It wasn’t even a decade ago that Susan Clark was in charge of the Economist magazine’s digital operation around the world.
This was a forward-looking role that seemingly placed her within journalism’s vanguard at the time — championing media’s online future, at an organization well-placed to tap into a lucrative global audience.
In other words, Clark was basically one of the last people you’d expect to launch a small-town print newspaper in 2022.
Yet she did just that with the Redding Sentinel in Fairfield County, Connecticut. And while it’s still early in the Sentinel’s trajectory, Clark is more than happy with how it’s going.
A quarter of Redding households already have subscribed. Some townspeople have sent donations — from a few bucks to $1,000 — just to support the venture. And wherever she goes in her hometown, readers thank her for what she’s done.
“We just desperately needed a paper,” Clark told me. Before retiring from the Economist, she had moved back to Redding, population roughly 9,000, after living in Geneva. “Given all the splintering of information and the tribal Facebook groups that people were turning to, our town needed a community news source that was independent.”
So, she took the plunge early this year, beginning in April with a monthly edition she considered something of a pilot project.
“I wanted to see if the town would rally round a newspaper,” she said. The answer came back loud and clear: Yes, it would, even if the cover price was a hefty $3. (Part of her business model, she noted, is “not being afraid to charge a fair price.”) Subscribers and donors will cover 25% of the cost of publication; the rest will come from advertising. The Sentinel is delivered via the U.S. Mail.
Clark described the response from potential advertisers as “explosive” and “phenomenal.” Why? “There’s no other way to reach people in Redding.” The community’s last newspaper — a weekly called the Redding Pilot — has been much missed since it went out of business several years ago.
In a letter to the editor published in the second issue of the Redding Sentinel, reader Tina Miller praised “this indispensable venture in community building,” noting that a true community requires reliable, unbiased information on issues including taxes, schools, the environment, roads, elections, public safety and more.
The three issues of the 16-page broadsheet that I reviewed are making a start on that with articles on the town budget, a controversial tree-removal plan and the proposed redevelopment of an industrial site.
The plan now is to convert the Sentinel, gradually, to weekly publication by November, with a digital version that is a reproduction of the print newspaper. With reporting by a small cadre of freelancers and her own multipurpose roles overseeing news, advertising, circulation and finances (she intends to hire an editor soon), Clark doesn’t have the resources to put out an ever-changing live website with breaking news.
To say that this venture is against the grain is an understatement. Newspapers are shuttering in the United States at the rate of two a week, according to a recent report from Northwestern University. And although there are encouraging signs with startup digital publications, it’s still true that news deserts — regions in which there is no (or almost no) source of local news — are becoming much more common.
The trend is largely driven by the loss of advertisers and readers to online sources, including social media platforms, over the course of many years. As I showed in my 2020 book, “Ghosting the News,” the resulting dearth of local news damages individual communities and threatens American democracy as a whole.
Clark is a perceptive critic of how most local newspapers are being run, noting for example in an email that “they overcharge readers for print subscriptions in order to drive them to digital where the reader’s eyeballs can be monetized (in theory).” And she describes the difficulty of getting papers printed and distributed in today’s tight labor market. But she thinks, on balance, that print newspapers serve the public better because they focus less on driving click-worthy “engagement” and more on public-service content.
Given the challenges, I asked Clark if she would encourage other would-be entrepreneurs to follow her lead.
“Absolutely, yes,” she told me, and then quickly qualified that. “If the conditions are right.” That’s a complex calculation: Are there enough advertisers? Is there a clearly perceived need in a community? Are freelancers available? Are you willing to be nonpartisan?
But she views what she is doing as a civic duty: the equivalent of serving on a town finance board or planning commission, both of which she did in the past.
And in the end, starting the Sentinel was a simple decision: “My hometown needed a newspaper, one that would provide a common set of facts and a ‘grounding’ of information specific to our town, so that we could make informed decisions.”
The Sentinel is swimming against a powerful tide, but, given Clark’s goals, I hope it manages to stay afloat.