Nonprofit newsrooms in Oregon are helping fill gaps in local coverage, but sustainable funding remains an issue


By Bethany Osborn

Jan 7, 2022
In June 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Pacific Seafood processing plant in Newport, OR. The outbreak quickly tripled the number of cases in Lincoln County, which comprises several coastal towns with modest populations. It was one of the first major COVID-19 outbreaks in the area and Quinton Smith was one of the few reporters on the front lines, reporting for

Smith, who has been retired since 2008, spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Oregonian, winning a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in the process. In 2017, Smith and his wife moved to Yachats, another town in Lincoln County, and quickly realized there wasn’t a source of accurate and reliable information in the community, which led him to establish in January 2019.
In the first month, had a modest following with just under 1000 views per month. Today, that number has grown to over 90,000, thanks in part to the website’s consistent coverage of the pandemic.

“People down here aren’t getting very good information on COVID-19,” said Smith. “I don’t care what’s going on in Portland, I want to know what’s going on in Lincoln County.” is one of the hundreds of local and independent newsrooms operating today in the United States, and one of several throughout the state of Oregon. The exact number of these newsrooms is difficult to track, but according to the Institute for Nonprofit News, which has nearly 350 members, nonprofit newsrooms have launched at an average pace of a dozen or more a year since 2008. More than 20 launched in 2020. While it’s too early to determine if nonprofit newsrooms might be the solution to a problem that has plagued journalism for the last several decades, for now, it’s breathing life into what was once a dying industry.

About 100 miles east of Yachats sits highway 58, an 87-mile long corridor that stretches from Eugene across the Willamette National Forest, connecting small towns like Oakridge, Lowell and Pleasant Hill.

In the fall of 2020, Oakridge’s weekly paper, the Dead Mountain Echo, became a part of the nearly 1 in 5 newspapers to shutter in the last 15 years. Long-time newsman Doug Bates gathered a group of industry professionals and established the Highway 58 Herald, an independent nonprofit newsroom, which launched in February.

The Herald was initially funded through $4000 worth of federal stimulus money donated by founding team members and their families. Like, The Herald relies on reader donations and a modest amount of advertising to run, however, the longevity of the newsroom is unknown. Unlike, which Smith financially supports himself, The Herald has yet to establish a sustainable source of funding.

“As we speak, the fate of the Highway 58 Herald is being determined,” said Dean Rea, a founding member of The Herald in an interview in early October.

As of Oct. 26, Bates has stepped down as editor, according to an announcement on the website. The Herald is in the process of finding a new editor who can help run the website, hire more reporters and figure out how to make money, said Rea.

“Do we have a future? Or is this just an example of how not to do it?” said Rea.

Much like traditional newsrooms, nonprofit newsrooms struggle to find sustainable sources of income. This is where resources like LION Publishers, which stands for Local, Independent Online News, can help. LION Publishers is a professional association for independent newsrooms.

“We’re now in an era of change that is just stunningly rapid,” said Lisa Heyamoto, the Director of Teaching and Learning at LION Publishers.

Heyamoto describes her job as helping to enable journalism to happen, which means providing resources for members of the LION Publishers network of independent newsrooms to be successful. These resources most often include identifying sustainable funding methods.

“Traditional funding models for journalism have changed drastically over the last few years and it’s no longer viable for newspapers to rely on advertising or public ownership to make money,” said Heyamoto.

In fact, for the first time ever, newspapers in the U.S. profited more off of circulation than advertising in 2020, according to the PEW Research Center, a strong sign of this change.

“What everybody's doing now is finding the pieces that work for them and trying to put them together,” said Heyamoto.

Whether through reader revenue, foundation funding or events and merchandising, a diverse set of options helps independent newsrooms remain sustainable, said Heyamoto.

Another path for local nonprofit newsrooms is to be an affiliate of a larger nonprofit newsroom. This is the model the Oregon Capital Chronicle has followed.

The Capital Chronicle is funded by a national nonprofit newsroom called the States Newsroom, which focuses on state and local politics by supporting affiliate newsrooms across the country. States Newsroom is financed through individual donations and institutional grants and do not run ads on any of their 22 affiliate sites.

Like and the Highway 58 Herald, The Capital Chronicle is run by an institutional figure in Oregon journalism, Les Zaitz. Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter who has worked in Oregon for 45 years.

“The number of reporters who cover state politics in Oregon has diminished greatly over the years,” said Zaitz. “Which means that a lot is not getting reported on that people need to know about and the state government touches every life.”

Because Zaitz and his staff at The Chronicle don’t have to worry about procuring funding, they can instead focus on producing good journalism that will ultimately help build back trust in media organizations by communities, said Zaitz.

“If we don’t do our job well, it doesn’t matter how strong the business model is, people aren’t going to trust us,'' said Zaitz.

Zaitz said he believes people are beginning to realize the impact of losing local news sources, citing accusations of fake news, the growing prominence of conspiracy theories and misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic as examples.

“I think [people] are coming to an understanding that they can't stay on the sidelines, that a subscription to a local newspaper is not enough, that they have to support this public service,” said Zaitz.