Cascadia Daily News, the new local newspaper in Bellingham, launched online this week.
“The community response has been phenomenal,” Executive Editor Ron Judd told me. “We have a steady stream of emails and calls coming in, people saying they’re just happy to see another publication here.”
A multitude of local-news startups is emerging across the U.S., most with the support of local philanthropists and nonprofits.
Cascadia stands out because it’s a for-profit venture doing serious journalism, with backer David Syre optimistic about the business prospects of a quality news organization.
Syre, a developer and lumber entrepreneur turned artist in Whatcom County, pledged more than $1.5 million to fill what he sees as a local-news vacuum in the region.
The same opportunity is attracting national media companies that are pushing into local markets with emailed newsletters. But they are mostly an advertising play, producing little to no serious reporting and siphoning readers who might otherwise pay for local journalism.
The majority of recent news startups are nonprofits. Since 2008, more than a dozen nonprofit, mostly digital outlets launched each year on average, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.
This activity doesn’t mean the journalism crisis is waning, however.
The roughly 2,000 people hired at nonprofit news startups since 2008 and hundreds working at newsletters are nowhere near replacing the 40,000 newspaper newsroom jobs lost over the same period, especially outside metro areas.
Cascadia’s website and daily news reports are now free to read. A weekly print paper, scheduled to debut in March 3, will also be free initially. But after an introductory period both will require subscriptions.
For-profit doesn’t mean Syre wants to get rich from the paper. Instead, he wants to build a self-sustaining, independent news organization for the region.
“He’s made it clear that if and when the paper does make a profit, the profit will be plowed back into the business. I feel that’s a gift to the community,” Judd said.
Syre told me last summer that he believes the for-profit approach is superior, especially after years of being involved with nonprofits and fundraising. If Cascadia was a nonprofit, Judd “would have voices he would to pay attention to, rather than one voice, my voice, which is very quiet.”
The ultimate mix of nonprofit and for-profit news funding remains to be seen as the news industry evolves, adapts to revenue declines and awaits government intervention to prevent further erosion and rein monopolists skewing the digital marketplace.
This is not an either-or situation as there’s no single solution to the journalism crisis. Numerous for-profit newspapers, even publicly owned ones, are pursuing a hybrid model with donations supplementing their thinned newsrooms.
Regardless of the approach, philanthropists, foundations and small donors are now providing critical support for local news coverage in a growing number of communities.
Judd was a longtime columnist and reporter for The Seattle Times before he left last summer to start Cascadia with Syre.
Since then Judd has built a newsroom of 14, including four paid interns. His deputy editor, Elliott Almond, is another Times veteran who recently worked for The Mercury News in California.
That’s comparable to established regional newspapers in Washington, all of which reduced staff in recent years as the industry shrank and consolidated.
Bellingham has seen a series of weeklies and digital news ventures launched over the years.
The competition has been The Bellingham Herald, a daily now owned by McClatchy, the California-based chain that went bankrupt in 2020 and was acquired by the investment firm Chatham Asset Management.
The Herald’s website now lists eight newsroom employees, though there could be others whose contact information isn’t provided. I asked for comment but didn’t hear back before deadline.
Judd said he’s noticed an uptick in local stories by the Herald since he and Syre announced their plans last summer.
Cascadia has been providing coverage of prep sports and distributing it via newsletters.
Its full website launched Monday. Stories include original reports on problems with a regional FedEx hub in Burlington, local schools’ struggles with substitute teacher shortages and a new residential facility for the homeless.
Judd is writing a humor column like he used to for The Times and a stringer will write a column covering Bellingham’s abundant breweries.
While the launch involves all manner of challenges and fixes, Judd said he’s invigorated by the enthusiasm and camaraderie of his young team.
“It’s just reaffirmed my own convictions about good old-fashioned reporting and storytelling because these guys are thrilled to be here,” he said.
I’m hoping Cascadia also reaffirms convictions about the value of sustainable, for-profit companies competing for readers by investing deeply in local coverage.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Visit the new Save the Free Press web site here.