In Sacramento, local outlets join forces to report on solutions to the city’s tricky problems
When the pandemic dried up advertising revenue for newspapers in 2020, Sacramento News & Review publisher Jeff VonKaenel asked Larry Lee, publisher and president of the Sacramento Observer, for advice on keeping his free alt-weekly alive.
In April 2020, VonKaenel had stopped printing the 31-year-old News & Review and laid off 34 staffers, including 14 from the newsroom. The employees who remained were still publishing online, and VonKaenel applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but it wasn’t clear how long the paper would be able to stay in business.
Larry Lee grew up working for the Observer, Sacramento’s African-American weekly newspaper, under and with his late father, Dr. William Hanford Lee, who founded it in 1962. The Observer had become an established, award-winning institution in Sacramento’s Black community, and in the early pandemic it survived and even thrived, breaking ground on a new office building in August 2020.
Lee had been collaborating with other news outlets in the city since 2015, and when VonKaenel called him, he suggested collaborating and sharing stories with other newsrooms in the area. The two rallied seven Sacramento news organizations into a collaborative called Solving Sacramento, to report on the city’s biggest issues with a focus on solutions. The outlets in the collaborative include the Sacramento Observer, the Sacramento News & Review, the Sacramento Business Journal, Russian American Media (a three-publication media company serving Russians and Russian-Americans), Outword Magazine (an LGBTQ+ publication), Sacramento’s NPR station Capital Public Radio, and Univision Sacramento. It’s funded through donations and grants from the Solutions Journalism Network and the James Irvine Foundation with the Local Media Association acting as the fiscal sponsor.
Sacramento isn’t a news desert, but issues like the arts, communities of color, and housing can fall through the cracks. All of the collective’s audiences are impacted by the city’s housing crisis, but their needs and challenges are often unique. Instead of racing to compete, Lee said each publication’s audience would benefit from all of them working together.
“COVID was the moment where you say, ‘Whatever we were doing before, now’s a good chance to either fix it or find another solution,’” Lee said. “Anyone who’s in a collaborative knows it takes a long time to get it going, especially when you’re talking about a region where there are historical trust issues. Newsrooms fight for content and advertisers. We had to get to a point where regular meetings and conversations were happening.”
Solving Sacramento’s first project was reporting on the problems with and solutions to housing affordability in the city, using a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Since launching last June, the collaboration has published more than 80 stories on affordable housing, homelessness, and resources that explain what affordable housing is and Q&As with local housing experts. The next focus area will be the revival of the city’s arts scene.
The lead editors from each publication get together to discuss related housing issues that need coverage, and then decide which publication will take the lead on reporting. Once the story is published, all members of the collaborative have the option to re-publish it, and it’s also made available on the Solving Sacramento website.
For one story, the collaborative contracted local journalism students to go door-to-door to talk to Sacramento residents about how they experienced the city’s housing crisis. The story first ran in the News & Review and then was translated into Spanish and republished by Univision.
“Sacramento is changing,” Lee said. “It has historically been a political, bureaucratic town, and COVID exposed the weaknesses in the fabric and the structure of how people live in Sacramento. [Covering issues] from a lens of equity is really important. Trying to do that as a single newsroom is practically impossible.”
Collaboration between news outlets has become increasingly common all across California. VonKaenel said that if more grant money comes through, Solving Sacramento will be able to start reviving local arts coverage, alongside continuing its affordable housing reporting. The goal is to add multiple reporting subjects, but Lee said he also wants the collaborative expands into hosting community events, helping to ensure the future of existing local newsrooms, and even starting new ones to fill other reporting gaps.
“Ultimately we would like to get to a point that’s more than just story sharing, possibly with ways that can help with the sustainability of each of our individual newsrooms and help build the capacity,” Lee said. “We’re a better community if we have healthier newsrooms, and I think there’s enough resources in the region to help us [all] be sustainable.”
Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.