New directions for community media

We need new business models for local and regional media.  The old “penny press” advertising model is broken, and the local and regional newspapers are dying. This is ironic, because the need for knowledge has never been greater. This IS the information age, after all, and some sort of information  has been the organizing principle for daily life since the sound of cathedral bells gave people the time of day.

Why do we need new business models? 

In recent years, the newspaper business has undergone a series of revolutionary changes.  Many have gone bankrupt, and most newsrooms are now operating on 10 to 25 percent of their former staff levels.  They have become less relevant to daily life, and on top of that, there is a great deal of resentment about the media.  (For example, see  “Who Killed the American Newspaper?“).

But we still need some kind of media, even if many people today reject what they call mainstream media.   So perhaps we could go back a little in history and take a lesson from the old community publishing model.

Once upon a time, the small community press involved two different operations:

• A profitable printing operation that churned out  books, legal notices, bills of lading, accounting ledgers, minutes of local government, wills and deeds and a thousand other essential record-keeping tools for the public and private business; and

• An unprofitable newspaper that provided a public service, and also helped the printing operation stand out from its competitors.

Many of these printing operations are no longer profitable, and have fallen by the wayside. We use far less paper than we used to, and many of our books and notices and record keeping tools have now been converted to digital forms, where publishing is more efficient and less expensive.   At the same time, much of the advertising revenue that used to support the small community press has dried up.

In the near-vacuum of community news, we have seen a surge of new media functions, but they often have serious problems.  Facebook moderators have  editing styles that are not informed by a tolerance for open debate or any knowledge of where the actual limits of debate are (or should be) according to US tradition and law. Craigslist is part of the digital frontier, without much social responsibility.  Using it can be risky.

We’ve  also seen many proposals for new journalism ventures by the old pros. They are usually  based on the “better pilot” model. If we could just have better pilots flying more specific routes, the idea goes, we’d have more people paying for piloting services. While this approach has provided some notable successes, it has not kept many pilots off the retirement rolls. And the pressure on the unpaid pilots to grow up and become “ace” pilots overnight is unfair and sometimes overwhelming.

So all of this is to provide the rationale for suggesting another approach, organized around a community media services, possibly through a modified consumer / producer cooperative, which is the best way to raise money and enlist community support at the same time.

To use the aviation analogy, we need a different kind of aircraft and a different approach to aircraft design. By establishing a community hanger,  we not only encourage new pilots of all types, but we also create new kinds of designs and new ways to think about what it means to fly.

Ideas for new business models  

Every community has information needs, whether its just the humble bulletin board at the local library or the most elaborate community press organization.

In recent decades, community information needs have broadened, and some of these are already being served by commercial media services operations — for example Flickos for video digitization and Lumoid for media equipment rentals.  These are “long tail” services that don’t specifically target local political, environmental and social information needs, so they only show the commercial potential, not the potential for service.

Let’s imagine a new kind of local/ regional media service, perhaps a non-profit organization, possibly  a media cooperative.   Imagine the projects it could take on:

  • Volunteer video production unit for meetings, school events, sports and other community needs with full high quality switching and livecasting;
  • Video and photographic equipment rentals for weekend specials or family event specials as per the Luminoid model.
  • VHS and digital tape to digital transfer, for family heritage videos, as in the Flicko’s business model.
  • A photocopying / scanning operations for printing, document handling and family album reproductions and heritage scrapbooking.
  • Thermal imaging equipment for home and business energy audits;

Additional low-cost services that could be delivered by trained volunteers include:

  • Elderly podcasting support for free audio books, in connection with library and with; This is especially important public service outreach for nursing homes and vision impaired.
  • Teen’s educational animation software & studio space (eg Dragonframe or other animation application);
  • Time-lapse photography, ground penetrating radar, drone video, and other advanced digital imaging services.
  • Computer video editing rentals, for the shop, with training, or for experienced users, to take home.
  • Teen video gaming contests and parental training for video game participation;
  • Small business marketing and web design consulting and support that empowers the small business owner;
  • Individual, family and community:  Book publishing assistance and local market pooling for low-cost online books and books-on-demand.
  • Assistance with community blogging for additional information outreach from religious, agricultural, small business development and other local civic improvement groups

Community news and public agenda setting would be one of the centerpieces of the coop.  It could (and should) be a democratic news environment, where readers and viewers would not only vote for the most important stories and set the agenda, but would also have a voice in the way information is developed in the first place.

In this instance, members of the community would know in advance about topics coming up in the news and would have an opportunity to comment or contribute.  Similarly, if a critical mass of readers wanted a reporter to look into a public situation and report back, the readers should be able to initiate reporting efforts. At the same time, professional and citizen reporters could propose and bid on these kinds of projects.   So a transparent and public agenda setting function would be a healthy way to approach public issues.

Overall, we can move in the direction of MORE, rather than less, democracy in our information systems, especially if we act collectively.   We can face the technological revolution fearlessly, and make the best of it, rather than allow it to make the worst of us.        

As Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, over 150 years ago:     “Why should we leave it to Harper & Brothers … to select our reading? As the nobleman of cultivated taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to his culture, genius, learning, [or] wit … so let the village. Do not stop short at a pedagogue, a parson, a sexton, a parish library, and three selectmen, because our Pilgrim forefathers got through a cold winter once on a bleak rock with these. To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions …”

Examples  of new business models: