An interview with Jeff vonKaenel, president and publisher
Q&A by Kate Gonzales
Solving Sacramento, a journalism collaborative, launched in early 2022 with the goal of covering the region’s most pressing issues. Up first: the lack of affordable housing. The collaboration includes seven local media outlets, including the Sacramento News & Review, and one civic-engagement organization. It is currently funded by the Solutions Journalism Network and fiscally sponsored by the Local Media Foundation.
SN&R, founded in 1989, had a print circulation of 80,000 and cumulative readership of roughly 330,000, making it one of the 10 most widely circulated alternative papers in the country. Since the start of the pandemic, the SN&R published monthly for a time and is now publishing online only. The SN&R aims to provide excellent local news coverage and to put a spotlight on the local arts scene. The SN&R is locally owned and produced; the founding editor was Melinda Welsh; Scott Thomas Anderson is currently acting news editor.
Why are you in this collaborative?
I have a long career of being very interested in community journalism and the impact that it has. And then having seen what the internet has done to journalism — that we need to work on new solutions and new ways to maintain and make sure communities have vetted, reliable information to help in the decision-making process and to make life in the communities better. Collaboration is a dramatically different economic model, where previously what we did was we really developed a unique audience with unique content so we could sell ads. That meant we did have really sharp elbows with all of our competitors. Whereas in the collaborative model, we’re getting money from funders who want our content to go out to as many places as possible. It’s been really rewarding for us to work with the different media partners.
Why does coverage of affordable housing in Sacramento matter?
It is probably the most important issue in Sacramento right now. You can’t help but drive down the street and see people that need homes. Secondly, I think virtually every discussion in California, after four minutes, somehow the cost of housing ends up in the discussion. It’s something we really have to work on. And it’s no simple solution. There needs to be a significant community dialogue and narrative about what to do about housing, for us to be able to come together as a community, for us to develop a solution.
Why is a solutions journalism approach important to your work?
It’s really easy to do stories that say something’s screwed up. It’s more difficult to know what to do about it. What I think is fascinating about the solutions approach is it adds this additional wrinkle where you’re supposed to focus on and look for possible solutions, which then actually makes reporting much more interesting and more hopeful, which then can create more social change.
What other innovative projects or collaborations is SN&R involved in?
The News & Review has a long history of doing cooperative work, for example a web project we did with an association of alternative papers, Letters to the Future, about global warming. There’s a benefit to having diverse audiences reading the stories and having the funders be excited, and then having different partners bring in different strengths. [Looking at the story] from different vantage points, we create a situation where the whole becomes bigger than all the parts.
Tell us about your role with the organization.
I went up to Chico in 1980 and the paper was going bankrupt and built up the Chico News & Review there. And then Deborah Redmond and I, who have been together since ’77, came down to Sacramento to start the paper in ’89 with support from Chico. So I’m the CEO and publisher, but mainly Deborah’s assistant.
Tell us an interesting tidbit about SN&R.
We always view the News & Review as a cultural experience, where the idea of being able to work with a group of people in communities they love, putting out papers they love, with people they love was always really special. Something I really appreciate in my 40-some years doing this is watching people grow and become stronger and better at the paper, and I take a lot of pride in that.