In the two years of the pandemic, more than 70 news outlets have sprung up around the county, and about the same number of new community newsletters have launched as well. That’s according to a report by Poynter. The report also notes that, in that time, the pandemic has contributed to the shuttering of more than a hundred U.S. newsrooms.
Bradley Fuqua is a longtime reporter who found himself without a job when the rapidly shrinking Philomath Express laid him off. That left the community more in need than ever of local news coverage. And that’s what led him to start the Philomath News, a one-person digital news operation, as he describes it.
The Highway 58 Herald covers the area the name implies, communities along the highway’s corridor from I-5 to Highway 97. George Custer is the cofounder of that small local outlet and says he decided to help launch it because Oakridge and the greater community of 25,000 deserved it.
Fuqua and Custer join us to share their stories and tell us more about the communities their outlets cover.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The death of the newspaper has been announced too many times to count over the last couple of decades and there are plenty of examples of papers shrinking or disappearing altogether. The pandemic did not help. A new report by the Poynter Institute found that 100 news organizations in the US closed over just the last two years, but that’s not the full story. Over that same period, over the last two years, more than 70 news outlets have also been created. Some of them are in Oregon. Bradley Fuqua is a longtime reporter who started up the one person digital news operation, the Philomath News. George Custer co-founded the Highway 58 Herald, which covers communities like Oakridge, that are along Highway 58 from I-5 east to Highway 97. Bradley Fuqua and George Custer, welcome to Think Out Loud.
George Custer: Thank you.
Dave Miller: So Brad, first, you have had a decades long career in the news, most recently before your startup with a weekly called the Philomath Express, that folded in September of 2020. It had been owned by a national media company Lee Enterprises. What led you then to start the Philomath News?
Bradley Fuqua: Well, I just wasn’t ready to give up on my news career, that’s for sure. But I fell in love with Philomath, the people here are great. They have always appreciated the news that I’ve done and I just really wanted to keep it going. I wasn’t ready to quit reporting on this community. I had taken a business class a few years earlier, anticipating that I could be laid off one day, so I kind of prepared myself in that respect.
Dave Miller: As somebody in the newspaper business, you weren’t exactly caught by surprise when the weekly paper that you were working for folded.
Bradley Fuqua: No, not at all. And in September, that was toward the end of the quarter, the company I was working for was starting to lay people off. It was a surprise in that moment, but you know, in the whole scheme of things, it wasn’t that big of a surprise.
Dave Miller: George, unlike Brad, you don’t have a journalism background. You were a contractor in the past. How did you decide to help start a news organization?
George Custer: Well, one of the locals came to me and between she and I and a couple of other locals, we came together and felt it an emergency that we start getting the news out to the people of Oakridge, Westboro, and the other communities around here. It was more of a call to arms. Our local printed newspaper closed about a year and a half ago and it was apparent that social media had taken a kind of a death grip on our communities and we felt an absolute need to, first of all, be a watchdog on our city government and that the people need information, both on a daily basis and particularly in times of emergency.
Dave Miller: When you say that social media had taken a death grip on the community, what do you mean?
George Custer: Well, pretty much anybody can say anything on, say Facebook: inaccurate information, accusations, people being locked out of a site or not being allowed to join a site. People don’t necessarily know how to get on these sites and we felt we needed to put out a unbiased, comprehensive, all inclusive, news source so that people could get accurate and unbiased and reliable information.
Dave Miller: Brad Fuqua, where did you most see the effects of the lack of local coverage and I’m curious if you also saw what George has just been describing, a death grip of social media in the community.
Bradley Fuqua: Yeah, I’ve seen that happen here too. And I can give you a quick example. Last month we had a head on collision out here on Highway 20. The crash got a lot of attention on social media. People were talking about the fatality that occurred out there, but it wasn’t a fatality at all. In fact, the person in question went to the hospital with non life threatening injuries. So I talked to the sheriff’s department. The other fellow was fine, but then I got an email from the guy that was in the truck that hit the car and he thought he had killed that person. So he was telling me my story was wrong and this sort of thing. So I told him what I knew and the sheriff’s department actually got in touch with him and told him that the fellow was fine because he was having a hard time dealing with that. So that’s an example of what people like George said. Whatever, if you want to say that on social media, you can say it but it’s not always correct.
Dave Miller: Do you find that you’ve had to actually educate people in what you’re doing as a newspaper person, as a news person, that you’re actually checking sources, checking facts and figuring out what’s true before you print it, but that it’s not seen as any different from the information people are getting these days on social media?
Bradley Fuqua: Have I had to educate them?
Dave Miller: Well, educate sounds so schoolmarmy, but I explain to them or show them or tell them that the process of creating news and the way that you’re doing it is actually a different thing than just seeing something somewhere and repeating it?
Bradley Fuqua: Right, yeah. I think a lot of folks probably realize what newspapers, news organizations do, to present the news in an unbiased way like this. And I have had a lot of people telling me that they appreciate my approach to news reporting in that way. But yeah, I don’t know how to explain it.
Dave Miller: But you found that people appreciate what you’ve been providing.
Bradley Fuqua: Oh yeah, I’ve never lived in a community like Philomath where I’ve heard so many positive comments about what I’m doing here, and that’s what keeps me going. I’m certainly not going to get rich at it. So that’s one of the things that keeps me going day after day.
Dave Miller: I do want to hear about the financial model for both of you. But George Custer, I’m curious. The language you used is pretty dramatic. Have you found that people in the communities you’re serving are interested in what you’re providing?
George Custer: Yeah, absolutely. It takes a while for a new news site to get on board with a lot of the citizenry. Again, our biggest competitor is social media. We were lucky enough when we started that we had an editor come out of retirement, a former Pulitzer prize winning editor and journalist, and he’s the one that basically put the layout [and] everything together. Every time I try to write something, I feel him standing over my shoulder. He had to retire medically and I told him that I would take on the task to keep the paper going until we can find an editor. I had no idea what I was getting into when I took this job on. I said, “Oh my God, this thing is a 24-7 job!” and I’ve got a lot of other projects and things I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m not a quitter. So I keep getting the news out there.
Dave Miller: Can you give us a sense for your own learning curve? What you have learned about reporting and editing and writing and putting out news.
George Custer: Oh, I don’t think we have time in this segment to go over that. I’m a businessman and I had 15 years as a Marine Corps officer. So it’s ‘let’s move forward and charge up that hill, whatever it takes’. Every time I sit down with a cup of coffee with Doug Bates, our retired editor now, I learn so much. I started off not having a clue what I was doing. I’ve had to learn how to publish, how to interview. I feel like I was just a babe in the woods when we started out and I’m not that much farther removed from that at this point yet.
Dave Miller: Brad, it seems like you’re actually, in a lot of ways, in the opposite position from George: decades of experience as a reporter and editor, photographer, but not unless I’m mistaken, in business. I mean, not as a journalism startup creator. What has your own learning curve been like?
Bradley Fuqua: Man, that’s been a true challenge. A lot of reading, like I said. I took that business class a few years ago and in that business class, we had to create a business, and mine was Philomath News, three years before I launched it. So I went through all the steps that it would take to launch it. I learned a lot in that class. That was through Linn Benton Community College here. There’s a lot of other folks that are trying to do the same thing that I’m doing and so there’s some good information out there. A lot of the business stuff, I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants, sometimes, all that stuff. The advertising end of it has been the biggest challenge for me.
Dave Miller: What has that been like for you?
Bradley Fuqua: It’s just completely opposite of what you do for news. When I worked at a regular newspaper, I didn’t even talk to those advertising people. They just did something completely different. So it’s a whole different different hat to wear. It’s a skill that I’m still working on.
Dave Miller: Is it awkward to go to try to drum up support for your news operation, going to local businesses who you may be reporting on yourself, given that you’re the reporter and the ad person?
Bradley Fuqua: Yeah. Every once in a while, it’ll be a little awkward, but I think for the most part, most people realize that there’s a line there, what the difference is. It’s never really been a problem, even with the members that I have, I’ve never had anybody tell me that I shouldn’t have written about that or I shouldn’t do this or that. So I think people understand that.
Dave Miller: What is your financial model? So advertising clearly is a part of it, is that where all of the money comes from? It doesn’t seem like this is a subscription based organization?
Bradley Fuqua: No, I decided not to have a paywall. I wanted to make sure that everybody could have access to it here in town. So I’ve tried to bring in some advertising and that’s been limited. I need to spend more time on that. But most of the money has come through a membership program that I have. I have close to 200 members now. From the projections I had done, I was thinking, if I hit at least 300 members, I’ll be sustainable. So I’m about two thirds of the way there on that front. But it’s gone better than I expected, to be honest with you, on the membership program, a lot of people have committed.
Dave Miller: And these are people who pay monthly or yearly to sustain you?
Bradley Fuqua: That’s right, yeah.
Dave Miller: I mean really another example of news organizations taking a page from the public media playbook of saying to the listeners or viewers or readers, ‘give us money for what you value.’ George Custer, what about you? What’s your financial model?
George Custer: We kinda started by the seat of our pants. We found out later that normally nonprofit news sites take a couple of years to get the stuff together before they launch. We started within a couple of months, basically everything was hand out of pocket from all the board members and a few other contributors. Besides being the interim editor and all those other jobs I have, I am also the grant writer. It’s a well known phenomenon across the country now, that especially in rural communities, where you just can’t get that kind of advertising dollars because it’s an economies of scale. Small towns have small businesses that have small clientele so they can’t really afford the kind of advertising dollars that it would take to sustain the cost of a news site. So again, we’re looking for sponsors and donations. Like I said, I’m also the primary grant writer, which I just finished one last night, sending it off, keeping my fingers crossed, so we’re holding on by a shoestring. But by golly we’re gonna keep this thing going.
Dave Miller: George, what wouldn’t be covered news-wise if the Highway 58 Herald weren’t in existence now?
George Custer: Primarily, well, Highway 58 is probably the busiest cross-state highway between the I-5 corridor and the Highway 97 corridor. In the winter, we have a lot of wrecks, crashes. We’re still zooming at City Hall, so there’s very few people who are really finding out what’s going on in City Hall with the council of government, the city administrators, mayors, staff. We’re in a real budget crunch up here right now and people don’t understand the depth of those problems unless we report them.
Dave Miller: And Brad, what about you? If you weren’t there covering Philomath News, what wouldn’t be covered?
Bradley Fuqua: Yeah, almost everything. The Daily’s really scaled back on their coverage of Philomath, especially since The Express closed. They just don’t have a whole lot of staff anymore. And they cover Corvallis and Albany, so Philomath isn’t a priority, I don’t think. But yeah, City Council, School Board, I don’t see them with those types of meetings. The sports coverage is, if they make it to the state playoffs, maybe they get some coverage. That’s about it. So yeah, just about everything in town. I’ve been doing this for 14 months now and I’ve run across them maybe half a dozen times at things, you know? So yeah, just about everything.
Dave Miller: Brad Fuqua and George Custer, thanks.
George Custer: Thank you.
Bradley Fuqua: Thank you.
Dave Miller: Brad is the person behind the one-person digital news operation Philomath News. George Custer is essentially the same thing right now as the co-founder and interim editor of the Highway 58 Herald.
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