California publisher rescues newspaper shut down by nonprofit

We’ll see if that’s an indicator.

But the surprising fate of a weekly in California’s wine country deserves a closer look as America seeks to save its independent press system.

The Healdsburg Tribune scoured all models of local journalism — for-profit, nonprofit, and hybrid with some community support — before firing everyone and shutting down last month.

With the end of the long bull market and rising inflation, many more of the remaining independent newspapers may not survive. A wave of nonprofit outlets that has emerged in recent years may also be more difficult as the downturn hits foundations and individual donors.

Congress, which is aware of the precarious state of local journalism and is considering several bills to help it, may be too late to prevent the mass extinction of independent local media if it does not act quickly.

In Healdsburg, an explanation to readers published on April 28 said that “after struggling for years,” the Tribune “is ending its coverage of the community, ceasing all newsgathering activities and closing its downtown bureau.” -city, with immediate effect”.

However, shortly after this story appeared, the owner of a regional chain of weeklies stepped in to acquire the paper and extend its circulation by 157 years.

“We got started. Our most important mission was to make sure we didn’t miss any issues and the paper was saved,” said Dan Pulcrano, owner of the San Jose-based Weeklys chain, which now has 15 newspapers.

Pulcrano acquired the paper from a nonprofit organization, the Sonoma County Local News Initiative, which was formed in 2020 to take the paper back from local owners.

“It’s up to us to preserve local journalism, and together we can,” says its website.

The nonprofit inherited the debt when it acquired the papers and was “unable to keep it running,” Ray Holley, an adviser to the organization and former editor, told me.

The nonprofit’s main supporters told Holley “they’re interested in taking a break, taking a breather, keeping their nonprofit status and then deciding what they want. do in the future”.

Prior to turning the newspaper over to the nonprofit, the former owner, Sonoma West Publishers, pursued a hybrid model, seeking community support for its for-profit newspaper.

It worked well in some places, especially the Seattle Times. But the $400,000 raised in 2018 to support the Healdsburg newspaper wasn’t enough to keep it going.

Being non-profit would seem an obvious path, given the proliferation of these news outlets and the wealth of the local community.

Over the past 13 years, the number of nonprofit outlets has grown from a handful to about 400, according to Sue Cross, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Institute members enjoyed record donations last year and there are no signs of a slowdown in support yet. But economic disruption is now a big concern, especially for foundations, she said.

“We’re not seeing any slowdown in the formation of nonprofits, though, which means there are enough community funders to get them off the ground,” Cross said. “Maybe it’s just that there are more places where the news is really thin and people are trying to form something.”

Pulcrano said nonprofits “can be an appropriate solution when there’s nothing out there, but when nonprofits come up against established community organizations, it’s only another threat to an industry that has been beleaguered.”

He said there were still opportunities for for-profit local newspapers and that “print is tougher than most people realize.”

“The not-for-profit model, it certainly doesn’t have the decades of survivability that historical newspaper models have had,” he said. “So who knows if readers will continue to pay monthly fees indefinitely or if nonprofit foundations will change their minds and find other priorities to fulfill their social mission.”

Pulcrano’s approach is one used to support community newspapers in several states, with small chains acquiring declining newspapers, consolidating business operations and running small local newsrooms. They fill in coverage gaps left by the closure or significant reduction in coverage of regional and national dailies.

An open question is whether these publishers can and will invest enough in journalism to truly inform their communities and hold those responsible and institutions accountable. Another is how well they will be adopted by local readers and advertisers.

Pulcrano did not share the number of employees at the Healdsburg newspaper, but said reporters were needed to cover government, sports, reporting and community news.

“It will depend on community support,” he said. “I hope the community will be a bit patient while we rebuild – the house kind of burned down.”

For now, the newspaper is produced with staff from other newspapers in the company, which now employs 80 people.

“The real question is not how big the newspaper will be, but will Healdsburg have a newspaper,” he said.

Holley said there was a clear lesson to be learned from the Healdsburg situation:

“If your local paper tells you they’re having a hard time, you better take them seriously,” he said.

“The fact that the Tribune announces that he’s leaving and miraculously revived, that won’t happen very often, that’s probably the only thing,” he continued. “If you want your paper you have to support it, you have to watch those ads, go to the stores and tell people you saw it in the paper.”