What do you do when there is no local source of information? you make one

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Between 2004 and 2019, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers disappeared. Here in Washington, people are trying to solve this problem.

According to the Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, more than a quarter of the nation’s newspapers disappeared between 2004 and 2019.

Here in Washington state, there is only one county without a newspaper – Asotin County in the southeast corner of the state, bordered by Oregon and Idaho.

When you live in a place where there is no newspaper, what do you do? For some people, the answer is simple: you start one.

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Danny Stusser started publishing the JOLT out of necessity.

“When I moved to Olympia in 1995, the Olympian, which is the daily newspaper McClatchy publishes, had about 20 people in its newsroom,” he said. “That was when Thurston County’s population was about 180,000. Now we have just under 300,000. The Olympian has about six people in its newsroom.”

The JOLT is a small online news publication covering Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

Stusser is not a journalist by training, and he works with a small staff — three part-time reporters and five columnists.

“Our commitment is to cover all public meetings in our three cities and the county,” he said. “We have a list of about 100 different types of commissions, councils and advice that we try to cover.”

It’s not cheap. Stusser says the JOLT currently has enough funds to cover about four months of production. They are still trying to figure out the rest.

The Gig Harbor Now team went into it with a plan.

Gig Harbor is on the peninsula in Pierce County. It is a city of about 12,000 inhabitants. And until recently, there really wasn’t a newspaper. So when Jenny Wellman and Pat Lantz, with a committee, launched Gig Harbor Now last year, they did so with a plan.

“When we started this in the first part of 2021, we kind of started this very small campaign among friends and family just to raise money to get us started,” Wellman said. “Then through this news matching program, we ended up raising quite a nice amount of money. So that got us ready for the start of the year with some funding.”

Like Stusser, neither Wellman nor Lance are journalists. They are just people who want a source of information in their community.

They are not alone. According to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, since the start of the pandemic, more than 70 local newsrooms have opened across the country.

Five of them are here in Washington. They are in Gig Harbor, Lake Stevens, a couple in Bellingham and of course the JOLT in Olympia/Tumwater.

And that’s a good thing for local communities.

But according to Rachel Moran, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, this comes with caveats.

“We’ve seen a kind of democratization of journalism in a way that’s actually been caused by this kind of wavering trust in mainstream news,” Moran said.

“It tests the boundaries of what is news versus what is just information or what is content,” Moran said. “When we open those floodgates, we really open them for anybody to come in and say, ‘I’m a journalist, I’ve done journalism.’

“But there’s no badge of approval. It’s not like you’re a doctor and you have to have a license to be a journalist.”

Now, she says, these new local organizations just have to find a way to survive.

“I hope these hyperlocal outlets can grow and find a financially stable way to produce local content,” Moran said. “So the same cycle doesn’t happen again, where they end up having to be redeemed to keep the lights on.”

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