Building journalism equity from the ground up: from startup to co-op
Creating a newsroom model in Northern California deeply rooted in the community and that operates for the common good
In June of 2016, I was a staff reporter at The Willits News, a more than century-old Alden Global Media newspaper, which like many chain-owned outlets nationally, had seen years of newsroom cuts. On the day I walked in ready to quit, I discovered that the whole editorial staff had beaten me to the punch.
Earlier that day, the more experienced reporter, who, like me, made a dime over minimum wage, had put in his notice. He’d finally had to acknowledge he couldn’t keep using his retirement funds to cover rent. With a company-wide hiring and salary freeze, my editor knew she’d now be covering half a huge county with just one reporter, and threatened to quit.
They told her to go right ahead.
So I was left as the only full-time reporter covering northern Mendocino County, in Northern California. Although I’d been planning to leave, I now felt the full weight of informing our readers on my shoulders, and considered holding on a little longer. The paper was still in the black, so I asked the publisher for any raise. But when he delayed, indefinitely, I put in my notice as well. In 48 hours, our editorial staff had gone from three to none.
This story is common: A small, underpaid editorial staff struggles to do good work with less and less support, while consolidation and shrinking subscriptions lead to more cuts. Ultimately, you are left with only bad choices — or to start looking for a plan B. The other victims of this cycle are the readers, who see pricier subscriptions for thinner papers, and less reliable original coverage. And the spiral has only been further accelerated during the pandemic.
It’s an infuriating situation. A multitude of journalists wait eager to report. The public hungers for well-reported, reliable news. Yet tens of thousands of reporters compete for a shrinking pool of jobs, while scores of papers fold.
But crisis creates opportunity: Communities and reporters are looking to find sustainable models and create equitable newsrooms — to treat news as a public utility, to be operated for the common good.
A few months later another Alden colleague, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, and I launched an online news outlet, The Mendocino Voice, with big reporting ideas we wanted to test out in our vast rural county. Fortified by conversations with Berkeleyside, Mission Local, and Kym Kemp, but little publishing experience, we set our goal as providing “useful news for all of Mendocino.”
We wanted to build a worker-reader co-operative, while experimenting and reimagining how we defined and delivered the news. Importantly, we wanted our coverage to be more equitable and democratic. We understood there were urgent information needs not being met, communities not being covered, marginalized perspectives being ignored, and potential readers unable to access the news they needed. But we also knew that many of our readers wouldn’t be able to pay, many local businesses were tiny, and wealthy foundations and donors rare.
Mendocino, one of California’s poorer counties, is about 100 miles north of the Bay Area with about 90,000 residents, scattered between a couple of cities and many small towns. When I worked at the paper and radio station, I lived too far out of town to get the newspaper delivered, or a signal to hear my story air. The four Alden papers, along with town-based weeklies, and several community radio stations comprised the local news landscape when we started. A year later, The Willits News office was shut down, over Thanksgiving weekend.
From the jump, we set out to show readers we could provide a range of information — from sustained coverage of police activity and court proceedings, to an interactive community calendar of all local government meetings, to guides to new local and state cannabis regulations. We live-streamed local debates and protests, built a solutions journalism mapping project, and syndicated a weekly local news podcast with the low-power local radio stations.
Working side jobs, we weren’t always able to be consistent and we had dreams that were bigger than our budget. But we were able to be responsive, and we were beginning a conversation with our readers, listening and learning what information they most needed. That conversation has continued and remains at the core of what we do today — and is at the heart of many of the newer local news organizations that have sprung up across the country.
One thing we learned in these conversations was our blindspots. As professional reporters, we had assumed our in-depth coverage of local issues would be what demonstrated our value and built trust. Then, the unprecedented California wildfires began, and we quickly saw that providing accurate breaking news was the real trust builder. It was the nuts and bolts information that our readers depended on — hearing about shifting evacuation orders, or why they were seeing smoke in nearby hills, or whether the highway to work was open forged a bond that meant they were more likely to rely on, and believe, our local election coverage.
Because of our relationship with our readers, we were the first to report on the Redwood Fire in October 2017. Readers alerted us in the middle of the night, a few minutes before the blaze cut off power, internet and highway access to northern Mendocino County. The fire killed nine people, the county’s deadliest natural disaster on record. Over the next few days, still without power, we live-streamed emergency press conferences and from the fire, constantly published shifting evacuation information, and translated press conferences into Spanish. We became the primary source of information for tens of thousands of residents, as well as regional and national news outlets. Support from our readers poured in, spurring us to set up a donations button. But they also reported what was happening where they were, allowing us to fact-check and report the fire’s progress in almost real time, which was invaluable for those trying to get home or reach loved ones.
That fire turned out to be the first of a string of catastrophic fires and emergencies that have shaped our role. The following summer, 2018, we were again first on the scene of the Mendocino Complex, which would ultimately grow to become California’s largest fire on record. In 2019, PG&E’s precautionary power shut-offs left our county without power for over a week — a bit of a pickle for an online news outlet. But we quickly adjusted the ways we reached readers and worked with the community to provide continuous reliable updates even in the dark. Each time, we’ve focused on what our readers are asking about, and we asked them how we can improve.
When the pandemic hit, the circumstances felt familiar, but we also felt prepared. Shifting rumors about evacuations are much like rumors about coronavirus. Our experience with disasters taught us to share vital useful tools like testing locations, first, along with specific data and facts, and on the ground coverage of events to dispel misinformation — rather than feeding sensationalism with national news, political controversies or maudlin features exploiting suffering, without considering solutions.
This past August, lightning strikes in the Mendocino National Forest started fires that grew into the August Complex, which became California’s first million-acre fire and took the title of biggest fire from the Mendocino Complex. This time, we had the capacity and experience to report on everything from evacuations, to big picture coverage of the county’s long-term emergency plans, and explored solutions for the long-term mental health impacts of these disasters.
For us, covering these situations has been both a crash course and a proof of concept for a community-first local news outlet. We’ve developed partnerships with local community organizations and public radio, expanded our bilingual coverage, and added a Report for America staff member to help us grow our environmental and climate change coverage. Mendocino Voice now has the largest news staff in the county, we’ve earned the trust of many new newsreaders, and we’ve kept all our news free for everyone to read — but it’s still not enough to accomplish our goals.
We’ve learned a lot about what our community values by being responsive during emergencies, but as 2020 has shown us, such emergencies are not discrete events. As with natural disasters, to be resilient, it’s essential to take time to prepare, and to recover. It’s more urgent than ever that we start building more equitable ways to move forward.
If there is a silver lining to 2020, it’s that the relentlessness of this year has crystallized our focus. The pandemic has accelerated the cracks in the existing systems of information, but the same questions remain — and it’s time for a change. These existing systems are largely extracting profits from communities, instead of investing in them. This kind of reporting, propped up by an antiquated concept of objectivity, simply replicates and obscures the very inequalities it purports to illuminate. And at the heart of the problem are undemocratic newsrooms that fail to question injustices in their workplaces, and their communities.
As the existing system continues towards consolidation, and scale, local journalism needs to move in the opposite direction, treating local news as a commons, guided by a belief that the essential information our communities need should belong to everyone. That means we should apply the same principles of democracy, and equity, that we want to see in our communities to our news outlets. Communities are the best experts on their own information needs, and they should have ownership over their local news. And local news outlets, like a public utility, should be accessible, accountable to, and contribute to, the communities they serve.
So, after years of shoestring budgets, of fires and economic collapse, of pandemic and protest, of adjusting and reacting, we find ourselves still at the beginning of our journey of building a local news outlet. Only now we’re ready to take everything we’ve learned and pass it on, and to transition to a truly democratic organization that is both owned and created by our community.
Our plan is to build this same equity into the structure of our news organization, our coverage, and our business model as a co-op. But just as Chicago looks different than Miami looks different than rural Ohio, what shape that takes will look different across the country. The crumbling of local news outlets may currently feel like a crisis of desertification, but it has already also opened up space for communities across the country to imagine new models, to plant seeds and to give them room to grow.