We’ll see if it’s a bellwether.
But the surprising fate of a weekly newspaper in California wine country is worth a closer look as America looks to save its independent press system.
The Healdsburg Tribune cycled through all the models for local journalism — for-profit, nonprofit and hybrid with some community support — before laying everyone off and shutting down last month.
With the long bull market ending and inflation rising, many more of the remaining independent newspapers may not survive. A wave of nonprofit outlets that emerged in recent years may also find tougher going as the downturn affects foundations and individual donors.
Congress, which is aware of the precarious state of local journalism and considering several bills to help, may be too late to prevent mass extinction of independent local news outlets if it doesn’t act soon.
In Healdsburg, an explanation to readers published April 28 said that “after struggling for years” the Tribune “is ending its coverage of the community, ceasing all newsgathering activities and closing its downtown office, effective immediately.”
Right after that story appeared, though, the owner of a regional chain of weekly newspapers stepped in to acquire the paper and extend its 157-year run.
“We just jumped in. Our most important mission was to make sure we didn’t miss an issue and the newspaper was saved,” said Dan Pulcrano, owner of the San Jose-based chain Weeklys, which now has 15 papers.
Pulcrano acquired the paper from a nonprofit, the Sonoma County Local News Initiative, formed in 2020 to take over the paper from local owners.
“It’s up to us to preserve local journalism, and together we can,” its website still says.
The nonprofit inherited debt when it acquired the papers and was “unable to make it work,” Ray Holley, an advisor to the organization and former managing editor, told me.
Principal supporters of the nonprofit told Holley “they’re interested in taking a break, taking a breath, keeping their nonprofit status and then deciding what they want to do in the future.”
Before turning the paper over to the nonprofit, the previous owner, Sonoma West Publishers, pursued a hybrid model, seeking community support for their for-profit paper.
That’s worked well in some places, particularly at The Seattle Times. But the $400,000 raised in 2018 to sustain the Healdsburg paper wasn’t enough to keep it going.
Going nonprofit would seem an obvious path, given the proliferation of such news outlets and the local community’s wealth.
Over the last 13 years the number of nonprofit outlets grew from a handful to around 400, according to Sue Cross, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Institute members benefited from record donations last year and there’s no sign yet of slowing support. But economic disruption is now a big concern, particularly for foundations, she said.
“We are not, however, seeing any slowdown in the formation of nonprofits, so that means there’s enough community backers to get them off the ground,” Cross said. “That may just be there are more places where the news is really thin and people are trying to form something.”
Pulcrano said nonprofits “can be an appropriate solution when there’s nothing there but when nonprofits go up against established community organizations, it’s just another threat for an industry that’s been embattled.”
He said there’s still opportunity for for-profit local newspapers and “print is more resilient than most people think.”
“The nonprofit model, it certainly doesn’t have decades of survivability that the historic newspaper models have had,” he said. “So who knows if readers will continue to pay monthly fees indefinitely or if nonprofit foundations will change their mind and find other priorities to fulfill their social mission.”
Pulcrano’s approach is one that’s being used to sustain community papers in several states, with small chains acquiring fading papers, consolidating business operations and running small, local newsrooms. They’re filling gaps in coverage left as regional and state dailies close or severely cut back on coverage.
One open question is whether these publishers can and will invest enough in journalism to truly inform their communities and hold officials and institutions accountable. Another is how deeply they’ll be embraced by local readers and advertisers.
Pulcrano didn’t share how many staffers the Healdsburg paper will have but said reporters are needed to cover government, sports, features and community news.
“It’s going to depend on the community support,” he said. “Hopefully the community will be a little patient while we rebuild — the house was kind of burned down.”
For now, the paper is being produced with staff from other papers in the company, which now employs 80 people.
“The real question is not how big the paper’s going to be but is Healdsburg going to have a paper at all,” he said.
Holley said there’s one clear lesson from the Healdsburg situation:
“If your local newspaper tells you they’re struggling, you better take them seriously,” he said.
“Having the Tribune announce it was going away and be miraculously revived, that’s not going to happen very often, it’s probably the only one,” he continued. “If you want your newspaper, you’ve got to support it, you’ve got to look at those ads, go into the stores and tell people you saw it in the paper.”