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March 18, 2024, 2:43 p.m.
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From zines to paying every staffer $84K: How LA Public Press is trying to do local news differently

“I don’t think there’s a circumstance where if you can just twist the dials the right way it’s going to unlock lots and lots of earned revenue from a big subscriber base.”

If you’ve followed any LA media news in the last few months, chances are the news you’ve read has been bleak. In January, the Los Angeles Times — an outlet that, just a few years ago, had looked like a beacon of hope and innovation bolstered by a billionaire owner willing to invest tens of millionslaid off more than 100 people, disproportionately employees of color. And just this month, the publication outsourced its print production, closing its historic printing plant as “paying rent has become untenable.”

It’s less likely you’ve heard of the much smaller, younger Los Angeles Public Press. The digital-native, nonprofit local news outlet began to take shape in 2022, when founder Matt Tinoco, disillusioned by his work in established media, took the first steps to create a new local news source for his hometown.

When Tinoco decided to quit his job covering housing insecurity and homelessness at a local radio station in late 2020, he “was out of gas, and close to falling off the burnout cliff,” he recalled in a publisher’s note last March. What was bothering Tinoco more than anything, he wrote in that note, was that the pressures of his job didn’t allow him to do the deeper, more community-centered reporting he believed in the most. “There was always a press conference to cover or a politician’s reaction-quote to harvest, vacuuming up any space in my day to work on the deeper stuff,” he wrote. “I couldn’t match my vision of journalism with the daily reality of what I was being asked to do.”

Tinoco envisioned LA Public Press as a muckraking, community-oriented and serving publication that, in some ways, takes pride in explicitly distinguishing itself from legacy news outlets. “Legacy media has long erased most of us, and treated the consequential decisions that affect us like a spectator sport,” LA Public Press states on its about page. Since it began publishing stories in early 2023, the outlet has covered issues that affect everyday Angelenos, with a focus on undercovered communities (including residents of southeast Los Angeles) through a service journalism lens — issues such as housing, the environment, transportation, public safety, and local government, as well as reporting that celebrates community and culture. On one day last week, the website featured stories about local elections, an overturned eviction (a rarity), an Echo Park mural, and explanatory journalism about how to report complaints about the cleanup process for lead pollution from a recycling plant. The outlet publishes around three to five original stories per week and has a full-time staff of eight journalists. All full-time employees make the same annual salary — $84,000.

LA Public Press’ reporting is driven by a civic mission to try to help residents better understand the systemic challenges facing their city, with the goal of equipping them to move closer to concrete solutions. “Addressing our existential issues — homelessness, pollution, global warming, policing, justice, corruption, transportation, housing, public health writ large — requires an ability to communicate with our neighbors,” Tinoco wrote in a post last week reflecting on the outlet’s first 14 months of coverage. “Only through a common understanding of the challenges we face can we consider what we must do, and plan for what we will do.”

I heard from Tinoco, co-founder Mariah Castañeda, and key funder Isaac Tucker about what it’s like to try to build a solid foundation for a media nonprofit startup in a pessimistic moment for local news in LA, and how they’re trying to create and provide a different kind of local news for their communities through LA Public Press.

The funding

LA Public Press was founded thanks to early local support from “Isaac Tucker and Family,” per its website. The Tuckers made hundreds of millions in tech (Therese Tucker took the west San Fernando Valley-based tech company BlackLine public). Tinoco specified that this funding commitment comprises $3 million, distributed as $1 million each over three years beginning in 2022. He called this investment “the reason [LA Public Press] exists.”

In addition to providing financial support, Isaac Tucker serves as the outlet’s board president. He answered questions for this story over email, though he emphasized that he was only speaking for himself and declined to elaborate on other family members’ involvement in supporting LA Public Press.

Tucker told me he sees two components to his board role. First, Tucker advises Tinoco and “anyone else he sends my way…on how to navigate the messiness of a small business.” Second, Tucker said he has to ensure Tinoco “is held accountable, both for the good stewardship of ours and other donations and to his own vision for LAPP.” Tucker noted Tinoco clearly communicated that there was a firewall between input from donors and board members and coverage. “The most I’ll offer on the work they produce is my assessment of the quality of the work (there are bad stories that I agree with and good stories I don’t) and my opinion on whether or not it is consistent with the mission and vision of the organization,” Tucker specified.

The investment to establish LA Public Press was Tucker’s first foray into philanthropy for local news. Tucker told me he first reached out to Tinoco after he “was recommended by a handful of folks (progressive and competent electeds, political consultants, news-adjacent people) as a talented reporter with whom I had shared values.”

Because LA Public Press has seven-figure funding, Tinoco reflected to me that, for now, it feels more like a “have” than a “have-not” given the many media startups that operate on much tighter budgets. At the same time, considering the expenses of payroll and providing health insurance, he said he doesn’t see a pathway for sustainability for local media beyond “big checks” right now, in the absence of “a more comprehensive public policy solution, whatever shape that may take in the coming years and decades.”

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily doing justice to say that, ‘yeah, journalism is gonna…find a viable revenue model.’ Because I don’t think we are, for the time being,” Tinoco said. “I don’t think there’s a circumstance where if you can just twist the dials the right way it’s going to unlock lots and lots of earned revenue from a big subscriber base.” He thinks LA Public Press will raise “a high-five or low-six-figure amount” in 2024 from memberships and individual small-dollar donations.

Tinoco believes honesty and transparency with funders about the precarious state of journalism is essential to ensure expectations are clear. “A lot of funders are getting pitched on, ‘Well, if we invest in business side, then the revenue is going to come and you’ll be able to step back and feel proud about having jumpstarted this thing,’” he said. But instead, “I think it’s really important to be very clear with funders at the very onset that if you want to fund journalism, you’re going to have to fund it for the duration of the existence of whatever the specific entity or publication you have made your initial commitment to.”

That way of thinking about funding news seems to resonate with Tucker. “I do think that local news, in general, requires sustained philanthropic support,” Tucker told me, especially for news outlets looking to scale up.

Tinoco said he is “comforted that institutional philanthropy and others with resources and interest in supporting journalism are stepping up” and recognizing the urgency and depth of need for digital local news, both in Los Angeles and nationally. “I am confident that our message is being heard among a diverse coalition of both institutional and individual local funders based in Los Angeles County,” he added.

Nonprofits, within and beyond news, “live and die by grants,” Tinoco said. “The money needs to be in the account. Otherwise, there’s no more news.”

Paying everyone the same salary

All of LA Public Press’ eight full-time staff come from a journalism background (and that staff skews younger — “almost all of us are under 35,” Tinoco told me). The outlet also works with two part-time employees, and has worked with a couple dozen other contributors, including “about half a dozen semi-regular contributing writers.”

Each full-time staffer makes $84,000. That’s an unusual structure in the workplace, especially one as traditionally hierarchical as journalism, though it’s not unprecedented. At Hell Gate, for instance, a New York-based local news startup and one of a growing number of worker-owned journalism collectives, all staffers make $60,000, per the Guardian.

Because its staff is young, “everybody who’s in this newsroom has only ever [known] a contracting industry,” Tinoco told me. He and his staff wanted LA Public Press to be more equitable, and transparent, in its salary structure, which helped lead to his decision to pay everyone on staff full-time the same salary. As a nonprofit, “We are, literally, not a collective, but to the extent that we can be a collective…in spirit…I would like it to be,” he said.

Tinoco knows there are drawbacks to paying everyone the same salary. Even $84,000 doesn’t cut it for everyone in an area as expensive as LA County — especially anyone with a family — and Tinoco said he understand the argument that having everyone make the same salary sets “a low ceiling for hiring ‘senior talent.’” This is “not the perfect solution,” he said, “but it is, I think, a more just solution than keeping it all secret.”

“The best circumstance in my brain,” he added, “is that I’m able to fundraise enough and we end up in a circumstance where…everybody can now make $110,000.”

From an audience survey to a housing zine

Mariah Castañeda didn’t expect to become a co-founder of a new media outlet when she first met Tinoco in a coffee shop in mid-2022. Castañeda had previously spent a few years working at L.A. Taco, a food and news-focused local outlet, and a social-justice-focused social media agency. After seeing Tinoco’s May 2022 Twitter/X post announcing he was founding a new nonprofit newsroom (which didn’t yet have a name), she DM’d him to offer her help. When they met in person, after a long conversation, Tinoco asked her to support the new outlet’s audience-building and community engagement efforts.

Now, Castañeda is LA Public Press’ audience director, where she’s working to help the newsroom understand community information needs and reach audiences through formats ranging from live events, to social media, to special print products. Like Tinoco, she’s from LA, with especially deep roots and community connections in southeast LA. She called LA Public Press “a labor of love” that is her way of giving back to the communities that raised her, as well as a realization of her longtime reporting dream.

After joining LA Public Press in July 2022, one of Castañeda’s first orders of business was to survey community members about their information habits and needs. Since the fall of 2022, she’s collected more than 700 responses from multiple iterations of a Google form survey that the LA Public Press team, including Castañeda and engagement producer Amanda Del Cid Lugo, have distributed through word of mouth, collaborating with public officials, and going to meet community members in person — whether at softball games, the local YMCA, night markets, an Afro-Caribbean party or, in one of the most unexpectedly successful excursions, a punk concert (where Castañeda told me they’d gotten a few dozen responses just a few weeks ago). The survey asks respondents where they get news and “other important community information” (with possible responses ranging from “TikTok” to “Nextdoor” to “Library” to “friends” to “mail,” among others); what community issues they want to see covered; and what languages they speak. (Tinoco and Castañeda both pointed to Instagram as a platform that’s especially important for reaching local Latinx audiences, and younger audiences generally. More than 50% of survey respondents identified as Latinx, Castañeda told me.)

From survey responses within the last year, the LA Public Press team has learned that there’s a strong demand for reporting on housing (with 94% of respondents expressing interest in coverage of housing-related topics), closely followed by issues that affect communities of color and local pollution. Those survey responses are already directly informing the outlet’s reporting; since many respondents were renters, their input helped lead to a special “landlord accountability series” by audio director Carla Green published in English and Spanish, digital and print last year. The evergreen explanatory journalism project covered how to get LA landlords to fulfill their obligations under the law (answering questions like “how to get your landlord to fix the toilet“), and became some of the outlet’s most-read stories.

Initially, LA Public Press only published that reporting online. But when readers started requesting printed copies to make the series more accessible to elderly community members, Castañeda had the idea to make the project into a zine, which she wanted “to be beautiful so readers could feel cared for when they held a copy,” she wrote in a post last month explaining the project. (Both the survey work and the zine printing were supported by a $5,000 grant from the Listening Post Collective, Tinoco and Castañeda told me.)

Over a few months last summer, LA Public Press collaborated with a Long Beach zine expert, Sarah Bennett of Place Long Beach, to create a bilingual zine in collaboration with LA Public Press designer Alyson Yee. So far, it has printed about 300 copies, which it has distributed at events, in public places like coffee shops, and in schools — and some copies are now catalogued and freely available at the Los Angeles Public Library. In her post about the project, Castañeda called the final creation “an informative zine with wonderful illustrations that I call Frog and Toad-coded: cozy and warm.” (The covers are peach and bright pink.)


To Castañeda, that gentle aesthetic is a concrete way to better serve LA Public Press’ audience. She learned at L.A. Taco how important it is “to add an element of fun, add an element of human touch” so the audience feels “like the publication is alive, and living, and an entity that they can actually interact with.” In her view, putting care and details like illustrations and art into stories makes the reader feel valued, and more personally connected to the work. “I want people to feel like they, the audience, were thought of when this content was being produced,” Castañeda said. “It’s not just like, ‘here’s the information, here you go, be on your merry way.’ Like, no, we want you to hang out here a little bit longer.”

With this zine, Castañeda wanted to provide comfort, not ratchet up anxiety, she added. “I want people to feel…like ‘okay, not only do they care that I’m getting this really important information, but they also care that the information has these nice illustrations, so I’m not feeling scared. So I’m feeling a little bit less overwhelmed,’” she told me. Before making the zine, Castañeda herself dealt with leaks in her apartment last year. “It’s a scary situation! It’s stressful,” she said. “I want something that people can hold and touch that doesn’t feel very stressful.”

Castañeda told me she sees the project as a success worth building on, and anticipates creating other zines in the future. “This experiment,” she wrote, “paves the way for more zines in more languages on more close-to-home subjects for people in LA.”

Photo of Los Angeles by Eric Haake on Flickr. All photos of the housing zine are courtesy of Mariah Castañeda.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     March 18, 2024, 2:43 p.m.
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