Indie publishers explore partnerships with buy local movement

Could partnerships between buy local alliances and independent online publishers be a win-win  for the bottom lines of  both movements?

Susan Mernit, Michelle Ferrier and Bill Densmore think so.

For those who are not familiar, The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE, comprises 80 community networks in 30 U.S. states and Canadian provinces representing over 22,000 independent business members across the U.S. and Canada.

Through these Sustainable Business Alliances, BALLE works with independent businesses, strengthening their role as potent change agents within the local economy. At the core of this belief is the economic idea that a dollar spent at a local independently owned store becomes more valuable each time it is spent vs a dollar spent at a national chain where the dollar diminishes by leaving the locality.

BALLE has three networks in the Bay Area alone. So it’s not surprising to learn that Oakland Local’s April 2011 audience survey found that supporting local business is very important to more than 94% of the Oakland Local readers who participated.

“More than 40% of our audience are either entrepreneurs, small business people or self-employed, so it makes good sense they want to support business in Oakland,” said Susan Mernit, OL’s publisher and co-founder in a press release. “Their interest in shopping locally is a good match for our daily coverage of local communities, events and issues.”

One well established buy local initiative in the Oakland area is Oakland Grown and one of its products is the Oakland Grown Gift Card, which can be used exclusively at any of the member businesses.

“We purposely chose business that are doing great stuff,” said Mark McLeod, Executive director of the Oakland Sustainable Business Alliance, whose members consist of 250 local businesses, social enterprises, artisans and service providers. “Now we are exploring a loyalty card and a complementary currency.”

McLeod said his organization has a friendly relationship with Oakland Local.

But as a non-profit, online only newsroom, Oakland Local faces competition from the East Bay Express, a well-established independent news weekly that uses both paper and online channels. Turns out East Bay Express is a sponsor of Oakland Grown and Oakland Local — which has been a member of Oakland Grown since it launched — can’t afford to be a paying sponsor.

Still the two news organizations might have different audiences, with Oakland Local’s being  predominantly online. According to a 2011 OL survey, of Oakland Local’s 70,000 unique monthly readers  73% read Oakland Local on Facebook regularly, 34% rely on Twitter to track stories, 31% go straight to the web site and 7% track OL in their cell phone. When asked to self identify their roles, the audience broke themselves down as progressive (52.5%), change-maker (29.3%), entrepreneur (22.2%), and organizer ( 17.2%) , rather than as Geek (2%).

One barrier to entry into the BALLE world for a lean online start-up might be lack of bandwidth.  Working with a BALLE network takes time and commitment.  It might also require eschewing traditional organizations where local businesses gather – such as Local Chambers of Commerce.

Why is that? Although BALLE is invested in local businesses because they serve the locality, they don’t take the traditional route toward civic engagement by working with local Chambers. Instead BALLE networks are usually Sustainable Business Alliances,  which  adhere specifically to principles of the buy local movement.

“We’re getting more and more involved in direct economic development efforts,” says Kwan Booth, Oakland Local’s director of training, Oakland Local Academy. “We support local business through social media clinics that we’re now offering every week.”

Some online publishers and journalists are exploring an easier entre into the BALLE scene through the locally grown food and slow money movements.

Through her site, Locally Grown News, Michelle Ferrier has  been connecting with the local sustainability movement and has made a proposal to the national committee related to independent media.

“I definitely know their work and will be actively participating in their upcoming conferences,” Ferrier said in a Facebook chat. “Their Local First dovetails with local food very nicely, but I am working with them more at the national level than locally.”

Meanwhile, Bill Densmore,  a Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow, is creating a presence for independent media with  Slow Living, a tributary of  BALLE at its summit May 30-June 1 in Brattleboro, VT.

“It’s fertile territory,” Densmore said.  “Both parties have something to gain.”

The conversation to BALLE  members goes like this: “You guys can’t make the change you want to make happen unless you have the media onboard. At least paying more attention to it. Otherwise you are just preaching to the converted.

“It is important to encourage journalists and citizen journalists to come and understand the language of sustainability.”

And to the independent media, the invitation goes something like this:  “It is important for journalism to understand that it’s more likely to make it to the other side beyond the era of mass market journalism if it adopts some of the ideas that are common to the slow living movement.”

If you are working with you Local Sustainable Business Alliance or another buy local or sustainable business initiative, let us know how it’s going using hash #mybxb on Twitter or in the comments here or on the BlockbyBlockFacebook page. 

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