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Editor’s column: Making a go of it as a nonprofit news organization

Posted on September 1st, 2022 By:

It’s no secret that the news industry has had a tough couple of decades. That’s especially true in the newspaper world, where I spent the bulk of my career.  

In the modern era, newspapers made their money primarily through advertising — both business ads and classifieds. (Remember newspaper classifieds? If you’re younger than 30, probably not.) 

Gig Harbor Now editor Vince Dice

That all dried up when the internet went from a fun novelty to the dominant force in information and commerce. Classifieds went to free or low-cost services like CraigsList. Businesses found cheaper and more effective ways to get their messages to customers. 

For-profit newspapers still struggle to replace that lost revenue. Online paywalls, website advertising and other new revenue streams haven’t filled the gap at most papers. 

Gig Harbor Now is a nonprofit

Gig Harbor Now is one of hundreds of organizations around the country taking a different approach.  

We are a hyperlocal, independent, nonprofit news organization. Our funding comes mainly from individual donations and the support of groups like the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, the Rotary Club of Gig Harbor and family foundations. See a list of some of our financial supporters here.

This week, we are celebrating our first anniversary. Gig Harbor Now launched on Sept. 3, 2021. 

We have a staff of one full-time employee — me — and a complement of highly accomplished freelancer reporters. Our board of directors includes businesspeople, a former legislator and longtime nonprofit executives.

 The rise of nonprofit news

Nonprofit news isn’t exactly new. Public broadcasters have operated for decades as nonprofits. The nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 1977.  

But the sector is growing, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News: “Since 2017, more than 135 nonprofit news outlets have launched, roughly double the number of (nonprofit news) startups that launched in the previous five-year period.” 

Fifty-five percent of those new nonprofit news outlets are local, like us. In 2021, when we launched, 65 percent of new nonprofit news outfits covered local issues. 

The decline of newspapers 

Nonprofits like Gig Harbor Now attempt to make up for some of what has been lost as the for-profit newspaper industry shrinks.

According to the the State of Local News 2022 report from Northwestern University, a quarter of the nation’s newspapers closed since 2005. The report predicts that fraction will rise to one-third by 2025. 

Most of the papers lost are small dailies and weeklies covering communities similar to Gig Harbor. But even those that survive do so with reduced reporting staffs.

According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment (that means reporters, photographers and editors) at American newspapers dropped 57 percent between 2008 and 2020.

The numbers would be worse if not for operations like ours. The Pew Center study found that employment in digital-only newsrooms rose from 7,400 to 18,000 between 2008 and 2020 (that includes for-profit digital-only publications, not just nonprofits like us). 

Then and now 

Gig Harbor resident Tom Taylor lived this experience. He ran newspapers for most of his life, including owning the local Peninsula Gateway for more than 20 years. 

During his time in newspapers, Taylor watched print advertising “go out the door.” Other revenue sources, like commercial printing, also disappeared. Connections between readers, the business community and newspapers disintegrated as corporate consolidation hit the news industry. 

At its peak under Taylor, the Gateway employed 8 to 10 newsroom employees. It was one of the best community newspapers in the state, comprehensively covering local government, events, high school sports and more. 

“You can’t do that when you have one or two reporters,” Taylor said. “You have to pick and choose priorities.” 

I lived the experience, too. I worked at the Kitsap Sun newspaper in Bremerton from 2002 to 2019, when the daily paper eliminated my job. 

It’s a trend that continues. The Sun is owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, which laid off more newsroom employees at papers around the country earlier this month. 

How we fit in  

By themselves, nonprofit news outlets won’t replace all that has been lost in the decline of the newspaper industry. The 11,000 newsroom jobs created by digital-only sites, including nonprofits, between 2008 and 2020 can’t make up for the more than 30,000 jobs lost at newspapers in the same period. 

But with continued support from the community, we can be part of the solution. 

Taylor says nonprofits like Gig Harbor Now can be “the future of how people get their news. You have experienced reporters that are vetted and have to go through an (editing) process to get their news online.” 

It’s a critical function, as Pat Lantz, president of our board of directors, points out. 

“Information and news is as important in the infrastructure of a society as water pipes and roads,” Lantz said. “It is a utility. It is essential to society, the free flow of truth-based information.  

“We can’t function (as a democracy) without the free flow of information.” 

With your continued support, we’ll keep doing that.