Mountain Area Information Network

'MAIN 2.0' envisions new
revenue model for news

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Creating a new business model for journalism was the focus of the "MAIN 2.0" vision presented Feb. 23 by Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).

Speaking to about 60 people at Pack Library, Bowen cited the recent bankruptcies of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News as growing evidence of the collapse of advertising-supported journalism. While this collapse is a serious threat to democracy, Bowen said it is also an historic opportunity, noting that "sometimes it takes a breakdown to create a breakthrough."

MAIN's breakthrough, said Bowen, is a business model for journalism based on revenue from its nonprofit Internet access business, launched in 1996. With community and foundation support, MAIN has kept its ISP business alive while an estimated 7,000 independent ISPs have closed their doors since 2000, he said.

"We not only survived as an ISP; we also expanded our infrastructure by adding a radio station in 2003, and we increased our media reform advocacy at the state and national levels," he said.

Bowen said a key aspect of this new model is the creation and delivery of content over multiple media platforms -- the nonprofit Web portal, public access TV, and MAIN's low-power FM radio station, WPVM, the Progressive Voice of the Mountains. This "cross-platform" delivery currently includes the radio broadcast, plus webcasts and podcasts via the Web portal. Public access TV will be added soon, he said.

Aggregating content over various media platforms also enables cross-promotion of the MAIN brand, while aggregating a growing local and regional audience, Bowen said. This audience, in turn, will attract underwriting fees from local businesses anxious to reach "conscientious customers who believe in keeping their dollars local," he said.

A third revenue stream would come from a small business and marketing "co-op" using social-networking tools to help local businesses deepen ties to local and regional markets -- and to each other. A similar networking platform will be provided for WNC nonprofit and advocacy organizations, he said.

Bowen added that MAIN would continue its role as a technology partner for WNC nonprofits and agencies. Since 1996, MAIN has partnered with the Western Alliance and Pathways for the Future in recycling computers to citizens with disabilities and providing free or low-cost Internet access. MAIN is currently partnering with the Housing Authority of Asheville and Asheville City Schools to seek funding to extend MAIN's Wi-Fi City network to public housing and key community centers used by at-risk students. Asheville City Council unanimously endorsed the Wi-Fi City network in March, 2008.

MAIN's multiple revenue streams will help support credible, community-oriented news edited by professional journalists and eventually paying stipends to citizen-journalists, he said. Grants for special projects and investigative reporting will also enable MAIN to pay its reporters.

Last November's historic victory at the Federal Communications Commission -- the 5-0 vote for unlicensed use of vacant TV channels, the so-called "white spaces" -- means that MAIN will soon become a mobile broadband provider, Bowen said.

This new wireless broadband technology is capable of speeds to support high-definition video and will launch a revolution in the use of mobile devices, including mobile telemedicine applications, Bowen said. "Imagine what this means for the collection and delivery of news, in real time from the field via citizen-journalists," he added.

Bowen said this new technology is still being developed but could reach market in about a year. Meanwhile, MAIN"s business model will continue to enable WNC residents to keep their Internet dollars local by hosting their websites with MAIN or using the nonprofit's dial-up access -- now available nationwide -- or its wireless broadband in parts of Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

He added that WNC is unique in having a large number of locally-owned fiber networks to support MAIN's "last-mile" broadband service to homes, businesses, and eventually mobile devices. Most of these fiber networks -- launched with help from the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority -- are also nonprofits and thereby help keep MAIN's costs down, strengthening the sustainable business model while keeping broadband rates affordable.

Though MAIN's breakthrough business model is not fully realized, it remains one of the most promising models in the growing national debate on the future of journalism. "Our premise is very simple: Instead of writing a check each month to AT&T, Verizon or Charter, you can write your check to MAIN and know that your dollars are going to support quality community journalism," he said.

MAIN's model could soon get a boost in network expansion via broadband stimulus funding. Bowen said MAIN has three "shovel-ready" projects: extending Wi-Fi City coverage to public housing in Asheville, Spring Creek Township in Madison County, and increasing the capacity of its four-county network to accommodate a surge in new broadband subscribers. END