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August 21, 2020

Community starts with listening: How Santa Cruz Local gained 500 paying members in one year

The Santa Cruz Local team — Natalya Dreszer, Kara Meyberg Guzman, and Stephen Baxter — at their recording booth in Meyberg Guzman's home.
The Santa Cruz Local team — Natalya Dreszer, Kara Meyberg Guzman, and Stephen Baxter — at their recording booth in Meyberg Guzman’s home.

Editors’ Note: This is part of an occasional series highlighting local news entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders who are making their communities stronger. Each post highlights lessons learned and resources Democracy Fund grantees and others can offer to help you build a healthier local news ecosystem in your community. 

The landscape of the Santa Cruz County local news ecosystem was not unfamiliar to Kara Meyberg Guzman and Stephen Baxter when they decided to create a local news outlet together in 2018. As former journalists at the Santa Cruz Sentinel — and perhaps more importantly, as residents of Santa Cruz — they knew what was missing and how to lean on industry partners to start filling it. 

And their instincts were right: Within just one year of offering memberships, they reached 500 paying supporters by grounding their work in community listening, thanks in part to support and advice from industry advocates like LION Publishers and Solutions Journalism Network. Now, more people can feel heard and connected through the work they do — trust can be a lifeline when responding to emergencies from COVID-19 to the recent CZU August lightning Complex Fire

A Shared Mission

 “With the erosion of the Sentinel there were local government meetings that had no reporter there,” Meyberg Guzman said. She had worked at the Sentinel for four years, moving from unpaid intern to leading the more-than-160-year-old paper as the first woman and person of color as managing editor. She left in 2018 over differences with the paper’s ownership, Digital First Media/Media News Group. “It’s really the local government and local institutions that make the biggest impact on peoples’ lives and [after the 2016 election] I felt like, ‘How can I make the biggest impact with my skillset?'” she said. “Local journalism was the right fit.”

Santa Cruz is also home to local TV, radio, an alt-weekly; other independent local news startups, like the Voices of Monterey Bay project, are scattered across the central California region. A new startup, Lookout Local, by Santa Cruz resident and media industry analyst Ken Doctor, is launching with a first site in Santa Cruz as well. The Sentinel had been recognized as one of the best newspapers in the state in 2012; “Digital First Media owner Alden Global Capital essentially responded with layoffs,” Baxter said.

For him, staying in local journalism was personal. “I still wanted to be a reporter and editor here because I want to contribute to the improvement of this community. I’m raising my family here. My wife is a Santa Cruz native and we have a four-year-old daughter,” Baxter said. He saw a similar spirit in Meyberg Guzman. 

“Kara has turned out to be the best business partner that anyone could hope for. She’s driven, smart, organized, connected and tireless,” Baxter said. 

They also were able to create their own rules and values as co-founders of the business (and nope, it’s not a nonprofit). For example, in the outlet’s founding principles they write: “We love our work, but balance comes first. Full-time employees will work 40 hours a week, no more.”

Starting Small

Baxter and Meyberg Guzman started Santa Cruz Local by bootstrapping it with limited resources. Baxter held a second job as a home appraiser, and Meyberg Guzman sold her car and dipped into her savings to get things going.

They drew on the guidance of fellow LION members; advisors like jesikah maria ross, Phillip Smith, and Anika Anand; and training from industry leaders building a new journalism like Solutions Journalism Network and the Trusting News project. Meyberg Guzman even hosted a three day retreat at her own house with ross to unpack the goals of Santa Cruz Local’s community engagement strategy.

Interested in the growing podcast industry, they started with five minute podcasts recapping Santa Cruz city council meetings and then created an email newsletter. They cover government meetings, but also take weeks to report on deeper stories on issues like housing and homelessness. 

Natalya Dreszer is ready to listen at a Santa Cruz Local booth

Putting Community First

“More than any other news organization locally we are committed to lifting up the voices of people who you don’t hear in local media or in local government when you attend the city council meetings like we’ve been doing,” Meyberg Guzman said.

A focus on solutions reporting underscores their coverage like pieces on needle exchange success and harm reduction in law enforcement. “We’re not trying to be everything to everyone. We’re not going to cover every parade and sports event. We focus on government accountability and community outreach so that residents’ needs are addressed. We lay out the problems and trends, and we offer solutions,” Baxter said. 

Ahead of local elections in March, the team followed the model of the Citizen’s Agenda, asking Santa Cruz residents what issues they thought candidates should be addressing in not only seeking their vote, but serving the community.

Meyberg Guzman, Baxter, and then-community engagement intern, now business development and community engagement coordinator, Natalya Dreszer interviewed more than 200 county residents and hosted more than a dozen listening posts across the region to deepen the Local’s understanding of local issues at the election’s forefront.

This goes for unplanned events, too: As a significant wildfire edges closer to Santa Cruz along California’s coast, Santa Cruz Local has assembled a kit of information to prepare its community, centered on residents’ questions. From what to bring in your go-bag to how to evacuate an animal, the team has the answers.

Santa Cruz Local’s community advisory board and business advisory circle are rooted in listening to pockets of the city and county that local media isn’t always well connected to. For example, Meyberg Guzman has built trust with a local faith leader, a formerly homeless woman turned advocate, a member of the Latino Affairs Commission, and a working mom who lives in a neighborhood they are trying to create stronger connections with. These relationships seed the trust needed to reach out to more and more Santa Cruzans. 

It’s not just about “informing our journalism and making it more in tune with what people want, [but] it also makes business sense,” she said.

Community Listening Can Equal Community Support 

That community-first approach has resulted in community support for Santa Cruz Local. It is now powered by more than 500 paying members within one year of offering a membership option. As Poynter’s Kristen Hare recently reported, newsletter subscriptions to Santa Cruz Local tripled since March to hit 3,800 and 80 percent of revenue now comes from that membership. 

“It feels like such an optimistic place to be working in where I couldn’t say that before. The hours are the same [as previous local journalism jobs], the work is similar, but the mood is so different,” Meyberg Guzman said. 

“The more people feel heard, the more they value our work,” she said.

Learn more about Santa Cruz Local and the resources they leaned on

Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean going it alone. Here are some ways Santa Cruz Local found support both in their own community and in the community of journalism makers. 

Read (and hear!) more about Santa Cruz Local in their own words:

Santa Cruz Local used a plethora of organizations, advisors, and techniques to start in their first year. Below we’ve compiled a few of those that were mentioned so you can explore, too:

  • Organizations:
    • LION Publishers: a network of nearly 300 local independent online news publishers, from 10 years old to startups like Santa Cruz Local, that work with industry partners to offer resources, coaching, and community
    • Solutions Journalism Network: a movement that trains and connects journalists in how to conduct rigorous, deep reporting on responses to social problems
    • Trusting News: resources for journalists to understand and practice the values of transparency in their reporting and demonstrate their credibility to earn trust
    • Citizens’ Agenda: an approach to reach and engage an outlet’s audience in election coverage to reset campaign reporting around everyday citizens’ needs
  • People:
    • jesikah maria ross, documentary mediamaker who facilitates collaborative projects and community engagement, currently at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Calif.
    • Philip Smith, founder of Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co.
    • Anika Anand, director of programming at LION Publishers 
  • Practices: 

 If you have a suggestion for a future profile, email localnewslab@democracyfund.org.