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Publishers of two online papers take on the challenge of covering local news

The JOLT and the Washington State Standard

Ask about the public’s appetite for local news, and journalists naturally reach for a nutritional metaphor. People say they want local news, but plenty of tastier fare vies for their attention online, says Bill Lucia, editor of the new Washington State Standard. “People will say they have an appetite for vegetables, too.”

The mission statement for the local Journal of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, The JOLT, promises to “nourish the civic lives of Thurston County residents,” but editor Danny Stusser believes most people can’t stomach a steady diet of government meeting coverage. He supplements with features, columns, event listings, photography and stories about local people. “We need a little spice with our vegetables.”

Whether they actually partake or not, most people agree local journalism is essential to a healthy democracy. To cite just one example, studies show that people who live in areas with poor news coverage are less likely to vote.

“I think people are increasingly souring on the noise of the national political debate,” says Lucia. “People want to know what’s going on closest to them, in their community.”

The good news is that at least two Olympia-based online dailies now provide free, fact-based, nonpartisan news. The JOLT has been covering local issues for more than three years, while the Washington State Standard debuted in May with coverage of state politics and government policy.

Both publications offer a daily newsletter, which consists of an emailed list of annotated headlines that link to complete articles. Neither requires subscribers to pay or register.

Traditional news organizations are struggling

“The news ecosystem across America is broken,” says a JOLT information sheet. Most of the advertising revenues that used to go to news organizations now goes primarily to large social media companies.

“Never has the power to control public discourse been so completely in the hands of a few profit-seeking corporations with no requirements to serve the public good,” observed a recent New York Times opinion piece. Thousands of print newspapers have gone out of business in the last two decades. As a result, 20% of Americans now live in communities with little or no local news. According to a report from the office of US Sen. Maria Cantwell, almost 70% of newspaper newsroom jobs were lost in Washington state from 2005 to 2020.

“It’s really important to have an independent journalist in every public arena because … otherwise there’s no watchdog,” Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser recently told the Seattle Times. “I think the smaller the government the more dangerous it is because it’s more insular and provincial.” Keiser, a former journalist herself, got a $2.4 million journalism-fellowship program added to the biennial state budget approved earlier this year.

A nonprofit still faces financial challenges

For his part, Stusser used $44,000 of his own money and a pandemic-induced hiatus to launch The JOLT in May 2020. The publication converted to nonprofit status the following year.

Stusser and Lucia agree that the nonprofit model is the only sustainable way forward for public-service journalism at the local level. The JOLT hopes to raise about $300,000 this year, half through contributions from local individuals and businesses, and the rest through advertising and foundation grants. So far, it has fallen well short of that goal.

To make it work, The JOLT has used a site called OnlineJobs to directly hire journalists and an editor based in the Philippines. Locally-based staff including columnists is made up of part-time people, some of whom volunteer. Stusser recently published an article with a link to bios for all of The JOLT’s editors, reporters and contributors, including those based in the Philippines. The Philippines staff members do make less than Washington state minimum wage, but about as much as a teacher in the Philippines earns. “The people we hire are all experienced reporters,” Stusser says. “They are trained in journalism; committed to their beats and to us.”

While The JOLT has been criticized for using non-local staff, Stusser explains that the overseas and local staff often work in tandem, with a staff member in the Philippines watching government meetings online, writing and reporting, sometimes with help from local colleagues who do additional legwork.

Stusser acknowledges that something is lost when journalists report from afar, but for now it is the only way The JOLT can afford to cover a wide range of local-government meetings, which would otherwise go unreported. With the budget stretched paper thin, Stusser and The JOLT’s seven-member board of directors are committed to keeping the newspaper free and easily accessible.

Survival of local news depends on community support

Stusser’s professional background is in marketing research, but he edited the student newspaper at his Seattle high school and remained an avid news consumer and critic: “Why didn’t they answer this Big Question? Why didn’t they localize this national story?”

While Stusser serves as editor, among other roles, he hopes to set aside enough funds to attract a full-time experienced news editor, which would allow him to focus on raising funds. “Development director is now the most urgent job,” he says. “Because without some major contributions, I don’t see how this will continue.”

Stusser thought he could count on pent-up demand for quality, free local news to sustain The JOLT through its infancy. JOLT’s commitment to local coverage means no stories about state, national or international happenings. But it’s tough to divert readers’ attention away from the latest shooting in Seattle to a local controversy over sidewalks.

Readers have not consumed this nutritious fare in the numbers Stusser had hoped for. Many people have gradually gotten used to consuming less local news over the last 25 years, he says. “If you don’t know there’s a local problem that you might be able to do something about, you can focus on anything else you’re interested in in life.”

The JOLT impact

While the number of rapt readers may be small, The JOLT has had an impact on the kind of public affairs those people care about. While maintaining editorial neutrality The JOLT ran dozens of news articles and opinion pieces, pro and con, about a controversial plan to consolidate Tumwater and Olympia fire services into a Regional Fire Authority.

In an area that generally approves levies, a majority of voters rejected the proposal. “Probably, our coverage had something to do with that,” says Stusser. “The voters deserved to get information from more than the city governments and the fire-fighters unions and that’s what we provided,” he says.

More than 400 individual donors responded to the most recent annual fund-raising campaign, and a couple dozen more have since hit the red DONATE button. The number of newsletter subscribers has increased 29% since the beginning of the year. “I’m happy about that,” says Stusser, who hopes to identify donors who will make contributions with “several zeroes.”

For morale and business support, The JOLT belongs to the national Institute for Nonprofit News and the national nonprofit Local Independent Online News. “Without them,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been foolish enough to try this on my own.”

A newcomer warms up for the state legislative session

The Washington State Standard is counting on another kind of collaborative nonprofit model. A tax-exempt umbrella organization, States Newsroom, oversees business and budgets for 36 state affiliates. It is sustained entirely by donations and institutional grants. No advertising or corporate underwriting. The names of more than 200 big donors are listed on their website.

Their mission is to revitalize the frayed fabric of state-government news coverage across the country. “We see ourselves as a statewide publication,” says Lucia, but state politics and policies often impact communities and local governments.

The Standard aims for at least two fresh, staff-written stories daily, and borrows additional content from other Northwest affiliates. “We have this really awesome selection of regional coverage a lot of days that nobody else is really providing.” All original content is open for other news organizations to republish, broadening the Standard’s visibility and impact.

Lucia won’t say exactly how many subscribers the newspaper has accumulated, but it is growing daily and weighted toward state government employees.

When the next Legislative session opens, the Standard’s three reporters will reinforce the dwindling number of statehouse reporters in Olympia. “We will not be covering the session via TVW,” says Lucia. “We’ll be there in person.”

Margaret Thomas, a retired community college librarian and former journalist, lives in Tumwater.

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