For-profit media launch in Bellingham
Cascadia Daily News, Bellingham’s new local newspaper, launched online this week.
“The response from the community has been phenomenal,” editor Ron Judd told me. “We get a steady stream of emails and calls, people saying they’re just happy to see another post here.”
A slew of local news startups are emerging in the United States, most with the support of local philanthropists and nonprofits.
Cascadia stands out because it is a for-profit business doing serious journalism, backed by David Syre who is optimistic about the business prospects of a quality news organization.
Syre, a forest developer and entrepreneur-turned-artist in Whatcom County, has pledged more than $1.5 million to fill what he sees as a local news void in the area.
The same opportunity attracts national media companies that are entering local markets with email newsletters. But it’s mostly a publicity piece, producing little or no serious reporting and siphoning off readers who might otherwise pay for local journalism.
The majority of recent new startups are non-profit organizations. Since 2008, more than a dozen mostly digital nonprofit outlets have been launched each year on average, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.
This activity does not mean that the crisis of journalism is fading.
The roughly 2,000 people hired at nonprofit news startups since 2008 and the hundreds working in newsletters are far from replacing the 40,000 newspaper writing jobs lost during the same period, especially outside the metropolitan areas.
The Cascadia website and daily newsletters are now free. A weekly print newspaper, slated to launch on 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 newspaper. Instead, he wants to build an autonomous, independent news organization for the region.
“He made it clear that if and when the newspaper makes a profit, those profits will be reinvested in the business. I think it’s a gift to the community,” Judd said.
Syre told me last summer that he thinks the for-profit approach is superior, especially after years of involvement with nonprofits and fundraising. If Cascadia were a nonprofit, Judd “would have voices he would have to pay attention to, rather than just one voice, my voice, which is very quiet.”
The ultimate mix of non-profit and for-profit news funding remains to be seen as the news industry evolves, adapts to declining revenues and awaits government intervention to prevent a further erosion and curbing the monopolies that distort the digital market.
It’s not one or the other because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the crisis in journalism. Many for-profit newspapers, even public ones, are pursuing a hybrid model with donations supplementing their shrinking newsrooms.
Whatever the approach, philanthropists, foundations and small donors are now providing essential support for local news coverage in a growing number of communities.
Judd was a longtime columnist and reporter for the Seattle Times before leaving last summer to launch Cascadia with Syre.
Since then, Judd has built a newsroom of 14 people, including four paid interns. Its associate editor, Elliott Almond, is another Times veteran who recently worked for The Mercury News in California.
It’s comparable to Washington-based regional newspapers, all of which have cut staff in recent years as the industry has shrunk and consolidated.
Bellingham has seen a string of weeklies and digital news businesses launched over the years.
The competitor was The Bellingham Herald, a daily now owned by McClatchy, the California chain that went bankrupt in 2020 and was bought by investment firm Chatham Asset Management.
The Herald’s website now lists eight newsroom staff, although there may be others whose contact details are not provided. I asked for a comment but didn’t get a response before the deadline.
Judd said he has noticed an increase in local stories by the Herald since he and Syre announced their plans last summer.
Cascadia provided prep sports coverage and distributed it via newsletters.
Its full website launched on Monday. Stories include original reports of issues 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 humorous column as he previously did for The Times and a freelancer will write a column covering Bellingham’s bountiful breweries.
Although the launch involves all sorts of challenges and fixes, Judd said he was invigorated by the enthusiasm and camaraderie of his young team.
“It just reaffirmed my own beliefs about good reporting and old-fashioned stories, because these guys are thrilled to be here,” he said.
I hope Cascadia will also reaffirm its beliefs in the value of sustainable, for-profit businesses competing for readers by investing deeply in local coverage.
This is from the free weekly newsletter Voices for a Free Press. Visit the new Save the Free Press website here.