August 8, 2018

The original version of this story has been updated with a correction.

Wildfires have consumed close to 100,000 acres in northern California’s Mendocino County this week. About 15,000 of the 87,000 residents there have been evacuated from their homes. 

Public emergencies like this are a stress test on the state of increasingly beleaguered local news, as lives are at stake over people’s ability to access information about their community.

In Mendocino County and hundreds of other communities across the country, in addition to traditional media, grassroots local journalism initiatives are emerging to fill the gaps.

The Mendocino Voice, launched two years ago by two former Willits News reporters, has been updating residents almost around the clock about shifting evacuation zones, services for the displaced and efforts to contain the fires since they broke out. A typical audience of about 15,000 people tuning in for news about local planning commission or school board meetings has swelled to more than 76,000 during the wildfire coverage.

A similar scenario is playing out across California. Lake County News, from Mendocino-neighboring Lake County, and Sierra News Online, near Yosemite, are providing crucial and exclusive wildfire coverage in their communities this week. 

Downstate, Berkeleyside and Santa Barbara’s Noozhawk provide journalistic and business model inspiration as longer-established online news sites that have achieved financial sustainability and added reporting resources over the years.

All are members of LION, a nonprofit with 225 members in 45 states that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations. Its membership — both for-profit and nonprofit sites, niche and general interest — has doubled in the past few years. The Institute for Nonprofit News, which supports both local and national nonprofit news organizations, has experienced similar growth.

The founders of Mendocino Voice, like so many other local online news publishers, are making the transition from being journalists to also running a business. They are part of a LION program, made possible with support from the Democracy Fund, that is helping local news sites figure out local advertising sales by pairing them with veteran local online news publishers who’ve been successful at it.

Newspapers continue to make steep cuts to local journalism. We can hope that those losses will be stemmed at some point, and try to help (willing ownership, at least) figure out how. But replacing what’s been lost will be up to individual communities taking responsibility for their own news and information needs, and supporting locally and independently owned and operated, grassroots solutions.

It’s far from an easy business. It doesn’t “scale.” And it won’t interest a hedge fund or investment banker. But there are now hundreds of examples of local online news sites that have found financially sustainable business models. There is still strong demand from local advertisers who want to be associated with quality local journalism and in front of the people who consume it. And local online news organizations have benefited greatly over the past two years from readers’ increasing willingness to support local journalism with digital subscriptions or memberships.

And while there are some full-service exceptions, most local independent online news startups won’t do everything that a traditional newspaper used to do. That’s OK. 

First of all, traditional newspapers didn’t do everything that our romanticized memories ascribe to them. 

It’s difficult to remember a time when local newspapers in those states covered an issue such as health care as well as North Carolina Health News or Connecticut Health Investigative Team, newspapers covered gun violence as well as The Trace, or immigration as well as Migratory Notes

And entire communities and groups of people were not represented in their pages. Local online news efforts such as City Bureau, Madison 365, MLK 50 and Project Q Atlanta are chipping away at that longstanding “information inequality.”

For-profit and nonprofit local online news organizations are the fastest-growing and most promising part of an emerging local news ecosystem that will also include public radio, citizen journalism, local TV, niche single-subject publications, reimagined online alt-weeklies, journalism pursued by activist organizations and think tanks, library information projects, student media, and what’s left of traditional newspapers.

Taken together, nurtured by funders and community members who are agnostic about what comes next, and strengthened by collaboration, there’s a framework in sight for replacing — and in some cases exceeding — the local journalism we’ve lost.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly implied that four newspapers in Mendocino County no longer cover their communities. Not so, as the commenter below points out. The paragraph with the incorrect information has been cut from the story. We apologize for the error.

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