On Sunday afternoon, more than 150 people, including notables from publishing, business and foundations, gathered in Raleigh's Five Points neighborhood to meet Washington Post editor Martin Baron. Following a screening at the Rialto of the new film Spotlight, which dramatizes Baron's role in uncovering a decades-long cover-up of clerical sex abuse in Boston, the crowd moved next door to Proof for food, drink and discussion.
It looked like a celebration of establishment media, but the occasion was to support underdog journalism: an innovative venture called the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative, an RTP-based incubator that will open in the spring.
The cooperative will be housed at The Frontier, a largely free co-working space. Close to 7,000 square feet will be upfitted with enough room for about 100 journalists. Thanks to what amounts to a rent subsidy from the Research Triangle Foundation, which operates RTP, the journalists would pay a modest amount per month—an exact figure hasn't been announced—for the privilege, as well as amenities like Wi-Fi and podcasting facilities. The co-op will cater primarily to local freelancers, though at least one news organization, N.C. Health News, plans to make the space its brick-and-mortar base.
The incubator also envisions fostering things like hackathons, helping writers monetize their work in new ways and acting as a broker connecting writers with content that needs to be produced.
The co-op is the brainchild of three experienced, well-connected people: Hugh Stevens, a First Amendment lawyer and counsel for the N.C. Press Foundation; Mary E. Miller, an entrepreneur and former News & Observer reporter who is married to Bob Geolas, president and CEO of Research Triangle Foundation; and Seth Effron, an early pioneer of online news who did a stint as deputy curator and special projects director at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.
Effron admits that, while the idea of a member-owned news co-op isn't new—the Associated Press is a cooperative, after all—the business model for this enterprise is still a work in progress. "We haven't found a model yet," he says. "But we want to focus on enabling other people to create revenue and help journalists make money."
Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News is another early organizer. While Hoban has successfully carved out a nonprofit niche for NCHN, she recalls telling Miller, "We need to do something more disruptive." One model Hoban has in mind is The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit online news site founded in 2009.
A frequently mentioned benefit of the co-op is its potential to re-create the newsroom atmosphere, even as actual newsrooms are being thinned out and sold for scrap.
"There's something about the collaborative spirit making things better," says Kirk Ross, a former INDY managing editor who writes for two nonprofit news outlets.
For Ross, the emergence of the cooperative is another sign that, after two decades of relentless disruption and retrenchment, the decline of journalism has slowed enough to allow a glimmer of optimism to return.
"The brave new world used to be so depressing," Ross says. "Now there's more money and less clinging to old ways."
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