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Sept. 29, 2022, 2:44 p.m.
Business Models

A bakery, a brewery, and a local news site: There’s a new type of collective growing in Spokane, Washington

“Are we moving fast enough for the length of runway we have to lift off? Or do we need to, you know, keep paving and quickly build more runway? That’s the real question.”

I’ve never been to Spokane, Washington. I know it’s home to Gonzaga University and that it’s closer to Idaho than the Pacific Ocean and that’s about it. So when I spoke to the Spokane-based Range Media, the first thing I asked was to hear more about the place they call home.

Luke Baumgarten, who was culture editor at the local alt weekly before founding Range Media in April 2020, told me the mid-size city remains a quasi-industrial agricultural hub that often sits in the long shadow, culturally, of Seattle and Portland. He mentioned Spokane’s history of labor militancy (the first edition of the Little Red Songbook was printed there), the locally-owned newspaper, and how the city serves as a cultural and literal watershed for the area known as the Inland Northwest.

And, he continued, Spokane is home to the largest tent encampment in Washington State.

It was Range’s extensive, close-up coverage of that unhoused community, known as Camp Hope, that has given the worker-owned media organization its biggest membership boost since launch, said Valerie Osier, the outlet’s audience and membership editor.

Range doesn’t strive for breaking news or a daily publication schedule. “We’re not chasing cops and rewriting press releases,” according to its site. Instead, it focuses on explaining how policy impacts normal people and aims to help residents “understand their community in order to participate in civic life.” The team saw its coverage of Camp Hope, for example, as distinctive from that by other local outlets because Range’s only full-time reporter, Carl Segerstrom, spoke directly to dozens of residents about their needs.

Segerstrom reported from the camp for a week during a lethal mid-summer heatwave this year, and found the city was not providing accessible heat relief for the more than 600 people living at the camp. (At least 20 people died when the region was hit with “a heat dome” in 2021.)

Range also dropped off supplies and publicized requests from residents and organizers on site for water, ice, sports drinks, toilet paper, and prepackaged snacks.

“As an organization built on community engagement, we weren’t sheepish about participating in mutual aid for this vulnerable population,” Segerstrom wrote in Indiegraf.

In a Reddit AMA recently, the Range team was asked about its ability to be impartial.

“I don’t want you to think we’re impartial. I want you to think we’re fair,” Baumgarten responded. “Ultimately that is a primary part of what we want to do here: bring the needs and perspectives of normal people into conversation with our city’s elites, and then let you decide if those elites are doing enough to help the rest of us.”

Osier added Range’s reliance on grants and membership dollars — rather than money from “shady hedge funds or developers” — was another reason to trust the site.

“To be honest, no news outlet is completely impartial and the ones that claim they are are lying,” she said.

Range Media does have an unusual business structure for a local news organization. It’s one of several small businesses — including a brewery, a bakery, and a podcast studio — operated by the Spokane Workers Coop in a limited cooperative association model that only became legal through a state statute in July 2019.

Profits are shared by employee-owners and there is an oversight board with limited power, chiefly over decisions like acquiring new businesses and applications for loans large enough to impact every business in the group. When Range wants to apply for a new grant or make a minor investment, for example, it can do so without needing to consult the board.

That’s in contrast to other cooperatively owned local news orgs you may have heard of. Baumgarten said he and his fellow owners were well-versed in some of the ways co-ops can go awry, like when 356 people need to agree for a single business decision to be made. (“I would love to have been in the meetings for The Devil’s Strip — direct democracy like that for every single decision,” he mused. “I love a utopia as much as the next guy, but you can see the potential problems with that from a mile away.”)

Range is part of a LION revenue fellowship — sponsored by the company fka Facebook — that is giving the young news organization a two-year runway to build its audience, revenue, and membership program. Osier estimated that Range needs about 2,000 members (at $10/month or $100/year) to sustain its three-person newsroom, and said it’s on track to meet that goal.

Still, the team members say they’re hoping to exceed those figures in order to expand the newsroom and hire more reporters, starting with a journalist who would focus on the area’s large Latinx population and translate other Range work into Spanish. They also hope to hire reporters to cover healthcare, labor, housing, and education beats.

“Are we moving fast enough for the length of runway we have to lift off? Or do we need to, you know, keep paving and quickly build more runway?” Baumgarten said. “That’s the real question.”

Range currently offers readers the ability to make one-time donations and plans to add additional, more expensive tiers of membership. It’s sworn off paywalls as antithetical to its mission of boosting civic engagement but is slightly less optimistic about its ability to continue avoiding advertising and sponsorships.

For now, though, Range is focused on growing membership revenue. Osier described her main responsibilities as “getting people to read our stuff, getting people to subscribe, getting people to become paid members, and keeping those members.”

To that end, Osier has been encouraged by the response to the outlet’s public “Office Hours” so far. Unlike “tabling” events at events like markets or fairs — which Range also does — Osier sees Range’s office hours as “a relationship-building tool with people who already have at least a little bit of awareness” of the site.

A sizable chunk of the attendees heard about the office hours from one social media site in particular. Osier said that Reddit is responsible for 21% of Range’s traffic from social media — “nothing to sniff at!” — and about half of their office hours attendance.

So far, the office hours have yielded a partnership with the local library after a librarian attended, a forthcoming panel on ranked-choice voting (which may appear on the ballot in Washington next year) based on attendee interest, and a weekly digest written by Osier on public meetings. Osier said the office hours lead to more “hanging out” and lengthier conversations than the stand-and-grab-some-merch interactions that tend to unfold during tabling.

Maybe most encouraging, Osier said, is that Range feels that the events are helping the staff forge stronger relationships with their neighbors. After the most recent office hours, Osier sent an update: “One of our skeptical local Redditors even showed up,” she wrote. “I think we’re building trust with him.”

Photo of the former world’s fair site in Spokane by Robert Ashworth used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 29, 2022, 2:44 p.m.
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