is laid out in the Main Page under the subhead Banyan's New Norm.
  • Many future-of-journalism thinkers adhere so tightly to the idea that information wants to be free that they dismiss the suggestion that very many people would pay a small amount to get original journalism on the Web even if it is tailored to be directly relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust; the defense is laid out in the Sources of Revenue support page.

Background on Tom Stites

Tom Stites is a writer, editor and entrepreneur with a passion for strengthening journalism and democracy.

As an editor he has supervised reporting that has won an array of major journalism awards including the Pulitzer Prize; as an entrepreneur he has been the founding publisher of two print magazines, a newsletter, and an on-line magazine. His writings and speeches on strengthening democracy and on journalism have won a respectful following.

Positions he has held include managing editor of The Kansas City Times; national correspondent, national editor, and associate managing editor for project reporting at The Chicago Tribune, and night national editor of The New York Times. Most recently he served for a decade as the editor and publisher of UU World, the national magazine of the Unitarian Universalist religious denomination.

In addition to his Banyan Project role, Stites is a consulting editor for the Center for Public Integrity and is working on a book about power and the conscience.

READ MORE ABOUT TOM STITES / Address to Media Giraffe Project summit, June 2006 / BLOG reaction to June 2006 MGP talk.
Tom Stites
Consulting Editor, Center for Public Integrity
48-2 Kent St.
Newburyport MA 01950
978-499-1807 /