Start spreading the news: Co-owners of the Devil Strip local news co-op gather for their inaugural shareholders’ meeting on February 19, 2020. Credit: Ashley Kouri/The Devil Strip
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Dominic Moore-Dunson never expected to own a journalism outlet.

Moore-Dunson, a dancer and choreographer living in Akron, Ohio, doesn’t exactly have the background of a newspaper baron. So it was a surprise when Chris Horne, publisher of the local arts and culture magazine The Devil Strip, texted to ask if he had time to meet up and talk about a new business model.

While Moore-Dunson has lived in Akron since he was five years old, he only met Horne recently—they took part in the same national arts fellowship program, one year apart. “He knew I was someone with a passion for the intersection of arts and culture, community, and entrepreneurship,” Moore-Dunson told me recently. “I was just a friend who was interested in what he was doing. So I said sure, I’ll entertain a conversation.”

Horne, along with the Devil Strip editor in chief, Rosalie Murphy, and its director of membership, Jessica Goldbourn, sat down with Moore-Dunson at the Mustard Seed, a local café attached to an organic grocery store. There they pitched him on joining the publication’s first board of directors and becoming one of its first co-owners—a distinction he would share, they explained, with anyone in Akron willing to pay at least $1 a month.

“Hearing them describe what they were after—I felt in that moment like they were trying to make sure people are at the center of what The Devil Strip is,” he said. “And the reality is that if people are at the center, they will make sure whatever you’re doing is sustainable and stays alive because they love it and they’re a part of it.”

 The Devil Strip—named after Akron’s unique term for the stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the road—is now owned by Moore-Dunson and more than 600 others living in and around Akron, including the employees who work for it. The publication’s community-minded model means that readers can find coverage of local elections and COVID-19 resources alongside the local music reviews and restaurant openings that are most arts and culture publications’ bread and butter.

It’s a model that was partly inspired by a trend of co-op microbreweries that started cropping up around the U.S. in the 2000s, allowing drinkers to own shares and even help decide which beers make it to market. “I like the parallels between craft beer and the thoughtful craft news that we’re trying to do,” Horne said. “It’s directly responsive to the wants and needs of our community.”

The Devil Strip was founded in 2014 but became a multi-stakeholder co-op a year ago after struggling to make ends meet on advertising revenue alone. It works like this: Anyone with an Ohio address can buy a share of the company, entitling them to vote for the magazine’s board of directors, which is made up of co-owners like them. Employees and contributors can also become owners, and one seat on the board is reserved for someone who works at the magazine. There’s no paywall, but community co-owners will eventually see perks like live events, meet-ups, and access to staff that can shape how Akron is covered.

Anyone with an Ohio address can buy a share of The Devil Strip, entitling them to vote for the magazine’s board of directors, which is made up of co-owners like them.

Community ownership has intrinsic value beyond voting for a board or pitching stories to editors. “The thing about co-ownership as a Black person is that saying the words ‘Black person’ and ‘ownership’ in the same sentence is a big deal, always,” Moore-Dunson said. “The history of our country is such that ownership is not something we gain often. It’s something that’s taken away from us.”

He estimated that nearly half of the current board of The Devil Strip is Black, which has already made a difference in the way different parts of Akron are covered. The city is 30 percent Black, and the magazine has made a point to find stories and contributors in neighborhoods that don’t often get coverage.

Horne thinks The Devil Strip can grow to having 1,000 co-owners by the end of the year. He said it would take between 2,500 and 3,000 co-owners to make the magazine—which employs 12 staff members, nine of them full-time—fully sustainable without a need for any other revenue. With advertising and journalism grants included, they’re as financially secure as a community news organization could hope to be during a pandemic.

The magazine’s business model may be the first of its kind in the United States, but co-ops aren’t a new concept. Farmer-owned dairy co-ops have been around for more than a century, and electrical co-ops have powered much of the country stretching back to the New Deal. Food co-ops have outgrown their hippie image, and credit unions are a widespread and viable alternative to big banks.

While people tend to think of journalism as a civic necessity, it’s just as susceptible to corporate ransacking as any of those other industries. As classifieds went digital and tech monopolies like Google and Facebook gobbled up advertising and readership, America’s local newspapers closed and consolidated. A University of North Carolina study found that the U.S. has lost more than 2,100 newspapers in the past 15 years, leaving 200 counties without local coverage. Of the daily papers still around, more than half could be owned by financial institutions like hedge funds and private equity firms by next year. These firms tend to follow a playbook of drastically laying off staff and scaling back coverage in order to reap short-term profits, leaving behind a paper that’s a ghost of its former self.

Co-ops can offer a space free of corporate ownership while providing sustainable services that philanthropies cannot. That’s why journalists at The Devil Strip are well aware that they are part of a tiny but growing national experiment in cooperative ownership of local journalism. What if the country’s vast local news deserts were filled by newspapers—sustainable, salary-paying newspapers—owned not by hedge funds or distant philanthropists but by readers and reporters themselves? What if those newspapers could provide even better coverage than the ones they replaced?

With its redwood forests, coastal cliffs, vineyards, and storied history of marijuana farming, Mendocino County, California, doesn’t share much with Akron. It’s 63 times larger, but with less than half the population. But the two will soon have at least one thing in common—cooperative local news coverage.

Mendocino County is covered by multiple newspapers that have roots dating back to the 19th century. By the 21st century, however, most of those local papers were shrinking thanks to decisions made by their new owner, Alden Global Capital. Kate Maxwell and Adrian Fernandez Baumann were reporters at one of those papers, and the consolidations and cuts inspired them to start a new publication with a different business model.

“We met at a paper that was being decimated by a hedge fund,” Maxwell, now the publisher of the Mendocino Voice, an online newspaper, told me. She and Baumann, now the editor in chief, founded the Voice in 2016 and soon decided it should become a multi-stakeholder co-op. While it was easier and quicker to launch as a company funded by memberships, they’re deep in the (multiyear) process of turning those members into co-owners and developing the rules for employee ownership as well. 

The new model has shaped their coverage of Mendocino’s biggest story this year—the largest fire in California history, literally burning in their readers’ backyards. “There are people that live close enough that their eyewitness vantage point and photographs have really strengthened our reporting and informed how we approach fact-checking things on the ground and being open to what people’s questions are,” Maxwell said. “There’s a discrepancy between calling the public information officer who may be someplace an hour away and hearing what people are seeing close by.”

Baumann said their desire to report for people rather than about people is why the transition to a co-op makes sense. He pointed to 2018, when the Voice was covering the previous largest fire in California history. That one was started when a rancher drove a metal stake into the ground to plug a wasp nest. The stake sparked when he hammered it, igniting dry grass nearby and leading to a massive blaze that ended up burning more than 400,000 acres.

“From the get-go I knew that I could have found that guy and done an interview with him,” Baumann said. “But we never pursued it. Some people in the area knew who it was, and people were already making death threats against him.”

A year later, the state’s fire agency released the results of their investigation into the fire’s cause. It kept the man responsible anonymous—he was found to have done nothing wrong—but then The New York Times looked into the matter, naming and interviewing him for a front-page story. 

“It’s extracting anecdotes and stories from communities without asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” Baumann said. “It might have damaged the community. But it would have gotten us a lot of clicks.”

Baumann and Maxwell see community ownership as a way to entrench those values in the way the Voice is run. Their past newspaper jobs in the county serve as warnings about what can go wrong when the owners are distant from their readers and employees. 

Before marijuana was legalized in California, it was the primary economy in Mendocino County. Cannabis was cultivated in huge amounts, and thousands of people from around the world would flock to the region every year for pot tourism. But due to the underground nature of marijuana farming, the traditional papers would only cover it as crime rather than as a massive local industry. “What you read in the newspaper was a willful distortion of what was actually happening in the community,” Baumann said. “There were all these obfuscations that would take place. It was this open secret that nobody in the press could talk about.”

Like at The Devil Strip, employee ownership is also an important part of the Voice’s co-op model. Employees will be able to vote on the editor in chief, and community co-owners will be able to fill a public editor role. “It’s something that we think really embodies our mission as a local news organization,” said Maxwell, “but also is an important economic model that we think is valuable for local news and could be valuable in other parts of the country.”

The Colorado Sun is another employee-owned online publication considering transitioning into a multi-stakeholder co-op. Like Maxwell and Baumann, Sun editor Larry Ryckman and the rest of the founders were working at a newspaper owned by Alden Global Capital—in this case The Denver Post, which had cut its staff from more than 300 journalists a decade ago to about 100 by 2018. Told to lay off another third of the newsroom, Ryckman and nine of his colleagues quit instead to found an outlet they could own themselves. “We decided to go that way because no one is trying to make a gazillion dollars,” Ryckman said. “We wanted to be equal partners in this.”

Like the other co-ops, the Sun doesn’t have a paywall but allows readers to buy memberships that give them access to premium newsletters and a preview of an opinion column for the next day. And while no one’s making a gazillion dollars, no one earns less than they did while they were still at the Post. They got off the ground with a grant from the former media start-up Civil, but now have nearly 12,000 paying members. Ryckman expects the Sun to be sustainable by the end of the year.

A local news vacuum can end up being filled by Facebook posts, email forwards, and other sources of tall tales seemingly designed to frighten those without a reliable source of information.

They’ve now hired three additional staff, two in the newsroom and one on the business side. New hires don’t automatically get ownership stakes, but Ryckman envisions reporters being able to work their way there, like making partner at a law firm. “We would like all of our journalists to be owners of the Colorado Sun at some point,” he said. “We very much want to remain masters of our own destiny.”

The Sun helped inspire perhaps the most high-profile employee-owned company in media right now—Defector, made up of staff who resigned in protest from the sports site Deadspin after rebelling against its private equity owners over, among other things, a directive to stop covering political and cultural topics that were only tangentially related to sports.

“It’s a little bit scary to own it ourselves, because if something goes wrong there’s no one to blame but ourselves,” Defector columnist Drew Magary told me. “But we were hoping to continue to do our jobs so that some faceless, nameless dipshit upstairs can’t suddenly disapprove of what we’re doing.”

Before launching Defector, the team looked into crowdfunding options like Patreon and Substack, but they were hesitant to commit to a tech platform that was outside their control. Any writers who lived through the boom and bust of Facebook traffic should be wary of putting all their eggs into one tech company’s basket, even if they co-own those eggs. They settled on a membership model like the Sun’s, with subscribers able to comment, receive newsletters, and eventually get other perks based on how much they pay. (Full disclosure: I subscribed to Defector months before writing this article.)

“We wanted to look and feel very much our own,” Magary said. “We wanted a website you want to go to, one that feels like home.”

Ryckman echoed that benefit: When you rely on readers for direct revenue, you have to serve them relevant ads and a high-quality user experience. Autoplaying videos, ads that track your every move, and cluttered websites that make it hard to read the actual news don’t have to come hand in hand with opening your (virtual) paper.

As the Colorado Sun grows, its 10 owners are facing a decision about where they want their business model to go from here. They’ve discussed becoming a multi-stakeholder co-op like The Devil Strip and the Mendocino Voice, keeping their own stakes and turning all their members into co-owners as well. Another option is going nonprofit, following in the footsteps of statewide digital publications like the Texas Tribune and MinnPost as well as national organizations like ProPublica and NPR. 

For all the lack of trust in media, it’s hard to find a more credible source than the one you and your neighbors own.

The nonprofit model has been called the future of civic journalism, but it may not work for outlets like the Sun. The combination of grants, donations, and reader memberships has been a successful one for a range of publications, including local newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times and The Salt Lake Tribune. Community co-ops and advocates, however, see large swaths of the country that nonprofits can’t cover.

“I think the old way of looking at things was that you’re either for-profit, hedge fund owned, or you’re completely pure and nonprofit, and there’s nothing in between,” Ryckman said. “I’m a huge admirer of what [the founders] Evan Smith and John Thornton did at the Texas Tribune. But Colorado is not Texas, and we do not have access to the same kind of philanthropy. Colorado’s philanthropic community isn’t able to support a Texas Tribune.”

That competition for grants and donations is even tougher in smaller locales like Akron or Mendocino County. “Communities like ours aren’t necessarily full of foundations or wealthy philanthropists,” Maxwell said. “I think communities that don’t have a lot of existing economic resources can use this co-op model.”

A local news co-op can work financially, but getting it started is the hardest part. It’s no coincidence that the precious few U.S. examples operated for a few years before transitioning.

Tom Stites believes that’s where the Banyan Project comes in. Stites held editing positions at The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Kansas City Times before setting out to combat the local newspaper crash. He and his partners were looking for a new business model that was digital first, self-sustaining, and easy to replicate. After research and deliberation, he said, supporting co-ops was the “obvious, obvious thing to do.”

“Readers should experience journalism relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust,” Stites told me. “This was the only business model we came up with that well and truly fit.”

The Banyan Project is a nonprofit that will provide a web platform, mentorship, and community for local news co-ops that agree to meet a set of basic journalistic standards. Stites hopes co-ops that join can help and learn from one another as part of a Banyan network.

Stites wants to launch 20 news co-ops over three years, but the project is still fund-raising to get off the ground. He’s been in touch with the Mendocino Voice staffers, though, who in turn have spoken with The Devil Strip as they work through their co-op transition. The co-op community is a small one, but everyone involved knows the importance of working together to find a model that can work anywhere.

That’s partly because good news co-ops can have more than just a local impact. As we have explained in this magazine, a local news vacuum can end up being filled by Facebook posts, email forwards, and other sources of tall tales seemingly designed to frighten those without a reliable source of information. (See Paul Glastris, “Did the Fall of Local News Bring Us Authoritarianism in Washington?” in our July/August 2018 issue.) Nearby wildfires morph into a government conspiracy to burn down homes; peaceful protests become a front for busloads of violent anarchists looking to raze Main Street. “The lack of newspapers not only means that your local civic health is shot,” Stites said. “It also takes away the barrier to the really toxic stuff.”

For all the lack of trust in media, it’s hard to find a more credible source than the one you and your neighbors own. That’s the final part of the pitch The Devil Strip makes to potential co-owners: Not only are you buying a say in how your local paper is run, you’re also buying a stake in the civic health of your city and your country. “You have to be reliant on the people,” Moore-Dunson said. “If you’re a co-owner of The Devil Strip, we need you to be a part of the call to action.”

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly works for a labor union in Washington, D.C. Previously he was an editor at the Washington Monthly.