Local journalism is hard work. Help us carry the load

"The foundations of media are shifting and so is the world: journalism must become more equitable, less sensationalized, more nuanced," writes Nora Hertel.

Local journalism is hard work. Help us carry the load
Project Optimist Founder Nora Hertel leads a training on solutions journalism for Arts Midwest's Creative Midwest Media Cohort gathering in Minneapolis, Minn., on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Courtesy of Mia McGill of Arts Midwest)

This column was originally published by the Reynolds Journalism Institute on June 11, 2024. Find the original post here.

ST. MICHAEL, Minn. — I often felt like Sisyphus when I worked in daily news — always pushing a boulder up a hill and never reaching the top. The need to churn out constant stories that garnered eyeballs and emojis became increasingly unsatisfying to me. And through my first decade in the field, I could see that local audiences did not feel well served as the media grew more polarized, nationalized, and negative. 

So I left in 2021. And two weeks later I launched my own news organization called Project Optimist. We produce solution-focused journalism, host depolarizing events, and feature local art from greater Minnesota — the small cities and rural regions beyond the Twin Cities. 

Celebrate nature + art with Project Optimist! Join us Sunday, July 28 at Riverside Park in St. Cloud. The free event will feature forest bathing at 10 a.m. (register here), followed by food, music and fun from noon to 2:30 p.m. We hope to see you there!

I’ve written about my founder journey for the Reynolds Journalism Institute a few times. It’s been an epic experience with heart-soaring highs and deeply scary lows. We nearly ran out of money in February, and the fear of missing payroll wrecked my nervous system for a solid month. I've only taken a third of my salary so far this year. 

Now that I’m in the third year of Project Optimist, I feel more like Atlas than Sisyphus. Atlas held up the sky in ancient Greece. I don’t think of myself as a Titan, but the mantle of leadership weighs extremely heavy in the chaotic world of journalism today. I want to model healthy newsroom culture, platform historically-marginalized voices, focus on solutions in a market obsessed with problems, and find a model that can endure unforeseeable change. Easy peasy.

How Project Optimist grew in 2023
What the nonprofit news organization accomplished in 2023 and what its goals are for 2024.

Some of the burden is financial, and I am so grateful that the philanthropic world is moving to better fund the news media. The Press Forward coalition is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars into play for the field of journalism. This is a national effort, and I see that shaping up in Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest. 

When I started to run out of cash, I reached out to my community and found cheerleaders, donors, and advisors to help me refill the coffers. I still need to raise $200,000 this year. Send me a note if you can help me get there — nora@projectoptimist.news.

The need for systemic change in the field of journalism is perhaps more daunting than updating the business model. The foundations of media are shifting and so is the world: journalism must become more equitable, less sensationalized, more nuanced. As challenges compound, I worry: How can I hold up the sky if the ground is moving too?

My staff and I are starting to talk about how to differentiate our content from content that is AI-generated. We’re talking about how to serve our communities in a constructive way as we tackle historic challenges like climate change, political division, and social isolation. And we’re doing this as we try to crack into the opaque algorithms of social media feeds so we can meet our audience where they are and offer a glimmer of light in their doom scroll. We recently budgeted $10,000 to $25,000 to tap into those channels — an unexpected expense. 

There is so much in my work that I am excited about. The solutions we get to feature are encouraging. The dialogues we host warm hearts. The art we commission and share provides respite and hope. 

What I need to continue this work is a few more people to help shoulder the load. The folks already on our team are amazing. I’m talking about our staff, contractors, donors, and audience. Good people. Laying a firm foundation for the organization. I love this work. And I want to bring more people into it. 

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Solo news entrepreneurs are holding up the fourth pillar of democracy — the press — in small cities and towns around the country. Some are publishing physical papers from brick and mortar offices. Others launched from their basements (like me!) and cover their communities online. 

I am building a board of directors to help lead Project Optimist into our next phase as a stand-alone nonprofit. We’re building our audience, with our sights are set on 5,000 subscribers by the end of the year. 

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We can do it, but I need many sets of shoulders to carry the load as the world shifts. 

Are you involved in local news? 

If we want a future for journalism and cohesive communities, we need everyone to show up. Join the board. Make a donation. Share news stories that resonate. With your help, we can hold up democracy and, perhaps, even the sky.

Becca Most edited this essay.

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