Reimagining Local Journalism: Highway 29 Media’s Quest to Preserve Community News

Images of the front pages of the Calistoga Tribune and Yountville Sun, two papers acquired by Highway 29 Media after they faced closure.

At Napa Valley Community Foundation, we have always believed that our community and our democracy are more vibrant when everyone participates in the decisions we make about our future.

Independent local news fosters civic engagement. When communities lose local news outlets, we also risk losing representation for diverse communities in the Valley.

That’s why we launched the Media & Democracy Fund to preserve independent journalism that will cover the important topics affecting our quality of life — like housing, education, and climate — and will inform and engage residents in solutions to such issues.

Enter Highway 29 Media Company, a public benefit corporation with a mission focused on preserving local news. Under the leadership of volunteer CEO and Board Chair Marc Hand, the company is helping revive the heartbeat of local journalism in Napa County. In 2022, Highway 29 Media Company saved two award-winning weekly newspapers from closure by acquiring the Calistoga Tribune and the Yountville Sun and is making significant investments in local reporting, digital technology, and community outreach as they grow.

Saving local news outlets from closure is a critical step in ensuring that community members stay engaged. As Marc notes, “Research studies found a direct correlation between losing local newspapers and a fairly immediate and dramatic decrease in the amount of local voting, and the number of people who choose to run for office, as well as transparency and oversight of public expenditures.”

Local media, he emphasizes, “is the fabric of a community, it’s a common source of information that everybody in the community sees. It helps build a stronger sense of shared values and shared interest in the community.”

In this age of social media, communities that lose their traditional journalistic outlets face unique challenges. Marc notes, “I read a recent article about an election in Mercer Island where misinformation flourished on Nextdoor. Without trusted, independent local news, places like Nextdoor can have a pretty substantial and negative impact on local elections. Social media platforms cannot replace trust local news produced by journalists”

Highway 29 is hoping that by investing early in preservation, they’ll be able to increase access to local news here in the Valley. The organization recently acquired the popular weekly newsletter NapaLife and is exploring ways to use shared platforms and digital resources to sustain their initiatives. Marc’s focus is also on the St. Helena Star, where he expresses concern about the future of news coverage in St. Helena, with only one reporter remaining.

When it comes to balancing the urgent needs of local journalism with the quest for sustainable growth, Highway 29 is working to establish a business model to ensure its long-term success. “Part of the redesign of local media is needing to look at how you re-create revenue sources that help sustain local newspapers,” Marc explains. “They obviously can’t just be solely dependent on advertising and solely dependent on subscribers.”  By forming Highway 29 as a public benefit corporation, the group is able to work with both donors and investors, “[It] covers both worlds,” says Marc. “It’s a for-profit corporation, but we have a mission imperative that really frames our purpose.”

Despite the closure or decline of countless newspapers throughout America, Marc is hopeful for the future of local journalism. “There is an interesting study showing that while a lot of newspapers are closing, there have been an accelerating number of new ones starting up,” Marc points out. This positive trend signals a shift where people are realizing the importance of local outlets and are coming together to preserve or launch new efforts.

And it seems this approach is resonating with the public. “There were more people that were interested in donating to the Media and Democracy Fund than people that were interested in investing in Highway 29 directly, where a return may be slower than the immediate benefit of making a donation to support a cause.” Marc shares. “It’s been a good option to be able to pursue both those sources of capital to get this up and running.”

Highway 29’s plans include proactively starting newspapers in communities that lack them, expanding digital resources, and targeting news coverage to the Spanish-speaking community in Napa Valley. Marc explains, “There’s a growing gap in terms of really effective coverage in Napa Valley. We felt like we couldn’t just stop with the Sun and the Tribune, because there are other needs. And by putting these all together, we feel like it’s creating a business model that ultimately is more sustainable.”

As we continue to support local journalism through our Media and Democracy Fund, we are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for local news in the Valley, and eager to get more people involved.

If you are interested in donating to the Media and Democracy Fund, please click here, or reach out to Julia DeNatale, our Vice President of Community Impact. Your contribution will go a long way in shaping a more informed and engaged community in Napa Valley.

Join us for a discussion on the Future of Local News in St. Helena on July 31, 2023.

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