It may be pushing the season for a year-end column but I’d like to share updates on several stories from 2023. Besides, I only recently mailed Christmas cards.
I’m pleased to report that three local news ventures I wrote about, including an online startup and two brave newspaper projects, are doing well and slowing the spread of news deserts in Washington.
This is early days and a small sample. But it suggests there’s still hope for sustaining America’s local, independent press system, especially when there’s the right mix of support, business opportunity and people motivated to serve their communities by reporting and publishing the news.
Gig Harbor Now growing: The news startup, Gig Harbor Now, reached several milestones since I wrote in May about its emergence.
Concerned about the loss of local coverage, a group of residents raised nearly $100,000 from friends, family and grants to launch the online, nonprofit news outlet in 2021.
It ended 2023 with a surge of donations, more than 1 million webpage views and 3,500 subscribers to its digital newsletter.
“Everything’s growing quite a bit,” said Executive Director Jenny Wellman.
The outlet also passed big tests when it unhesitatingly covered issues around a park district seeking to extend and raise its levy.
The coverage caused a stir, according to founder Pat Lantz. It came as Gig Harbor Now’s business side was looking for more donations and sponsorships.
Lantz, a former legislator who recently retired from the outlet’s board, said such coverage can get a strong response because some grew accustomed to having no local reporting.
Covering controversies “will test our fortitude” but Editor Vince Dice, a Kitsap Sun veteran, held firm, she said.
“I think it was a very good test of Vince’s and our firewall because we were absolutely strong and keeping that firewall up,” she said.
Lantz doesn’t believe the coverage hurt fundraising. Support is actually increasing, as the outlet grows its stature and respect within the community.
“I think there’s a recognition of the value of what we’re doing now that transcends a person’s personal thoughts on issues,” she said.
Wellman said fundraising in November and December blew past its $50,000 goal, drawing around $104,000. That could be matched by at least $20,000 from the Institute for Nonprofit News’ NewsMatch grant program.
With that support, and growing ad sales, the outlet is considering hiring a journalist to supplement Dice and a cadre of freelancers.
“During the fall we had just a lot of really good impactful stories, things that people were really interested in,” Wellman said. “I think people became more aware of us over time, the stories were getting talked about in the community more. I think it just grew based on that, based on the quality of stories.”
Eagle evolving: In August I wrote that the Wahkiakum County Eagle would continue under new co-publishers, Jacob Nelson, a Microsoft researcher, and his husband, theater actor, director and playwright Brandon Simmons.
Nelson’s family published the paper since 1966 but its fate was unclear after his father, Rick Nelson, died in June.
The new publishers spent the ensuing months figuring out how the paper works and are beginning to make small changes, Jacob Nelson said.
“We want to make some tweaks to make things operate more efficiently, to help the paper better serve the community,” he said.
One change, announced Jan. 4 in response to reader feedback, was to ask that letters to the editor address “local social or political topics” or respond to the paper’s reporting.
Further changes may come after the paper meets with readers and non-readers in February, to gather more feedback and suggestions.
The co-publishers still divide time between Seattle and Cathlamet, with Simmons spending more time at the paper as he’s more involved with design and production.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Nelson said. “I’m focusing more on the business side and its been really satisfying to understand the fundamentals of the business and get them all into nice order. Brandon is having a ton of fun, he’s really enjoying using his creative juices in this more structured way.”
The Eagle is also discussing collaboration with the Chinook Observer and an Astoria public radio station, to share some reporting.
“Subscriptions have held steady, we’ve had lots of positive feedback, people thankful for us keeping the paper going,” Nelson said.
Expanding in north-central Washington: A quick turnaround followed the August sale of a group of small papers in north-central Washington.
I wrote about how Port Townsend-based Terry Ward and Amy Yaley acquired the group as it teetered on the brink of failure.
The sale included the weeklies Leavenworth Echo, Cashmere Valley Record, Lake Chelan Mirror and Brewster’s Quad City Herald and the monthly Wenatchee Business Journal.
Ward, a former Sound Publishing executive, said the company is stable and growing. Eight days into January, it had already doubled the amount of revenue the papers made in all of the previous January.
Three sales staffers were added along with two additional reporters plus freelancers, and they’re interviewing for an additional reporter.
Combined, the papers are getting three or four new subscribers a week. “It’s nothing huge but for small communities like this it’s pretty good,” Ward said.
Growth should accelerate after a new website launches in February and the team begins pushing for more engagement.
“My focus has been how do we get staffed up, how do we get enough contributors,” Ward said.
Ward and Yaley achieved their initial goal of hiring one reporter per newspaper, or at least they had until one left for Seattle.
Pioneer Square press status: There are still no takers for the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce’s printing press. In September I wrote about CEO Phil Brown wanting to give the equipment to another publisher for free.
“So far it’s just sitting there collecting dust,” he said via email on Jan. 2.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website, st.news/SavetheFreePress. Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.