On our third anniversary: what have we learned about producing local news for Thurston County?

Here’s a look behind the curtain at your local nonprofit news org


On Sunday, The JOLT enters the start of Year 4 of its life as a startup news organization, one of about 1,000 hyperlocal newsrooms across the United States that have launched in the past 10 years. And one of only about 150 that set up as community-owned, nonprofit organizations.

We launched this ship on May 20, 2020.

What have we learned that you might be interested to know?

Still mostly unknown

Fewer than a third of adults in Thurston County know about The JOLT.

Getting the word out is my third full-time job. Wanna help? Please, tell your friends, neighbors and acquaintances about us. After all, you own The JOLT News Organization.

Like the public works department

The JOLT News Organization is like LOTT (The Lacey Olympia Tumwater Thurston Clean Water Alliance) in two ways: 

  • 1) Our names are abbreviations, and
  • 2) Most people are glad to know that we’re here, but want to think about us only when something goes wrong and they want facts. 

Most people want to know that a local news organization is keeping an eye out for abuses of power, corruption, plans of little-known commissions and boards, and even being a place to get the word out about their special projects, not to mention stories about crime or who got arrested each day. And profiles of people and groups who are doing wonderful things.

Unfortunately, nowadays, most people don’t want to bother to read local news. This is a major problem everywhere – but we don’t care about everywhere. We care about Thurston County – and we want everyone here else to care, too.

We have a demand-side problem

Part of the reason some people don’t want to read local news is that they’ve gotten out of the habit over the past 25 years or never developed it, as daily newspapers across the country have been strangled, either to death or to a sad and diminished shell of their former selves.

Strangled? Most local newspapers have seen their display ad sales drop by as much as 90 percent, lost some 95% of their general classified ads (not counting legal notices) and seen as many as 90 percent of their subscribers cancel.

Why have subscriptions faded away? The 44-page daily newspaper subscribers were used to in 1999 has become a 16-pager. If a newspaper published 15 local items each day then, today they’ll run only two or three. If the newsroom then employed 25 reporters, editors and photographers, today they only employ three or four, some working only part-time.

Many local newspapers have become husks. The vast majority of what they publish comes from distant sister publications, wire services and syndicates. Many of their owners are up to their necks in debt from acquisitions of other newspapers. What revenues they do collect go to pay debt service or shareholders first – not to maintain reporters’ salaries.

With most newspapers having become less interesting (and more expensive) over the past 25 years, is it any wonder that many people have become less curious to read them? (Especially people under about 45 or so.)

We’re working to replace the comprehensive city newspaper, understanding that even in the newspapers’ heyday, most readers would find interest in just a few of the stories published.

What’s all this blather about? Point blank: The JOLT needs more readers to succeed and, eventually, become sustainable. (No, we’re nowhere near sustainable yet.) Our newsletter list is a third of what it needs to be, and so is the number of “hits” (pageviews) seen by our website.

How can you help? Talk with your friends and acquaintances about stories you like in The JOLT. Invite them to subscribe to The Daily JOLT, our once-a-day, Monday-through-Friday headlines newsletter. If you don’t receive it, please click here

Obituaries are nearly dead

Of the 2,700 or so people who have died each year in Thurston County since we launched in May 2020, less than about 300 were honored by their loved ones with a published obituary.

Few people who die here leave families willing to commemorate their lives with a story — even when offered help to produce it. Some excuse themselves from the process by saying they want to maintain their privacy. Or they talk about house burglars raiding the home of the deceased. Or maybe they’re just lazy.

Others, of course, are concerned about the hundreds of dollars it costs to publish obituaries in legacy newspapers, which typically charge to post anything longer than a death notice.

Surprise: The JOLT has always published obituaries, of up to 1,000 words, at no charge. We’ve even helped families to clean up their rough drafts. And we run up to 10 photos, with captions, as part of the service. (Still, we ran less than a dozen full obituaries over the past year.)

Why do we care about obituaries? We think people’s stories are a form of news and that anyone’s life story is worth telling.

So why aren’t we seeing more death notices (20-25 words) and obituaries?

You might be surprised to learn, as I was three years ago, that deaths in Thurston County are reported to funeral homes, not to the county.

There are three funeral services companies in Thurston County. Two of them regularly provide death notices to us; the other hasn’t bothered. Or, as they might say, their funeral directors don’t do it. Some funeral companies push the job of providing death notices to news organizations to the level of individual funeral directors (the staff member who works with the family) instead of making it a basic function of the core organization.

What can we do about this? Nothing more, it seems.

What can you do about this? When the time comes for you to make arrangements (or better, pre-arrangements), specify that you agree to have your family publish your obituary in The JOLT. We won’t send a bill – promise!

We live on an island

Ain’t nobody cares about Thurston County outside of people in Thurston County.

There’s no sugar daddy coming from Seattle, San Diego, or Tokyo to rescue The JOLT News Organization, to boost our budget to produce the superb journalism we feel that people here deserve to see.

We started The JOLT three years ago with too little money - and haven’t caught up yet. But we’re still here. With a budget of less than $150,000 this year, we produce at least three times the local stories you see in print elsewhere. Our reporters cover nearly every public meeting in three cities and the county government, three school districts, 62 councils, commissions, boards and committees. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, our staff observes, live, as many as five simultaneous meetings, and then we tell you what happened in them.

But we miss stories every day. Some are too big for us to investigate at our small size.

And, forgive me, but there’s something wrong when the combined newsroom budgets of every local news organization – The Olympian, Nisqually Valley News, its sister, The Chronicle, Works In Progress and The JOLT – is together less than just one city’s “communications” budget (guess which one).

Consider that local cities and school districts spend a combined $1.5 BILLION each year – and the local news organizations that struggle to help the public understand where the money goes are operating on an infinitesimal fraction of money.

Where is The JOLT going?

The small question here:  What else would you like to see us deliver? Tell us, please.

The big question we pose to people in Thurston County is: How good of a news organization can we support here?

From where we sit, the answers to both questions lie in considering what the best local-news organizations deliver to their audiences around the country. We especially look at our colleagues in mid-sized communities, like Thurston County, who have been serving 250,000 to 400,000 residents for five years or more.

(I’ll be traveling soon to conferences to meet with some of these news organizations and trade ideas. I hope to bring back some ideas our board can use to shape The JOLT of 2024 and beyond. Watch this space.)

Ultimately, the future of this experiment will be up to you and our neighbors. How well will residents here consume the news and features we create, and then support salaries for journalists, columnists, photographers, researchers and editors?

Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or sending us a private message, here.

Danny Stusser is the publisher of The Journal of Olympia, Lacey & Tumwater.

Unlike 99% of the opinions in The JOLT, those expressed above damn well are those of most of The JOLT's staff, maybe even its board of directors, too.  Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.


18 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • SusanKavanaugh00

    Love this effort. I would like to see included volunteer opportunities and spotlights, coverage of local government boards, guest columns from faith communities (no proselytizing - Interfaith Works used to coordinate to provide to the Olympian), guest columns and TV/music/movie reviews by HS students, lots about community events - music, art etc. I am talking JOLT up.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • psterry

    Community is about involvement, engagement with others, not just your tribal online group. Did you know that there are two new voting districts in Thurston County? Do you know if you live in one of them? Do you know that the deadline for filing your candidacy is today? We used to get this news and information from a local newspaper. That is no longer true.

    What Danny and The JOLT are trying to do is restore a sense of community to Thurston County. We should not only subscribe but also donate, so he can hire more reporters to cover what is going on in our little corner of the world. Not Seattle, not Tacoma... here. It is important.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • JulesJames

    Your coverage of the Regional Fire Agency proposal deserves national awards. Accordingly, if I were on the editorial board, I'd concentrate on investigating a few things. Force multiply by providing a forum and editorial support to the individuals who find and expose controversial government proposals, then JOLT can follow-on with professional journalists as appropriate. Today I'm disappointed not to see a JOLT story about the Montana death of the Olympia dog killer. I'd love for JOLT to profile a few of the often-arrested. I've appreciated the filing week emphasis on encouraging people to run for public office and would love to read a campaign primer published in the months when potential candidates should be forming fundraising committees. A high school sports section -- schedules, standings, scores -- designed to motivate random folk to attend the games would interest me. And thank you for this column. I will strive to say "I read it in The JOLT...You might want to sign up for good local stuff" twice each week this summer.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • KatAshe

    First, and most important, CONGRATULATIONS, on three years of local news coverage

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • MelissaDenton

    Congratulations, Danny and team! I'm thrilled for your third anniversary. I shall, indeed, keep promoting JOLT and look forward to many good things for and from you in the future.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • GmaMaggie

    Congratulations on three years of awesome reporting on our little area here. As someone who delivered the daily zip as a young teen, now in my fifties, I struggled to find local reporting until your wonderful organization was created!

    If wishes were money, you'd be awesomely funded. I hope soon your funding can be commiserate with the level of news you provide.

    Thank you for being the voice of our community.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • HappyOlympian

    Thanks for being here, I read this superb publication daily.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • susanh

    Congratulations on 3 years and thank you so much. I read the newsletter daily and pass on info to my friends.

    I greatly appreciated all the reporting on the RFA and I think your deep dive helped inform the voters in a big way. There's really no other source of important local information in the county.

    I would like to see similar reporting on the Olympia sidewalks issue - who is required to maintain them, what the VUT (?) tax is going towards if not sidewalk maintenance, etc. I believe there are a lot of decisions made by the city council that the general public doesn't know about/doesn't understand.

    Also agree with the comment below that we could use more reporting on candidates, including the records of the ones running unopposed.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • jimlazar

    Congratulations on out-living a lot of local media efforts.

    The JOLT News has been a terrific addition to the Community.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • KarenM

    Thank you for giving us a source for local news! JOLT is filling a needed role in the community. I can imagine additional topics and coverage but I also realize that will take more people contributing. Those of us who appreciate JOLT should promote it to others so that it can grow. Congratulations on three years of solid development as a news organization.

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • GeorgeBurazer

    I am glad to see JOLT in my inbox. It delivers the important news of our county. So HAPPY BIRTHDAY Danny and all

    the JOLT reporters and columnists. It was news to me to find out that JOLT is read by only a third of the county. I will spread the word harder to sign up. And Danny, Mary and I haven't given up on the idea to join the crew. Give these

    newbies to the PNW a little more time.

    STORY IDEA: Last week, I spotted campaign signs for District 5 with the name Clouse. Have you run a candidate profile about her yet?

    George Burazer


    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this


    Great job Danny. I'm hoping the journal continues to be a reliable source for local news. But I still can't find little Bill!

    Saturday, May 20, 2023 Report this

  • TonyW33

    Mr. Stusser,

    I think that everyone agrees that The Jolt fills an essential need in Thurston County. We pay something each year to support the mission of The Jolt because you provide the news source upon which we depend. My wife and I have also subscribed to the "newspaper of record" since we moved here in 2017 from Portland. We recently allowed that subscription to expire due to many of the reasons that you point out in your editorial statement. Noteworthy is that the McClatchy Company is now owned by a hedge fund in New Jersey. I don't think that they are too concerned about the news in the Capital City here. We also subscribe to a national news source and pay about the same annual rate for that paper in digital form as the Olympian wants for theirs. The average daily readership for all McClatchy papers is about 55,000 per paper. That would be less than 1/3 of the adults in our county, if the averages held. You are doing better than maybe you think. We certainly want this endeavor to grow and thrive but be proud of your timing and expertise in the middle of the pandemic, no less. You ROCK!

    My personal thoughts on the the effort to grow the readership are multifaceted. One resource that may still be untapped is the high school and college student body. Lots of folks there seeking to know more all the time. It also occurs to me that "Next Door" is a place to spread the word that there is actually a news source operating in Thurston County again. Chamber of Commerce, LWV, TCM and any other place where folks look for the latest news. And really, some of the advertisers that are willing to buy ad space to support local balanced news could surprise us all and step up.

    Long story short, thank you for all that you are doing for our citizenry. We will win this contest.

    Tony W

    Tumwater WA

    Sunday, May 21, 2023 Report this

  • WayTooOld

    Congratulations, JOLT! It’s hard to believe it’s been three years, at least hard for this reader.

    I will continue to talk you up, and even step up my efforts a bit.

    On the topic of stories to follow, OSD seems to be quite the hornets’ nest. Between contentious board meetings and teachers behaving inappropriately with students, not to mention what appears to be efforts to cover up the improprieties, it seems there should be plenty of grist there.

    Monday, May 22, 2023 Report this

  • olyhiker

    My obit is written. I wanted it to be accurate. It's more than 1000 words, but my estate will be happy to pay.

    Tuesday, May 23, 2023 Report this

  • Lehman

    Thanks so much Danny for the invaluable public service you provide here. I will mos def tell all my friends, and what is likely a much larger group, everyone else, of this great resource. Thanks so much for all your effort and commitment!

    Tuesday, May 23, 2023 Report this

  • JKRector

    I missed this article and glad I went back a few issues to stumble across it.

    I didn’t realize how hyper-focused JOLT is - I was impressed when I first read it and now I’m addicted.

    We have a senior at our Virgil Clarkson Lacey Senior Center who comes at least 3 days a week to take EnhanceFitness exercise classes… nothing unusual about seniors taking these popular classes, but our Senior turned 102 in March. She is in better shape than the majority of us and is a true inspiration. If you don’t have someone who could interview her for a human interest story, I would be honored to submit one in the next month or so.

    This publication is going to THRIVE and I am excited to be a part of it!

    JR - Lacey

    Wednesday, May 24, 2023 Report this

  • ConservativeHippie

    The glass is half full, not half empty. You have built a tremendous resource for the community and there is great strides in readership in such a short period of time ... 3 years! Wow!

    One of the things that drew me to The JOLT was the interaction in comments. From an outside perspective you have solid engagement compared to other media outlets in the local region. A testament to the journalistic integrity and focus you place on your pages. 17 comments so far as I write this!

    The next stage of growth must come beyond your hard work. It can be difficult to release levers of power or persuasion when it is your baby. Seek those who offer help without compensation. Two thirds is possible, but adding different perspectives and expertise might be required.

    Thriving entities evolve. Your publication is still only in its infancy of growth.

    Friday, August 11, 2023 Report this