This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here.
“Hey everyone. I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman,” Meyberg Guzman said in a podcast episode last July for Santa Cruz Local.
“And I’m Stephen Baxter,” her co-founder and colleague replied.
“We’re the co-hosts of Santa Cruz Local, which is a podcast and website that reports on Santa Cruz’s public institutions,” Meyberg Guzman said. “But today, we’re trying something completely different.”
“We’re former print journalists building a local news startup in Santa Cruz,” Baxter said.
“We want to earn your trust,” Meyberg Guzman said after she and Baxter introduced the miniseries. “And to do that, we think you should get to know us. And vice versa.”
A little more than a year later, in the midst of a pandemic that’s shrinking local newsrooms and costing jobs, Santa Cruz Local hit a milestone last week. It hit the 500 member mark. Five hundred people now support the three-person team’s work with monthly payments that start at $9. About 80% of the site’s revenue now comes from membership.
Another milestone: Since the pandemic began, their newsletter subscriptions have more than tripled — to about 3,800.
And another — staff has grown to include a part-time business development and community engagement coordinator and Meyberg Guzman’s co-founder was able to leave his job to work at SC Local full time. She pays herself a small salary.
Last week, news industry analyst Ken Doctor’s new project, Lookout Santa Cruz, launched and made lots of news framed as the rival to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, owned by Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group.
But the Sentinel and its well-funded new rival are not the only media in town. Santa Cruz is served by KZSC, the local public radio station and KAZU for the Monterey Bay area. There’s local broadcast TV stations, an alt-weekly, Good Times Santa Cruz, and an independent nonprofit in the region that covers Santa Cruz, Voices of Monterey Bay.
The big gaps Meyberg Guzman and Baxter saw when starting their own newsroom were in in-depth public policy reporting at the county level.
Santa Cruz Local was founded by the two veteran local journalists as a podcast, newsletter and website devoted to covering public policy in Santa Cruz County.
Meyberg Guzman left her role as managing editor of the Sentinel in 2018, she wrote, “due to differences with this company’s management.” She and Baxter started meeting for coffee soon after. Their work is built on listening to the community to understand what kind of news it wants, what questions it has and offering different paths to getting it.
Among the topics they’ve covered since then: local elections, housing, policing and the pandemic.
But how do you podcast in a pandemic?
Meyberg Guzman and Baxter, who taught themselves to podcast, are figuring that out as they go.
She still goes out to conduct interviews in person, including recently at a homeless camp. She keeps interviews to a tight five minutes. And the Spanish translator she works with has started bringing masks to give people who don’t have them for interviews.
Baxter is still working from a coworking space in the Sentinel’s old newsroom. And production happens in a spare bedroom at Meyberg Guzman’s home.
Before and during the pandemic, the journalists are also listening through more than a dozen listening events throughout the community in partnership with area nonprofits and organizations.
“From the start, Santa Cruz Local has tried to understand what people want from us because it makes them more likely to value our work and it just makes our product just that much more valuable when it’s driven by the community,” Meyberg Guzman said.
They heard that people want coverage of the wage gap, homelessness, priorities around growth and development and, for people in a rural community on the coast, Meyberg Guzman said, solutions to the fire and fall risk posed by eucalyptus trees.
“That’s something I never would have thought of,” she said.
Membership will only get the young site so far, Meyberg Guzman said. They’re focusing next on building other sources of revenue, including grants and business sponsorships.
And there’s another wave of news on the way — the election. Santa Cruz Local is working now to understand what matters to voters, Meyberg Guzman said, including through remote listening sessions and a survey in English and Spanish.
By next month, they’ll use what they hear to share a list of questions to local candidates.
After leading an Alden newsroom, Meyberg Guzman said her work now feels like a different world.
Now, she’s optimistic. At Santa Cruz Local, she sees growth each week and a path to fiscal sustainability. And it’s not just her.
“The story of local journalism is not all bad,” she said. “There are bright spots all over the country, little tiny startups, local independent online newsrooms that are popping up all over the county to respond to the crisis that local journalism is facing.”
Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.