Why The Devil Strip, a local Ohio magazine, is becoming a community-owned co-op

Chris Horne, founder and publisher of The Devil Strip, an Akron, Ohio-based arts and culture magazine, likes to compare his publication to a small brewery. But instead of making craft beer, it churns out craft news. 

“You have an audience of people who are really passionate about that kind of thing. They really want that local craft beer experience,” he said. “But you also have a worker assembly at this brewery. And they care very much about the product they put out.”

In the case of The Devil Strip, those beer drinkers are readers, those workers are reporters and that house IPA is a free, monthly arts and culture magazine. And like many breweries popping up today, the magazine is in the midst of transitioning to a co-op ownership structure, under which those readers and reporters have an equal stake. 

The hope? The new membership program and ownership structure — a multi-stakeholder co-op model — will help keep The Devil Strip afloat, while also making Akron a more civically engaged, socially connected city.

The transition is still in progress, but The Devil Strip has already launched a beta group of members, begun audience research and received funding and mentorship. 

This week in Solution Set, we take a look at the origins of this innovative model, how it might affect the editorial operations of The Devil Strip and how it will go beyond revenue to help the magazine achieve its community-first mission. 

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one fabulous thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.



Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: After three years of operation, The Devil Strip ran into a dilemma familiar to many newsrooms: it couldn’t survive much longer on advertising revenue alone. So it asked itself, “How can we become financially sustainable, while still keeping our product accessible and engaging our community?” 

• The Strategy: In early 2018, The Devil Strip began considering the idea of a member-owned co-op. It launched a beta group of members to test the concept. 

• The Numbers: There are 150 members in its membership beta group. Once the co-op is launched, the magazine hopes to grow its membership base to at least 600.

• The Lessons: A member-owned co-op model isn’t just a revenue opportunity. It can also be a way to give readers and community stakeholders more say in the content of the magazine and create more social currency. And if done right, people will be willing to invest. 

• The Future: The Devil Strip hopes to experiment with member products such as an app that tracks and rewards users’ political activity and engagement with local businesses. 

• Want to know more? Scroll down to read the publisher’s vision for a member-owned co-op and other examples of how news orgs are pursuing cooperatives.


The Challenge

Chris Horne founded The Devil Strip, a monthly print newspaper covering arts, culture, and music in Akron, Ohio, at the end of 2014. Akron is a city of about 200,000, around an hour south of Cleveland.  

Horne started the publication without any outside startup capital, save for some support from local businesses and nonprofits who bought ads before the print issue even launched. He pulled together a passionate team of local volunteers who helped him get The Devil Strip off the ground. Soon enough, the magazine began generating enough revenue through print advertising to begin paying its contributors, but Horne said he never got to properly repay the ones who were there from the start. 

Fast forward to 2018, when The Devil Strip hit a wall. Printed monthly and distributed free to local businesses, the magazine was running solely on revenue from print advertisements. It quickly became clear that wouldn’t be enough.   

But instead of pushing the panic button, Horne saw this predicament as an opportunity. He’d been mulling over the idea of a worker co-op model from the start, a structure that would allow staff and contributors to buy shares in the magazine and become equal owners. But there wasn’t enough funding or much of a staff to support the model. 

Three years later, it was finally time to put that idea into practice and pull in those early supporters as owners.

“The worker co-op model was a way for me to think, ‘Well, how do we say thanks?’ basically,” Horne said.    

But it’s crucial that Akronites get a piece of the pie, too. What makes The Devil Strip unique is how much it cares about supporting and connecting the city. Its mission statement says it all: “A nakedly pro-Akron arts and culture magazine hellbent on building and sustaining community.” 

That’s why a consumer co-op model appealed to Horne, as well. Unlike a worker co-op model, readers — not employees — would invest to become both members and owners of the magazine. But Horne didn’t want to just get existing readers involved. Instead, he wanted to use the program to grow the magazine’s audience and build new relationships with Akron residents.

“We want to make sure we’re recruiting a diverse range of shareholders, people who run nonprofits and civic groups, neighborhood associations, people represented from every neighborhood in the city across a range of demographics,” he said. 

 The model is also a way to ensure that the magazine isn’t forced to use a paywall or charge for print issues, something Horne says would be contrary to The Devil Strip’s mission. Accessibility is essential, since the median household income in Akron is about $36,000 and about 24 percent of its residents fall below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But with that comes another challenge, as Horne explores what a co-op model — as well as a potential membership program — would look like.  

“That’s been one of the biggest questions that we have is making sure that this doesn’t become an elite product. Not that anybody in Akron is terribly elite,” Horne said. “But how do you make sure that everyone has access?’


The Strategy

All of these factors led to Horne’s brain child, which he calls a “Frankenstein” model. He has spent the past academic year as a JSK Fellow at Stanford. The fellowship program enables a group of journalists from around the world to spend time at the California university working on some of journalism’s thorniest problems. There, Horne researched other consumer co-ops and worker co-ops before arriving at a hybrid of the two: a multi-stakeholder co-op. 

As of now, the plan is to offer people the option to simply become a member (rather than a member-owner) of The Devil Strip, opening up a host of perks. What those perks will be is still to be determined, but Horne is considering members-only events, merchandise and special discounts for the city’s restaurants, shops, music venues, art galleries and theatres. 

This would complement the magazine’s existing Lift Akron program, a series of events — from volunteering to shopping to drinking — that encourage local investment. The program was started by Business Development Director Jessica Goldbourn and Editor-in-Chief Rosalie Murphy

“A big part of our mission is that we really try to encourage readers to spend more time and more money locally,” Murphy said.

Buying a share in the co-op, on the other hand, would make you a member-owner. That comes with all the same member perks, along with some decision making power in the magazine. The Devil Strip is receiving guidance on how that would work, thanks to a recent grant from The Membership Puzzle Project. The organization, which researches and funds membership experiments in journalism, also connected the magazine to a mentor outlet: The Bristol Cable in the United Kingdom. (For more on the Bristol Cable, scroll down to read a Solution Set report on its model we published last year.)

The Bristol Cable’s co-op model gives its member-owners some editorial control, a practice Murphy said The Devil Strip will likely adapt. 

“Every time their membership meets, which is a few times a year, the editorial staff brings them a list of potential investigations that they could do,” she said. “And then the membership votes on which one they’d like the staff to pursue.”

Utilizing its new funding and mentorship, The Devil Strip staff launched a beta group of members in spring 2018 and is currently conducting audience research to gauge what features would make non-readers want to sign up for a membership or member ownership. Horne calls these participants “co-designers” of the program. 


The Numbers

The beta group, lovingly nicknamed the Devil’s Advocate, had 150 members.

Horne hopes to grow to 600 to 800 once the co-op is officially launched, a range he says will make the model sustainable. But his “pie in the sky” goal is even higher. 

“I don’t want to think just about that, I want to grow into an organization that can really serve our community,” Horne said. “When I think about what that means, to me anyway, it’s how do we get to 5 or 10 or 20,000 people?”

The goal is to price memberships at $5 to $10 a month and member ownership at $150 to $350 total, with monthly payment and “sweat equity” options — or, the opportunity to earn shares through volunteer work, like helping to distribute the magazine. There’d also be multiple classes of share options, so some people could contribute in exchange for certain perks (but not extra shares or votes — Horne is determined to keep the structure equitable). Likewise, worker-owners have the option for sweat equity and vests after a set amount of time.

It received a $30,000 grant from The Membership Puzzle Project to help fund the transition.

The Devil Strip currently has 5 staffers: two full-time and two part-time employees, as well as 12 to 20 contributors every month. Horne doesn’t consider himself a full-time employee, since he has yet to take a salary from the magazine (though he hopes that will change soon). 

The Devil Strip distributes 15,000 copies a month to 150 locations across Akron. It averages 6,500 uniques and 22,800 views a month online, has more than 14,000 fans on Facebook, 6,700 followers on Instagram and 4,800 followers on Twitter.


The Lessons

• A co-op should guide content: While some editors would run and hide from the concept of allowing community member-owners to weigh in on content, Murphy invites the input from the community. 

“We are staffed primarily by a team of freelancers,” she said. “In that sense, the community is already setting the terms of the coverage, rather than it being more of a top-down approach. And I’m excited about the opportunity to broaden that.”

To Murphy, this is especially important since she sometimes feels out-of-touch with the needs and wants of Akronites who aren’t as tapped into the world of journalism as she is. Welcoming member-owners into editorial meetings would ensure The Devil Strip is a magazine readers want to, well, read. 

“The questions that readers have are not typically the same as the questions I have,” she said. “The things that are interesting to me are not necessarily the things that are interesting to the reader, just because our news consumption habits are so different.”

• Don’t assume what people can afford: Even though Horne considers accessibility to be key, he doesn’t think that the price of membership will be too big an obstacle.

Need proof? Look no further than the Cleveland Browns. 

“When I moved to Akron, you have all these Browns fans spending hundreds of dollars a year on fandom that amounts to one win in two seasons,” he said. “And you’re like, ‘Okay, if there’s enough motivation, people will pay for a lot of things.’” 

Rather than assume that people won’t pay for news, Horne said, outlets should produce products that people are willing to pay for. 

“There are lots of reasons to be into sports, even for bad teams,” he admitted. ‘The sense of community and camaraderie and identity. Can local news fill those needs?” 

• A co-op should connect people: Beyond encouraging people to patronize local businesses, Horne hopes that a member co-op will bring people together, whether it’s through editorial meetings or fun events.

Horne said newspapers used to fill this role through classified ads, but as they have disappeared — and taken revenue with them — that function has been filled by platforms such as Facebook. With the co-op model, Horne hopes the Devil Strip can bring back some of those connections. 

“If you wanted to buy something or sell something or find a date or find a job or list a job, you’d go to the classifieds. It always had that sort of centrality in the social network of wherever you lived,” Horne said. “And when we lost that, people focused on the lost revenue, which is important, but not nearly as important as a social currency that was lost.” 


The Future

Horne hopes to have a more definitive plan for the co-op by August or early September. But for now, he’s busy fantasizing about what digital products The Devil Strip could offer both its members and member-owners, especially ones that would achieve the magazine’s goals of uniting and sustaining the community. One idea came from an unlikely source: Pokémon Go.

“My kid is eight years old, and she loves this stuff,” he said. “You go and you check into these places, and you’re capturing your Pokémon. Are there ways to gamify the civic life that can be built into our membership platform or app?”

In other words, app users could check-in to locations and rack up points for patronizing local businesses, attending community meetings, voting, and more. Those points could then be redeemed in the form of discounts at restaurants, shops, or theaters. 

Whether the app exists or not, Horne hopes a co-op does way more than bring in new revenue for the magazine.

“A co-op just creates more opportunities for people to engage with us,’ Horne said. “And hopefully engaging with The Devil Strip is the first step to engaging the civic life in Akron.”


Want to know more?

• For more on the co-op model, check out our profile of The Bristol Cable from last year. The Cable launched as a co-op in 2014, and when we spoke with its leadership, it was figuring out how to adapt its model to its growing membership. 

• You can read Horne’s vision for a member owned co-op in this editorial, published in the February 2018 issue of The Devil Strip. 

• Here’s Nieman Lab on the MPP program that’s supporting The Devil Strip and others. 

• An increasing number of American businesses are becoming cooperatives. Fast Company dug into the reasons why. 


Anything to add?

We’re focusing Solution Set over the next few weeks on journalism-driven revenue products. Is your newsroom doing anything cool on that front? We’d love to learn more. Please reach out to [email protected] with any thoughts or questions.

See you next Thursday!

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