Feather River News first served the rural community surrounding Quincy, Calif. on August 11, 1886. The cover page had an extensive story about reconstruction in the South and two poems. An annual subscription cost just $5.00. The paper would go on printing for 154 years and serving rural residents with accurate and balanced news for a total of 157 years.
After shutting down printing early on in the pandemic, the Feather River Bulletin went exclusively online and became known as Plumas News. But, the local news outlet officially sunset on July 31st of this year.
Without regular community updates, news, and vital information for the community, how could people make informed decisions? Uphold transparency with elected officials? More importantly, get time-sensitive information during times of disaster? Concerned residents of Plumas County saw the need for local news – and they hatched a plan.
“One of the biggest concerns is that the news source would become rumors instead of facts, and that the voices of the county would be lost in the rumors, and that people wouldn’t have appropriate trusted information to make decisions,” said Sierra Blanton. She is one of the key organizers of the Plumas Sun, a fledgling non-profit news outlet that sprouted almost overnight to replace Plumas News. Blanton is part of a small team working to revive trusted, civically engaged news in Plumas County.
Uncertain future for local news
Local news has long been a pillar for rural and urban communities. Yet with an average of two newspapers a week shuttering their presses across the country, many rural communities are becoming “news deserts,” or areas without properly-sourced and vetted information.
A survey completed by Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University last year found that during the pandemic over 360 newspapers closed their doors. This has created a growing divide between those with local news sources and those without – and it leaves room for rumors and conspiracy theories to replace trusted news.
“We got together in a panic, saying, ‘Our county needs some sort of news outlet.’ And we launched the day after Plumas News sunseted,” explained James Wilson, another key organizer and contributor to the Sun. Like Blanton, he grew up in the community and could not imagine the area without a news source.
Local news is one of the keystones to democracy. It holds elected public officials accountable and maintains transparency. For areas like Plumas County, it provides a central hub for critical information during emergencies and crises. During the massive Dixie Fire of 2021, which burned over 1 million acres, Plumas News was getting over 750,000 page views a week. This alone speaks to the immense importance of a trusted local news organization in rural communities.
On the road to a non-profit
Once word got out that Plumas News would be ceasing operations, a few folks began to volunteer and build something out of nothing. By partnering with the Almanor Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that seeks to foster sustainable and vibrant communities in the Plumas County region, organizers were able to get the Sun operating quickly.
“Within a month we’re able to build a foundation, put a makeshift tent up while we build the building,” explained Blanton. She said the process is all new to her, but it’s deeply important – not just for her, but for the community. She acknowledged that the Sun is at this point in time a shell, but the team of volunteers are committed to growing the non-profit into a trusted news source for Plumas county.
Building trust in a local news organization takes time, and it is not as simple as it may sound. Beyond becoming a leading source of vital information (and avoiding the creation of a news desert), volunteers want the Sun to contribute to the development of a well-informed public and help drive strong civic engagement. At this time, without a paid staff, those involved are hard pressed to find time and energy, after working a day job, to accept letters to the editor, but hope to offer this service soon.
“We wanted to put some [of] the accountability into the community,” explained Blanton. “Whether that’s word of mouth or whether that’s a [fiscal] champion for us.”
Knowing that the community had stepped up time and time again to support the former Feather River Bulletin and Plumas News, she is hopeful that residents of Plumas County will again step up to the plate.
The Sun is currently operating under the umbrella of The Almanor Foundation and hopes to blossom into a thriving 501(c)3 non-profit news outlet, like the Sierra Nevada Ally. This will ensure that any donations they receive can be declared on donors’ taxes, something that often encourages folks to donate.
“I think it was a culmination of, we had the right people with a unique set of skills that happen to come together and each have something different to offer,” said Wilson. All work being done now is voluntary, and Wilson is aware this may lead to burnout. That makes the establishment of a sustaining income all the more important for the Sun.
The organization hopes to stray away from a subscription-based news service, but realize that generating top-notch stories driven by solid editing requires steady income. Finding the right source of income is also important to everyone involved.
As Wilson put it, “we want to have an unbiased, as objective as possible, news outlet,” meaning any funding must come with no strings attached. While subscriptions are not off the table, the main focus is finding grants and seeking donations, which can be done online.
What lies ahead is unknown territory for the group of Plumas County residents, but the hard work and dedication to generating trusted local news is what drives them to donate their time and energy, as Wilson explained.
“The fact that we exist as a media organization in such a short amount of time… I think our focus right now is really on informing the community about what is happening in their community.”