Lookout team members work in the "war room"
(Chris Fusco / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

Lookout Santa Cruz: We’re here, for you

Yes, it’s challenging to launch a news organization during a pandemic. But we believe this: more journalism is better than less.

We’re here, for you.

In this lengthy quest to provide the good citizens of Santa Cruz County a news company befitting their intelligence, curiosity and generosity, it’s been quite an adventure.

If I had a hundred dollars for everyone who said it couldn’t be done, we would be super-funded. As it is, we’ve got enough — with your earned support to come — to prove them wrong. Yes, it’s been laughably hard to start up a new high-quality local news company ( “a what?,” “a blog?,” “an app?”). Looking at my 32 new passwords for sites I never knew a business needed, I now newly appreciate the tale of any entrepreneur sharing how difficult it is to start up a business.

And, yes, Lookout Santa Cruz is a business, with a unique twist. We’re a public benefit corporation that aims to run efficiently and turn its profits, when they start to flow, into more news, more news in Santa Cruz County and more news in other communities. Democracy-building news and community betterment form our twin pillars.

I’m so incredibly thankful to our intrepid staff for producing what you see on Lookout Santa Cruz today. Freed from PowerPoint, business plans and endless explanatory Zooms, Lookout can — finally — speak for itself. And we have all done it, largely remotely, within the COVID nightmare, because it needed to be done.

Chris Fusco has ably led our staff to this first milestone, and in his introductory piece, he gives you a great tour of what we’ve done, and a small preview of what’s to come. Wallace Baine presents the picture, as only Wallace can in Santa Cruz County, of how Lookout’s launch amazingly fits the gestalt of our time here and now, on the precipice of a 2021 in which we all dare hope to create a better year out of the piled-up ruins of 2020. That’s why his new column is called The Here & Now, focused on the gripping realities, and stubborn joys, of life at the beginning of this troubled decade, as we rebuild the local economy and spirit.

And, yes, it is challenging to launch a new news enterprise at this time. Just recently, our staff participated in a typically well-organized Event Santa Cruz Zoom, hosted by Matthew Swinnerton, who like so many others have gone out of their way to welcome our arrival. Matthew titled the event, “Why Lookout? Why Santa Cruz? Why Now?”

Those remain questions we often hear, so let me offer our best thinking on them.

About those news deserts

You may have heard the terms “news desert” and “ghost newspaper” to describe the sad, long-term downward trajectory of local news companies. As both a veteran of newspaper management and as a national analyst of the business of media for the last 15 years, I’ve described the great success of the national press, like the New York Times, and unending decline, and thinning, of the local press. The numbers are astounding: The number of journalists working at daily papers across the country has dropped by 60% in 30 years.

Papers that used to hurt a pet if thrown toward them today won’t kill a fly, and that of course means that their “online editions” are just as thin. Almost half of the daily newspapers remaining in the U.S. are controlled by financial companies, whose interest has clearly been proven, in Santa Cruz and across the country, to be short-term profit rather than community service.

Yet, even those terms are abstract. What do they mean to those who deeply care about where they live and want to know what’s really going on?

Now, in Santa Cruz County, here’s the new answer. As we complete our staff by year’s end, we’ll have 10 full-time journalists in our newsroom. When you combine that with the competing news operation in town, it will nearly triple the number of daily journalists who currently work in and for Santa Cruz County readers. That’s the impact we, and you, are looking for. Reseeding news deserts means lots of good reporters asking, and getting answers to, lots of questions.

Some local publishers have contended that what they are offering is good enough, and no more journalism is needed here. Yet, in our dozens of talks with community leaders and members, people ask about what they didn’t — and don’t — know about our year-long COVID nightmare and our tragic fires, in addition to many other topics on which we all know far too little. Town/gown. Rail Trail. Affordability. Economic development and jobs.

More journalism is better than less

We believe this: More journalism is better than less journalism.

We say, simply: Let’s see. Let’s see what Lookout Santa Cruz can tell you (and ask you) about our community and then see whether the local news we all used to get was enough. Today starts that experiment, and I deeply appreciate you being a part of it. Mark Conley, a long-time Santa Cruzan and our deputy managing editor, has laughingly suggested that we Lookouters are all lab rats in a magnificent experiment. We’d be pleased if you’d join our merry laboratory.

Lookout Santa Cruz, and Lookout Local, aren’t the only new models out there. Clearly, though, as recognized by our national press attention, we are one of the biggest models. Ten new journalists covering a “little” county of 275,000 is unheard of, elsewhere. And, we believe, absolutely essential to providing you this always-on product that’s worth paying for and supporting.

Insidiously, there are other players emerging surreptitiously, driving political agendas in the guise of providing local news. Metric Media, a network of some 1,300 “local” news sites is the one to most carefully watch, as our national purveyors of polarization now aim to drive their stakes into localities across the country.

I believe we need to say more than no to such chicanery, and the best way, first here in Santa Cruz, and then more widely, is simply to say “yes” to a new standard of high-quality, non-partisan, connect-the-dots local news and analysis for the digital age.

We’ve been asked repeatedly, “What’s Lookout’s special sauce?” We can cite its size. We can cite its talent. We can cite its digital product quality and presentation.

There are, though, two words that stand out, as we look back across the year: community and partnership. And, for us, the words go together.

We’re working with a remarkable group of early Civic Partners. They include Coastal Watershed Council, Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, DigitalNEST, Jacob’s Heart and Second Harvest Food. When you sign up to become a Lookout member, Lookout provides 10% of what you pay directly to whichever of those groups you choose. We’ve designed that as the ultimate twofer (or threefer): “Read, lead and help others.”

We’re free for now

Even though Lookout at launch offers free access for a while, please do consider becoming a member now. It’s a double support of news and of community betterment. (Let me add that while Lookout will become a paid membership site in 2021, we’ve already, with the generosity of donors, made access free for the year for all of Cabrillo College’s more than 13,000 students.)

The free access to our site that we’ll be offering through early next year is brought to you by our first group of Marketing Partners. You’ll see the storytelling of UC Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County Bank, Cabrillo College, K&D Landscaping and the Museum of Art and History on these pages. It’s a unique form of “advertising,” one that enables these businesses and institutions to talk with you, rather than “target” you. When you see “Promoted Content” on Lookout, it’s from these Marketing Partners, and it’s always clearly delineated from our editorial content.

In addition, there’s the web of state and national partners who have joined us in this adventure.

You don’t create a modern digital news company and product without technology partners. And we’ve had the best. The Los Angeles Times’ technology powers our site, and the Times product and technology leaders have been great collaborators as we made our way through hundreds of decisions. Design company Charming Robot and operational consultant Osder Consulting provided invaluable work. Now, BlueLena, Pico and Parse.ly all contribute tech that makes your experience better.

Then there are the content partners. We have all conceived Lookout to be relentlessly local — but not parochial. We know our readers want the most locally relevant news, and we have painstakingly embedded those connections right into Lookout. All our 10 highly regarded content partners can be found here, and we can give a special call-out to those based in California, including the LA Times, CalMatters, Kaiser Health News and Civil Eats. You see their work immediately as we launch; each and all provided rich context for our first local report. Further, InsideClimate News connects with us on the local-is-global, global-is-local critical topic of climate change and fellow higher-ed-focused start-up Open Campus Media shares our commitment to providing deep coverage of UCSC and Cabrillo.

Access Democracy

Lastly, our partners at the First Amendment Coalition are fundamental to this venture. We can talk a good game about bringing accountable sunlight to the public’s business and government decision-making, but it can be the legal expertise of FAC, a highly valued California free press and public’s-right-to-know institution, that’s needed to help pry records and information loose. You’ll hear more about our joint Lookout/FAC Access Democracy initiative in the months to come.

Finally, a huge thanks to funders. These are the people who didn’t say it couldn’t be done. They said, “How can we help you do it.” The world needs more of them. Our enduring gratitude to the Knight Foundation, Google News Innovation Challenge, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Carol and Doug Melamed, Linda Peterson, and the local generosity of Meadow Fund and Rowland and Pat Rebele.

Thanks for checking out the new Lookout Santa Cruz, and please let us know additional questions and comments you have, sending them to news@lookoutsantacruz.com. (We have answered a bunch in our Q & A.)

While it may be a grand model to some of us, for most, quite rightly, it’s a new news offering. And that’s the way it should be. It is our effort, simply, to be able to tell the stories of this place in this time, and that’s the highest privilege for which any journalist can ask.