Are co-ops the future of journalism?

We — journalists and communities alike — cannot leave the production and financing of public-interest reporting solely in the care of institutions that are ultimately self-interested.

Even mission-minded commercial news organizations are forced to face the financial bottom line imposed by the shareholders. Even charitably funded nonprofit news agencies are constrained by the priorities of their major grantmakers.

The good works of these entities are worth celebrating — but what will it take to work around their shortcomings?

The current mass-media economy, both commercial and nonprofit, is demonstrably inadequate to the task of serving the full spectrum of the public interest. The great challenge of journalism’s future is not to wring the most value out of digital technologies. What this moment in democracy demands is a new path for journalists and communities to fund and cover those critical information needs that are neglected by the attention economy, with its relentless search for trending topics and digital fascinations.

The innovation required here is social, not technological. Technology is just a means to an end.

Let’s go a little deeper on the mutual responsibilities of journalists and communities in fulfilling the promise of the Fourth Estate in a democratic society.

Communities must take responsibility for ensuring their own information needs are fulfilled.

Commercial news organizations often struggle to serve the public-interest information needs of diverse communities, many of which lack appeal to advertisers seeking access to well-heeled audiences.

Nonprofit media, on the other hand, simply don’t have the funding.

But communities have the power to organize and advocate for their own public-interest information needs. Organized communities can form consumer co-ops or giving circles that can support journalism that’s relevant to their lives.

Some resources and pioneering efforts include:

Journalists must take responsibility for improving their own working conditions.

One path is entrepreneurial, and involves building institutions. Another, less traveled, involves organizing journalists within their peer communities. The sharing economy and the emergence of platform coops makes it possible for journalists to work independently in collective situations, using shared brands and tapping into shared services.

The culture of democracy and the future of journalism

Ultimately, the crisis of journalism is a crisis of values, priorities and ethical commitment in our democracy.

Until we put human need — and human rights — at the center of all our decision-making about journalism and media, rather than financial profit, we will live in an impoverished democracy that is susceptible to political demagoguery and commercial abuses.

Journalists and communities only have the world to gain by working together. Community-based financing — be it for co-ops or crowdfunding campaigns, giving circles or some other collective action — represent a profound hope for advancing the public-interest performance of news media.

At the heart of this is a new expression of an old public-benefit relationship. Journalism in the public interest is charitable, not commercial, which is precisely why there’s such a lack of it in our profit-oriented mass media.

A consumer co-op or giving circle to finance unmet information needs therefore represents a distinct set of values and priorities for news media — and a culture of engagement with civic and democratic life that is our greatest hope for a new type of sustainable, professional journalism.