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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Making a difference’: Journalist, tech developer join forces for California local news startup

Since launching in summer 2023, the Folsom Times has seen its monthly page views steadily grow. It’s a rare success story in an era of newspaper downsizing and social media misinformation.

FOLSOM, Calif. (CN) — Longtime journalist Bill Sullivan was interviewing a reporter candidate at his newspaper when the hopeful hire used the phrase “refrigerator journalism.”

Years later, the term has stuck with him.

It’s the kind of journalism that leads a reader to clip out an article and affix it to the fridge. It could be a photo of a child playing baseball or a story about a school receiving an award. And “to provide that community news,” Sullivan said, “you’ve got to be a part of that community.”

As co-founders of the Folsom Times, Sullivan and his business partner Adam Frick hope to offer that type of community-focused journalism. Both are longtime residents of Folsom, a city of around 80,000 residents about a 25-minute drive east of Sacramento. 

The pair launched the online Folsom Times in 2023 with the goal of providing refrigerator journalism to the small California city. “We saw a need,” Sullivan said. The concept has proved popular with residents: The site has seen steady growth and in May hit 2.8 million page views.

The success of the Folsom Times comes as newspapers around the country have downsized or closed altogether. More than 2,000 papers have shut down since the early 2000s, while many others have significantly cut services, according to a 2023 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Sullivan and Frick said they want to avoid their area becoming a news desert — a phrase used to describe an area that lacks local news coverage. Although Sacramento County has nine newspapers, only one, the Sacramento Bee, is considered a daily. The rest are weeklies. All must try to provide adequate news coverage for a county with almost 1.6 million residents and 965 square miles of land.

Sutter Street in historic Folsom, California. (Alan Riquelmy/Courthouse News)

When communities lack adequate news coverage, social media often fills in the vacuum. In community groups on sites like Facebook, residents discuss local rumors or seek out municipal information like fire response times.

These groups have moderators, but they’re a far cry from professional newsrooms. Without adequate fact-checking, conspiracies and misinformation can go unchallenged. Even still, groups like these are sometimes the only news source for a community. “We wanted to make sure Folsom didn’t just rely on social media,” Frick said.

The Folsom Times aims to break news but also does longer feature stories. It covers local topics like arrests and business-ribbon cuttings. 

“People love to read about new businesses [and] new restaurants,” Frick said. True to their refrigerator journalism ethos, he and Sullivan note the site also covers things like weekend events. 

While Frick is new to the news business, Sullivan is a longtime newspaperman. His career started after high school, when he received a camera as a graduation gift. He attended some events and sent his photos to a paper, which published them. “That’s all it really took,” Sullivan said of catching the journalism bug.

Sullivan has worked at papers in the Sacramento area off-and-on for decades. Outside the newspaper business, he’s also worked in sales and in public relations, including for auto-racing companies.

Before co-founding the Folsom Times, he served as publisher at papers under his company’s umbrella, including the weekly Folsom Telegraph. After a new owner bought the paper, Sullivan found himself facing the same downsizing trends that are common across the industry.

The owner wanted staff reductions, Sullivan said. While his job wasn’t at risk, those of many of his co-workers were. Sullivan chose to leave rather than accept more work in a smaller newsroom.

As for Frick, he and his family had visited Folsom for years before moving in 2001. He started a couple of local tech businesses, creating referral management software and the area’s first online directory. He also got involved in the Folsom community, ultimately meeting Sullivan. 

Around early 2023, Frick and Sullivan had a talk. Frick asked if Sullivan had ever considered starting his own business. He hadn’t, leading Frick to ask: Well, do you want to start one now? The Folsom Times quickly took shape.

The two men have divvied up roles up at the paper, with Sullivan serving as publisher and Frick as technical developer. While they’ve solicited advertising for the site, most advertisers have come to them “because they liked what we were doing,” Sullivan said.

One such advertiser is Adrian Blanco, owner of local Adrian Blanco Jewelry. Lacking a “war chest” of advertising dollars, Blanco said he’s had to be strategic about how and when he purchases ads. 

When he heard about the Folsom Times, he liked the idea of the outlet and reached out about buying an ad. “I figured, hey, you know, why not give it a shot?” he said. Ads for Adrian Blanco Jewelry have become a staple on the website.

Lake Natoma in Folsom, California. (Alan Riquelmy/Courthouse News)

Advertisers aren’t the only ones taking note of the Folsom Times’ success. Choose Folsom — an umbrella group for the city’s chamber of commerce, economic development and tourism bureaus — each year honors about 15 local businesses in different categories. This year, the Folsom Times won an award in the “emerging business” category.

Shannon Robb, vice president of strategic partnerships at the organization, said the Folsom Times has fulfilled a need for the California city. Against the competition, “the Folsom Times kind of broke through,” she said.

Sullivan and Frick say their business has continued to grow. When the paper launched in June 2023, it saw around 390,000 pageviews that month. This May, there were more than 2.8 million. Sullivan attributes the paper’s continued success to its emphasis on breaking news and coverage of local happenings like high-school graduations and football games, sometimes featuring livestreams of them.

While relying on Sullivan’s knowledge of the news business, The Folsom Times also leans on Frick’s tech expertise. Their system allows Sullivan and Frick to see in real time the number of people reading any given story. That information gives them direction on what stories people want — though they stress these metrics don’t dictate what kind of news they cover and that some important local stories receive coverage regardless of views.

Going forward, Frick says he wants to continue to innovate and grow their service. Sullivan agrees, pointing to the service they offer as being a top priority. In the meantime, they’ve been glad to see their local news site take off in the Folsom community. “It’s validation to know that what you’re doing is making a difference,” Frick said.

Categories / Media, Regional, Technology

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