News startup trying to avoid the void

News startup trying to ‘avoid the void’ caused by the shuttering of local paper in rural California.

Nonprofit newsroom, Plumas Sun stepping in to help county residents stay informed

Feather River News first served the rural community surrounding Quincy, Calif., on August 11, 1886. The cover page had an extensive story about reconstruction in the South and two poems. An annual subscription cost just $5.00. The paper would go on printing for 154 years and serve rural residents with accurate and balanced news for 157 years. 

After shutting down printing early in the pandemic, the Feather River Bulletin went exclusively online and became known as Plumas News. But, the local news outlet officiallysunsetst on July 31st of this year. 

How could people make informed decisions without regular community updates, news, and vital information for the community? Uphold transparency with elected officials. More importantly, it gets time-sensitive data during times of disaster. Concerned residents of Plumas County saw the need for local news – and they hatched a plan.

“One of the biggest concerns is that the news source would become rumors instead of facts and that the voices of the county would be lost in the rumors, and that people wouldn’t have appropriate trusted information to make decisions,” said Sierra Blanton. She is one of the key organizers of the Plumas Sun, a fledgling nonprofit news outlet that sprouted almost overnight to replace Plumas News. Blanton is part of a small team working to revive trusted, civically engaged news in Plumas County.

Uncertain future for local news

Local news has long been a pillar for rural and urban communities. Yet with an average of two weekly newspapers shuttering their presses across the country, many rural districts are becoming “news deserts,” or areas without properly-sourced and vetted information. 

A survey completed by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University last year found that during the pandemic,c over 360 newspapers closed their doors. This has created a growing divide between those with local news sources and those without – leaving room for rumors and conspiracy theories to replace trusted news. 

“We got together in a panic, saying, ‘Our county needs some sort of news outlet.’ And we launched the day after Plumas News sunseted,” explained James Wilson, another critical organizer and contributor to the Sun. Like Blanton, he grew up in the community and could not imagine the area without a news source.

Local news is one of the keystones of democracy. It holds elected public officials accountable and maintains transparency. For areas like Plumas County, it provides a central hub for critical information during emergencies and crises. During the massive Dixie Fire of 2021, which burned over 1 million acres, Plumas News received over 750,000 page views weekly. This alone speaks to the immense importance of a trusted local news organization in rural communities.

On the road to a nonprofit

Once word got out that Plumas News would cease operations, a few folks began volunteering and building something out of nothing. By partnering with the Almanor Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that seeks to foster sustainable and vibrant communities in the Plumas County region, organizers were able to get the Sun operating quickly.

“Within a month, we’re able to build a foundation, put a makeshift tent up while we build the building,” explained Blanton. She said the process is all new to her, but it’s essential – not just for him, but for the community. She acknowledged that the Sun is, at this point, a shell, but the team of volunteers is committed to growing the nonprofit into a trusted news source for Plumas County.

Building trust in a local news organization takes time and is not as simple as it may sound. Beyond becoming a leading source of vital information (and avoiding the creation of a news desert), volunteers want the Sun to contribute to developing a well-informed public and helping drive solid civic engagement. Without a paid staff, those involved are hard-pressed to find time and energy to accept letters to the editor after working a day job but hope to offer this service soon. 

“We wanted to put some [of] the accountability into the community,” explained Blanton. “Whether that’s word of mouth or a [fiscal] champion for us.”

Knowing that the community had stepped up time and time again to support the former Feather River Bulletin and Plumas News, she is hopeful that residents of Plumas County will again step up to the plate. 

The Sun operates under The Almanor Foundation’s umbrella and hopes to blossom into a thriving 501(c)3 nonprofit news outlet, like the Sierra Nevada Ally. This will ensure that any donations they receive can be declared on donors’ taxes, something that often encourages folks to donate. 

“I think it was a culmination of, we had the right people with a unique set of skills that happen to come together, and each has something different to offer,” said Wilson. All work done now is voluntary; Wilson knows this may lead to burnout. That makes establishing a sustainable income all the more important for the Sun. 

The organization hopes to stray from a subscription-based news service but realizes that generating top-notch stories driven by solid editing requires steady income. Finding the right source of revenue is also important to everyone involved.

As Wilson said, “We want to have an unbiased, as objective as possible, news outlet,” any funding must come with no strings attached.  While subscriptions are not off the table, the main focus is finding grants and seeking donations, which can be done online.

What lies ahead is unknown territory for the group of Plumas County residents. Still, as Wilson explained, the hard work and dedication to generating trusted local news drives them to donate their time and energy.

“The fact that we exist as a media organization in such a short time… I think our focus right now is really on informing the community about what is happening in their community.”

This story was originally published with the Sierra Nevada Ally on AUGUST 30, 2023.

Copyright Richard Bednarski
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