News industry analyst turned entrepreneur Ken Doctor launches a local news site in Santa Cruz

‘With 45% of the industry now in the hands of financial companies … I do look at this field as having a better future,’ Doctor said.

August 6, 2020

As promised last fall, Ken Doctor is turning from reporting and analyzing the trials of the local news industry to creating Lookout Local, an ambitious digital site serving his home county of Santa Cruz, California.

Doctor told me he has startup grants of $2.5 million and plans to begin with eight to 10 reporters, six business and tech staffers and himself as CEO.

He also has struck a partnership with the Los Angeles Times (300-some miles away), sharing news content back and forth and piggybacking on their Graphene content management system.

The launch, announced Thursday, is planned for sometime in the late fall. This is the beta version of an idea he has been nurturing for a long time, Doctor said, and if all goes well, he would hope to export it more broadly around the country.

Lookout Local’s national logo (Courtesy)

He added his first collaborator last week: Jed Williams, a business development specialist, most recently the Austin-based chief strategy officer for the Local Media Association. Williams will be Lookout Local’s chief revenue officer.

Williams said that he thinks the Lookout design will especially suit markets with populations of 250,000 to 750,000. After rounds of cuts to newspapers, especially those owned by hedge-fund controlled chains, many of those markets are “emerging news deserts” he said.

Santa Cruz, “on the other side of the mountains from Silicon Valley,” Doctor said, is at the small end of that population range with approximately 275,000 residents.

The site will be paywall protected and offer premium memberships at different levels. At the same time, Lookout Local will seek sponsorships and advertising from the business community and affiliations with an assortment of community groups.

They expect newsletters and audio to be an important part of the content mix.

Doctor’s coverage of the industry has left him convinced that good journalism is necessary but not sufficient for success. “There are thousands of good journalists out there plying their trade,” he said, “but many do not have reader support.”

Ultimately, one ambition for Lookout is that the range of topics and an abundance of local content will be “reader-directed.”

In drawing up plans, Doctor said, he drew on best practices at a range of outlets he has written about, among them The Daily Memphian, Charlotte Agenda, Vermont Digger and The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.

Three of those are for-profit companies. Lookout will be, too, but also a public benefit corporation — more easily allowing for tax-deductible donations and foundation grants.

“We needed to be big enough and pay good salaries to cover the whole county” out of the gate, Doctor said. For that reason he took time to raise enough launch capital to establish a presence and justify charging for content.

Main sources of funding are the Knight Foundation, the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, with added support from local foundations and individuals.

The newspaper that serves the county, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, is part of Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group, which operates a cluster of San Francisco and San Jose-area papers together. It has few reporters, Doctor said, but he was not sure how many. Lookout plans to field a bigger news staff.

Santa Cruz has another digital news startup, the year-old Santa Cruz Local, which describes itself as “a local news podcast, newsletter and website about public policy in Santa Cruz County.” CEO Kara Meyberg Guzman, who began with a business partner but little financing, had been managing editor of the Sentinel.

Doctor told me he means several things in choosing Lookout as his brand. “It’s accountability journalism first of all” (i.e. watching those in power),” he said, but also “supporting community betterment in general terms.” And, in addition, “a guide to city life and enjoying it” — a staple of entrepreneur Ted Williams’ Charlotte Agenda. 

Doctor said that he expects to have informal partnerships with at least 60 civic organizations.

He plans to still write occasionally about industry trends on his own Newsonomics site and for Nieman Lab.

I asked if the career turn indicated that he felt the financial decline of regional newspapers which he (and I) have chronicled is irreversible. To an extent, yes, Doctor replied, “with 45% of the industry now in the hands of financial companies … I do look at this field as having a better future.”

Plus, he is pivoting back to where he started out — “working on a weekly startup in Eugene, Oregon, in 1975.”

He described Santa Cruz as “a great place but with a lot of problems,” starting with a lack of affordable housing. Among other motivations, Doctor said, “I would love to have a good news source for me and my friends.”

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.