By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Mendo Voice goes nonprofit as co-founder Kate Maxwell moves on

Kate Maxwell working out of borrowed space in March 2020. Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

There’s big news in the world of hyperlocal journalism this week: Kate Maxwell, the co-founder and publisher of The Mendocino Voice in Northern California, is moving on. The Voice, which is nominally a for-profit, is becoming part of the nonprofit Bay City News Foundation, which, according to an announcement on Tuesday, “will allow both organizations to expand the geographic reach and depth of their public service reporting.”

In a message to readers, Maxwell writes that “as part of this new chapter, I’ve chosen to move on from my role as publisher.” No word as to what she’ll do next. She adds:

Thanks to your support, we’ve published nearly 5,000 articles, reached millions of readers, created living wage jobs for experienced local reporters, held government officials accountable, received national funding and awards, and shared important Mendocino stories with readers around the state and country. Most importantly, we’ve been able to provide the diverse communities in Mendocino with news that’s been useful to you, our friends and neighbors.

Although the Voice will continue as a standalone free website, it will do so without either of the co-founders. The site’s first editor, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, left several years ago. Here’s part of an FAQ explaining what the change will mean for readers:

This partnership will give The Mendocino Voice the stability to maintain its news operation and support its journalists. It’ll create a regional network all along the coast as well as the inland areas and give reporters the opportunity to grow. It’s a promise of long-term sustainability. Joining with Bay City News Foundation means that we’ll have the capacity for deeper coverage of environmental issues, plus more resources for bringing you that news, including more photographers, data journalists and round-the-clock editors.

The Mendo Voice was the first project I visited in my reporting for “What Works in Community News.” I was on the ground during the first week of March in 2020, and we all know what happened that week. I covered an event the Voice hosted at a local brewpub on Super Tuesday, which I reported on for GBH News. Two days later, I was on hand as Maxwell and Baumann reported on a news conference to announce the first measures being taken in response to what was then called the “novel coronavirus.” The nationwide shutdown loomed.

The reason I wanted to include The Mendo Voice in the book that Ellen Clegg and I were writing was that Maxwell and Baumann were planning to convert the project they had founded in 2016 to a cooperative form of ownership. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” Maxwell told the Super Tuesday gathering. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.”

After years of following a nascent news co-op in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which ultimately failed to launch, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, the co-op that Maxwell and Baumann envisioned did not come to pass, either. COVID-19 wreaked havoc with their plans, though the Voice continued to publish and provide “useful news for all of Mendocino.”  Baumann took a personal leave that ended up becoming permanent. And Maxwell was unable to move ahead with the community meetings she had envisioned to make the co-op a reality. “I think we basically had a year’s worth of events that we were planning,” she told me in 2022.

By then, the Voice was essentially operating as a hybrid — a for-profit that had a relationship with a nonprofit organization that allowed for tax-deductible donations to support the Voice’s reporting. Eventually, she said, the site was likely to move toward a more traditional nonprofit model.

The co-op idea is an interesting one, but to this day I’m not aware of a successful example at the local level. The Defector has made it work, but that’s a national project. In Akron, Ohio, The Devil Strip, an arts-focused magazine and website, tried for a while but then collapsed in an ugly fashion.

Maxwell and Baumann, two young journalists who launched The Mendocino Voice after leaving jobs at Mendo County newspapers being destroyed by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, built something of lasting value. Best wishes to both of them.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike LaBonte

    It looks like the co-op effort never really launched due to COVID and personal reasons. But that’s too bad, because their approach of starting with a functioning news operation probably would have helped form the co-op. That they had a year’s worth of public events planned tells me they understood how tough it is to bring people on board with the idea, and maybe they had planned for the aggressive promotion required. People tend to not understand co-ops all that well, so the “wait and see” attitude is common. Having an existing media operation to spread the word and show that others are jumping in sounds like a huge plus.

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