Larry Lee is the president and publisher of The Sacramento Observer, a member of Solving Sacramento. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

An interview with Larry Lee, 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 Observer, and one civic-engagement organization. It is currently funded by the Solutions Journalism Network and fiscally sponsored by the Local Media Foundation.

The Sacramento Observer was established by Dr. William H. Lee, Gino Gladden and John W. Cole in 1962; Dr. Lee served as owner and publisher for 52 years. The newspaper serves the Sacramento region’s Black community, and has won several national awards for its work, including the John B. Russwurm Trophy for journalism excellence. The Observer has been bestowed with this award six times from the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

The Sacramento Observer President and Publisher Larry Lee tells us about his organization’s involvement in the collaborative.

Why are you in this collaborative?

I believe wholeheartedly in the African proverb, “If you want to go quick, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The media landscape is so challenging and when you don’t have unity from the media working on behalf of community, then community suffers. We’ve been very fortunate for a long time in Sacramento to have the Sacramento Bee carrying the heavy lifting of so much reporting in and around Sacramento that we sometimes took that for granted. The struggles they’ve faced over the last decade or so really put an added responsibility on newsrooms like ours to help keep the public informed. That responsibility should be something we all share collectively.

When we first started having conversations about the challenges some of us are facing, it really turned into: What does collaboration look like to you? The pandemic also helped accelerate the willingness for folks to work together and to see the news gaps impacting Sacramento. As a second-generation newspaper publisher who was born in Sacramento and will die in Sacramento, I love this city and want to make sure we make this place better than the way we found it.

Why does coverage of affordable housing in Sacramento matter?

The need to find solutions related to getting everyone in a home they can afford with livable wages, livable lifestyles, safety, good schools, good grocery stores, great parks and recreation, access to transit, all those things are connected with good housing. I know the easy thing to see is homelessness and that is obviously very important. But many of us who may not be homeless might be a paycheck away from losing the home they’re in. That is something we all have to really try and shine a light on and try to find solutions for just about everyone.

Why is a solutions journalism approach important to your work?

In the DNA of the Black press there has always been solutions-oriented reporting. We just come from a tradition of often having to find solutions when often there weren’t any that were obvious. For the Observer’s role in this, it’s a natural fit and natural synergy for the collaboration. When we talk about Solutions Journalism Network being a part of Solving Sacramento, you really talk about trying to amplify the narrative, amplify the solutions, really trying to hold policymakers accountable, to create opportunities and to listen to those opportunities. Sometimes we need other partners to help amplify those types of solutions. 

What other innovative projects or collaborations is your outlet involved in?

One of the big ones that the Observer is a part of right now is a collaborative called Word In Black that is a collection of 10 African American newspapers across the country who are working at launching a national brand, as well as doing collaborative work for our newsrooms and our communities. That has been really instrumental in helping lay the groundwork for Solving Sacramento.

Word In Black was born out of the challenge we as a community and the nation was able to observe after the killing of George Floyd, where we said, “Let’s work together to do solutions-oriented reporting around the nation.” We address areas like education disparities, health care disparities and the wealth gap. It’s been really great working and listening to my fellow publishers across the country who are facing many of the same challenges that we as the Observer are facing. The whole effort for a digital transformation for our newsrooms is something we’re all working on. So we talk oftentimes about sustainability and how do we build an audience and grow in the digital space and in the 21st century?

Tell us about your role with the organization.

I’m the publisher and CEO. I grew up in the business. So there’s people and proof that show I was working when I was about 7 years old in the newsroom and came back in 1997 after I finished college and have been here working ever since. I worked side-by-side with my folks as they transitioned into passing away — my mom in 2013 and my dad in 2019. I’ve been publisher since 2015.

Tell us an interesting tidbit about The Observer.

This is something I have given my life to. I absolutely love the work we do. The Observer will be celebrating its 60th anniversary starting in November of this year and culminating with a celebration in November of next year. I’m a second-generation publisher. I watched my parents work the bulk of their lives at this work and feeding into this community. I’m very fortunate to be a steward of that and a responsible caretaker. I love this moment we are in as an organization. During the pandemic, we’ve tripled the size of our newsroom and are building tremendous capacity, finding ways to be sustainable. We’ve been doing really great work and, in some instances, life-changing work with some of the reporting we’re working on. So I’m deeply committed to serving the African American community.