Q&A: Kara Meyberg Guzman of Santa Cruz Local

Starting, sustaining, and growing a tiny newsroom.

PUBLISHED SEP 23, 2023 3:13 A.M.
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Kara Meyberg Guzman is one of the hardest working journalists in the business.

Kara Meyberg Guzman is one of the hardest working journalists in the business.

Kara Meyberg Guzman is co-founder and CEO of Santa Cruz Local, a hyper-local, hyper-focused newsroom covering the housing, government, health and environment beats in Santa Cruz County.

Kara is a leading voice in the emerging national movement that finds local news outlets springing up coast to coast. She is a member of LION, the Local Independent Online News Publishers Association, and is a founding board member of the Tiny News Collective, a nonprofit helping communities build newsrooms nationwide.

Santa Cruz Local was recently recognized by LION with the 2022 Business of the Year Award.

How did you get into journalism? You went to Stanford and graduated with a biology degree, and then you became a career journalist. Tell us how that happened.

It was kind of a long, circuitous route, and I hope anyone younger [laugh] who might be listening or reading this comes with a takeaway that you don’t necessarily know what you’re gonna do when you graduate college, and that’s fine. 

When I graduated college, I thought I was going to go into medicine, like my parents. They’re doctors, immigrants who came to the US to practice medicine. I thought I was going to follow in their footsteps, but decided not to, and spent the next seven years working in nonprofit education. I helped lead a couple tutoring programs in Boston and in East Palo Alto, then decided I needed a career change. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted to do something more creative and knew I still wanted to make an impact in my community.

So after spending maybe a year traveling around Asia and just enjoying life and soul searching a little bit, I decided I wanted to try science writing.

So I came to Santa Cruz with the intention of going to the UC Santa Cruz Science Communications Program—it’s one of the top programs in the country. But while I was waiting for applications to open, I decided to do an unpaid internship at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, just to try it out and see if I liked working in local journalism.

Turned out I loved it. It was a new assignment every day, and it was an amazing way to serve and get to know Santa Cruz. I was hired within two weeks as a full-time staff reporter, and yeah, the rest is history. I’ve been in journalism for a little more than 10 years. I worked my way up at the Sentinel, eventually becoming managing editor in 2018. 

Then I left in 2019 to start Santa Cruz Local.

What’s it like to start a tiny newsroom focused on local community journalism? Was it an easy start?

[Laughs.] I would say co-founding Santa Cruz Local is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

It is incredibly hard to start your own business, let alone in local journalism, where the business models that have worked for many generations are just broken and don’t work, and you have to sort of build it yourself. When I left the Sentinel, I knew I wanted to stay in local journalism, and I knew I wanted to stay in Santa Cruz County, but I felt like I didn’t have any other options. I wanted to serve the community in the way that I do best, which is producing journalism that holds power to account, that informs people about local government and gets people engaged. 

My co-founder, Steven Baxter, had similar goals and intentions—we really just wanted to serve the community that we loved, but had no idea how to start our own newsroom.

There are actually hundreds of news entrepreneurs in similar situations across the country. Former newspaper reporters, or just people who want to start newsrooms, but are starting it on a very small scale. I researched what other founders had been doing and just sort of cobbled together some of the best practices.

So we started small; we started with an experiment. Our hypothesis was, we have about 30,000 commuters in our county who at the time were traveling over the hill and back every day. And we basically had a captive audience. So our guess was that people would want to listen to the news on their commute to work.

And our other guess was that people really wanted to stay informed about what was happening in the Santa Cruz City Council, because at the time it was a really divisive and exciting time at the council. You know, there was a lot of conflict, and there were rumblings of recall campaigns happening. So a lot happening, but not really consistent, reliable in-depth reporting. So we started producing these short podcast episodes about what happened last night in Santa Cruz City Council just to see if it would work. And by the way, we were doing this all for free. It was just a small experiment. And people loved it.

We got a lot of great feedback. We started putting together an email list, then we issued a survey among a few hundred people on our email list just to see what kind of news people want, how they consume their news, how they want it delivered. And based on that feedback from that initial survey, we started building an email newsletter, with an early bare-bones website, publishing news there as well as in the podcast. 

Fast forward a year and that eventually grew to a biweekly email newsletter and website, and podcasts that covered all four city councils and the county board of supervisors—the big issues facing our county, such as upcoming housing laws, the cost of living, and homelessness.

Then the pandemic hit.

Yeah, 2020 was obviously hard  for our community. The pandemic and then the disastrous wildfires. I think that really underscored for people the importance and the need for fair and accurate news and information about what’s happening in our community. 

Communication channels broke down during that time, especially for people for whom English is not their first language. It just really showed how important it is to have local news. And our readership and our membership, the people who pay to support our news, tripled during that time. It was actually a really intense period of growth for our newsroom. Steven was able to leave his other full-time job and come to Santa Cruz Local full-time, which was huge. We were able to hire another staffer, Natalya Dreszer, who is really focused on listening to the community. It was intense and difficult, but an incredible time of growth for Santa Cruz Local.

How did you build up your membership, readership and audience? 

As a first-time entrepreneur, audience growth in our first year was a steep learning curve for me. So I think having the right mentorship and guidance is really key to our success. I was able to get a really awesome mentor, Philip Smith. He now runs boot camps for first-time news entrepreneurs. A lot of what I learned was through Philip. And also the Membership Puzzle Project, which is a program that shows all the best practices around membership for newsrooms.

I’m just going to back up and explain our model for a second. So, all of Santa Cruz Local’s news is free because we exist as a public service. We want everyone to have access to our news and information. People can choose to pay $199 a year or $19 a month if they share our vision, believe in our mission, and want local news to be free for everybody. At the start, almost all of our revenue came from membership. Now we have other sources of revenue and membership is about 30 percent of our overall revenue. It’s a key part of our strategy.

That first year, learning how to tell our story was big. We had this sort of mini-podcast series called “Meet Santa Cruz Local,” where we shared our story with our audience, like why we’re starting this newsroom and who we are, and the trials and tribulations of  starting a local business in local news. We really let people in on our journey. And I think being human really helped people share our vision and get on board, and I think that was a big part of getting those first 150 members.

Santa Cruz Local is hyper-focused. You concentrate on four main areas in your reporting:  housing, health, government, and the environment. How did you choose your beats and your focus?

I think what sets us apart from other newsrooms is that we really let Santa Cruz County residents have the power to tell us what we should cover. So we really kind of flipped the script, and instead of editors deciding in a closed room, “these are the issues facing our community,” we really spend a lot of time listening—going to public places like farmer’s markets, food-bank lines, parks, and asking people “What local issues keep you up at night?” “What do you want our team to investigate?” “What do you want us to press local leaders on?” And in an organized way, we’ve built a system to gather all that, those interviews, all the surveys, code them, track the top themes and let that lead the direction of our newsroom.

By far, over the past three-plus years, the top theme we’ve heard facing our community is housing—housing and homelessness. Our county is one of the most, if not the most, expensive place to live in the world. And all the threads around that incredible cost of housing here is what we’ve spent the bulk of our time digging into.

And each community is a little bit different. For example, in Watsonville we hear so much about the need for family-oriented entertainment and businesses. You know, people are continually having to go to Santa Cruz, Salinas, or Hollister to go to a Chuck E. Cheese or whatever. People are always telling us: “There’s nothing to do here in Watsonville. What can we do? How can we push for economic development around family activities here?” And we’ve heard a lot about childcare in Scotts Valley, and a lot about environmental issues throughout the county, and these themes are really leading our focus.

You started out as a for-profit LLC, and you recently made the decision to go non-profit. What was behind that?

From the start, Santa Cruz Local has always been about public service. It’s always been about serving Santa Cruz County with fair and accurate local journalism. That is why we founded this organization. So it’s not a values change. It’s really a tax status that makes it a lot easier for people to donate.

Our business model relies on donations from residents. About 85 percent of our revenue comes from individual local donors. And about half of that, 50 percent of our overall revenue in the last year, has come from major gifts. So those are gifts of $5,000 or more. A lot of those donors require a tax exemption, just because of how their money is structured.

We had a fiscal sponsorship, which has allowed these tax exempt gifts, but we’ve had to pay a fee to the fiscal sponsor. So, it really is just a strategic move to make it easier for philanthropy to support our organization.We see philanthropy as our future, in terms of revenue.

You recently started a Spanish-language news service. Tell us about that.

In July, we started reporting news about and for the Pajaro Valley that’s delivered in Spanish. This has been a long time in the making. We’ve been wanting to do this for years. In the past year, we’ve really had a strong fundraising push to allow this to happen. We hired our first staff reporter, Fidel M. Soto. He has 30 years experience as a news director for Univision Central Coast. So he has deep ties to the Pajaro Valley. He’s well known and trusted in the community. I’m thrilled that he’s on our team now. He’s really leading this new product. 

So how it works is, we produce short audio stories in Spanish that we deliver on a WhatsApp channel called Noticias Watsonville. We’ve built this delivery method because we’ve spent the last year, almost, doing about 170-plus interviews with Spanish-speaking Pajaro Valley residents, asking them, “what kind of news do you want and how do you want it delivered?” 

And what we heard was people really want local news in Spanish, and people want to be able to listen to the news. You know, perhaps they’re driving to work or, while they’re working even. And yeah, it has to be free, really super easy to access. Like people don’t want to go to a website. They want it delivered straight to them in an easy way. 

And it has to make them feel proud. It has to spark pride in the community. Too often the news about and for Watsonville is about crime, it’s about gangs, and it just makes people want to tune out. Because it doesn’t really reflect the nuances of the community that they know and love. So yeah, we’re really trying to take a similar approach where we’re listening, asking people what kind of news they want, and then delivering on that.

You’ve reached sustainability with your finances, is that correct? You’re making a living, you’re paying your people and you’re delivering the news for free.

Yeah, I would say so. As of Sept. 11, we have a staff of six. Two are part-time. So, yeah, we’ve reached a point of sustainability, but we definitely are reaching for growth.

Where do you see Santa Cruz Local going in the next couple of years? What are your plans?

Santa Cruz County, of course, will always need a source of fair and accurate local journalism. The goal here is sustainability and becoming, like, the institutional force in our county. I think where we fit in the media ecosystem is similar to that of a nonprofit hospital, where we fill the gap that for-profit media either can’t or won’t. You see this in the depth of our journalism, for example.

A lot of our work takes months to produce. It’s slow; it’s expensive. Our elections work is a good example of that, and the recent investigation we published on public spending on homeless services is another example. No other local media source in our county can do this kind of slow, expensive work.

They’re not built for it. There’s intense pressure to publish and add volume, frequently. We have taken a very intentional approach that quality is number one. That is what we are hearing from our readers and listeners: “We come to you because of your depth. So keep investing in that.”

I think you also see our unique space with Noticias Watsonville. I mean, that kind of work is also very slow and expensive work—to build a product and try to earn the community’s trust and do what no one else is doing. Fair, accurate, local news in Spanish that’s free and easily accessible and attuned to the needs and questions of data-seeking Pajaro Valley residents.

That’s something that you see no other local media source doing, because it’s not profitable [laugh]. Tying our orientation around public-service journalism, and really trying to provide everyone in our county with solid, fair information and news, sets us apart.

Full disclosure: Chris Neklason is a financial-supporting member of Santa Cruz Local.

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