Settling the Sentinel: 5 years of a hyperlocal experiment

thanks for the memories

In this blog I answer a few questions about the Sentinel

  • what was it
  • what were the goals of the project
  • what we did and what were some results
  • what were the problems
  • why did it shut down
  • what’s next?

This is a long blog entry. I’m trying to sum up 5 years. There are subheads in the post for easy scanning. If you don’t make it to the end you can find me doing daily reporting at www.enzymepdx.com/news/
and on Twitter and Facebook

Next installment on this blog- What is Portland Media Lab?

FIVE YEARS OF THE SENTINEL: The clean up

Connie the bookkeeper came in Sunday to close the ledgers and settle what cash was left in the bank. I went into the café around the corner to buy her a pastry.

Mayor Sam Adams was drinking coffee inside the shop. He lives in this neighborhood and the Sentinel was his neighborhood paper. Like 22,000 other residents, he received the Sentinel free in his mailbox once a month. Like many people in the neighborhood he know me by sight.

“Hey,” said Adams. “Do you live around here?”

“No, the Sentinel office is here. For about seven more days.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, suddenly looking a little distant. He knows the paper has gone under. “That’s too bad. It was a good paper.”

Yeah, I get that a lot since March of this year when I officially announced the paper was closing. As of this week, the website will lock in place and will only be accessible through search.

When I bought the paper in 2004 it was a 16 page black and white tabloid with a monthly circulations of 16,000. By the time it ended, the paper had a monthly circulation of 27,000 with up to 34,000 online users. The paper had gone from covering North Portland’s most isolated neighborhood St Johns, to covering a beat that made up roughly 20% of the city’s geography.

I moved out to Portland right after I graduated film school at NYU in 1995. I’d produced several independent documentaries before I bought the Sentinel.

I bought the rag in 2004 with a vision of creating a full-fledged newsroom, that produced audio, video and print news reports for online and paper circulation. From the very start the idea was that the newspaper would be an arm of a newsroom centered on the web.

The vision was in the future the newspaper would become a sort of advertising device for websites. The paper wasn’t suppose to be the primary source of news. I intended to evolve the Sentinel’s newspaper into more of a monthly reminder that residents should return to the online newsroom throughout the month.

Between March 2005 and March 2010 we covered a lot of ground. The Sentinel worked with over a 120 freelancers, interns and volunteers during that time.

Most of 2005 to 2007 was devoted to developing a stable news editor, professionalized layout and design, creating a bookkeeping and client services system, getting an intern program up and running, broadening circulation enough to attract a robust advertising base and rebranding the paper as The Sentinel.

We launched a daily news blog in 2007 (using a Blogger backend). We experimented with citizen bloggers that year. I produce a few short news documentaries and the Sentinel had some of the first direct address news video blogs I can ever remember seeing.

Our blog was a focus of great attention when we broke the news of trying to rename Interstate Avenue after Cesar E. Chavez. The blog hosted long and lively comment strings, sometimes daily reporting on the issue and at least one viral video in which I used a flip camera to face Mayor Tom Potter while he stormed out of City Council chambers in the middle of a meeting. In that year the website’s monthly users went from about 3,000 to over 15,000.

After 2 years of development, we launched a full CMS site in January of 2008. Based on Drupal the new site was ugly but could do just about everything I had planned. The site was an open publishing site that allowed users to post their own blogs, events and other media. We produced some of the city’s first news and music podcasts including Junior Varsity Yard Sale (A&E), Fear of Suburbia (Music) and the nPodcast (news). I was also able to self-produce and commission short news documentaries and spot news video pieces throughout most of 2008 to 2010.

I think we were generally seen by the mainstream media as “scrappy” publication- to use the Willamette Week term (in 2007 the Willie named us best community newspaper). I believe that from a publishing POV, the 2008 emergence of the Drupal site, put us technically on par with, or at times a little ahead of, what other news organizations were doing.

What we also wound up doing was being a bit of a leader in what is called “hyperlocal” journalism. That was a term that emerged a few years into the project. Hyperlocal essentially means dedicating professional news resources to a very small coverage area. The fact, that some saw as hyperlocal was sort of happy coincidence. In my mind, we were simply trying to “up the game” of a community paper at a time that mainstream media was trying to “ratchet down” to the community coverage level.

North and Northeast Portland were gentrifying to varying degrees. Inner Northeast home to the city’s traditional black population was changing quickly. The North Portland Peninsula, which was more working class and white, was changing more gradually. The demographic currents that made the area more vital and dynamic that most of Portland’s more established neighborhoods. Everything was changing in the community and life and death struggles were always close at hand.

Within that setting, the Sentinel had a special secret sauce:  a voice and set of story telling guidelines I tried to designed to engage, inform and perhaps even enlighten readers from time to time.  My influences were less other community papers like say the Hollywood Star or the Northwest Examiner, than This American Life and the heady days of a publication called Film Threat in the 1990, tempered by years of mind numbing subjugation to my daughter’s love of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Part of that voice was venturing out beyond simply observing what the neighbors were up to that month. We reported on a very divisive homophobic hate crime on Sauvie Island. We investigated a class action suite filed by undocumented workers against the Fresh Del Monte Company that eventually prompted a huge ICE crackdown in the neighborhood. We did an analysis of Latino on gang culture in the territory. We did an exposé on the way students were self-segregating by race into three different small schools on the Roosevelt campus.

The paper argued against merging Tubman Middle School and Jefferson High School. We argued in 2007 against closing St Johns North Precinct and instead recommended that PPB restructure the entire precinct system, which they did in 2009. We devoted relentless coverage to a small neighborhood struggles that never reached citywide awareness, such as a successful effort to keep a city block from being demolished to speed up traffic through downtown St Johns. But we also devoted years of coverage to beats that often exploded into citywide stories such as the CRC’s impacts on Hayden Island and Sauvie Island resident efforts to prevent the expansion of ESCO’s industrial land-fill.

A survey conducted in 2009 by the City of Portland ranked the Sentinel’s blog as the 10th most influential in the city just behind website run by the Pacific Northwest’s largest daily publication: The Oregonian.

And we did all this for about 12 to 18K dollars in ad revenue a month.

The Sentinel was fueled by a lot of vision and youthful enthusiasm that was magical and nightmarish at times.

Like many newsrooms it was chaos corralled by deadlines. It ran off panic and the thrill of documenting the first draft of history. It was also terminally in financial straits.

But it was very satisfying all the same. We had loyal readers and a very well-defined sense of purpose.

The problem, however, were four fold:

1)The North Portland is a shallow advertising market to begin with, it has only a few hundred businesses scattered over a vast area of thinly populated neighborhoods of mostly poor and working class residents.

2)We were hit by a recession in year three of a five-year business plan.

3)The paper suffered from much of the pandemic collapse in display advertising that shuttered other publications around the region and country.

4)And lastly, my ambition was always to run a newsroom that was dedicated to more than just one neighborhood. Much of my time and energy went into building an infrastructure that could scale up dramatically. However, by the time that infrastructure was in place, the recession hit and we went straight to triage.

St Johns itself had some of the poorest commercial census tracks in the city when the paper started in 2001. There is a rule of thumb I picked up from an old book called Strategic Newspaper Publishing that said “don’t deliver a newspaper to anyone who earns less than 50K a year.”  The book was published in1989. So those numbers are low.

The circulation number I was always trying to get to was 25k once a month. That was the circulation number for the direct mail circulation papers next to the Sentinel in the NW, NE, SE, SW and East Portland quadrants.

The problem was, there weren’t really 25K people who earned more than 50K a year in North Portland. Which sort of explained why community papers have failed in North Portland since the 1970s.

North Portland was a community newspaper graveyard and I knew that going in. Jim Schaller, a financial advisor and President of the North Portland Business Association once said that the North Portland Peninsula (the core of the coverage area) had been in recession since the 1960s.

In order to get our 25K people at $50K a year, the circulation area had to spread from the Northern tip of Sauvie Island in Columbia County to the Kennedy School in NE Portland some 20 miles away.

It was very hard to hold a cultural identity and common interest for a readership that broad. More importantly it was hard to find advertisers who wanted to draw from that population.

The area had two kinds of businesses: the kind that had just started up and the kind that had been in the neighborhood forever. The rub was that neither of those of those two groups were keen on newspaper advertising.

Newer businesses were more likely to use social media, or coupon books, neighborhood maps, adds at movie theatre, bus stops, buses, event sponsorships and try to twist to get free PR….Many had no particular loyalty to a local newspaper.

The older businesses were the kind that had survived in the 40 year recession and had client bases and methods for promotion that outlived most local publications.

As a publisher I soon discovered that there was no “sheltered” advertising market in community news. It’s relentless competition from the smallest paper all the way up to the big boys.

I had a box of ad client files from failed businesses. At the time we closed I’d say the failed business were about 30% of our client base.

In 2007 and the first half of 2008 the demands of running two publications and the grind of working in a workplace governed by a constant churning of freelancers, interns and volunteers was barely manageable. But in September of 2008 the floor fell out of the market. Ad sales fell by 50 percent between Sept 2008 and March 2010.

It was a long hard haul to March of 2010. I won’t go into those details. But we did some of our best work in those nineteen months.

Back to that August afternoon, when I returned to the office I gave Connie the bookkeeper her pastry and started throwing just about everything into a large dumpster. The files. The Costume Box. The old photo cds. The shredded checks. The paper shredder I broke while shredding the checks.

When I left the office I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

That evening, at home, I logged onto Facebook and checked out the photos I had posted earlier that day from my phone. I had posted some grumpy comments like “that’s all she wrote.” and “54 cents left in the check book and three maxed credit cards and I’m off into the sunset.”

Under the Facebook photos was a stream of comments from friends, past Sentinel folks and readers. “Don’t forget all the great memories!” “You’ve touched so many lives.” “It was great to be a small part of history”

It made me remember all the good work we did. And oh yeah. I had the time of my life. I wouldn’t change a thing.

See you in the neighborhood

Cornelius

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6 comments
  1. Mark Kirchmeier said:

    Cornelius,
    Yours was the best community journalism I’ve ever seen in this state.

    Mark Kirchmeier

  2. It was a valiant, brave and visionary effort, Cornelius. I’m heartsick to see the Sentinel fade into the annals of St. Johns history, but I’m glad you were around to cover five tumultuous years in the ongoing saga of North Portland development. You served your community well, and there is no higher calling in journalism.

  3. Sign of the times, unfortunately. Hopefully, the best writers and content will survive!

  4. David Pool said:

    Cornelius,

    I read of your demise with a real sense of empathy and deja vu. Lick your wounds and rest up if you can. The world is constantly changing and there’s always a chance for a second act.

    David

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