One year ago almost to the day, I placed an order for 12 brand-new desks.
They were an upgrade. The drawers in the five banged-up, 700-pound 1980s-era steel desks we had didn’t work. The desks wobbled.
But I was buying these new desks because we needed them. We were about to go on what, in the journalism world, counts as a hiring spree. Our budget called for us to add seven new employees.
Seven! We would more than double in size!
I remember, as I assembled our new furniture, choking down my doubts. It had taken years to lay the groundwork to support a staff of five. We were having success. The work was top-notch. Hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans were reading our work as it inspired legislative bills and changed policies and celebrated the best of this state we call home.
Still, I spent 15 years in newspapers, experiencing cut after cut and countless iterations of “do more with less.” The idea that we could fill a dozen desks struck me as ambitious.
I didn’t need to worry.
We hired. We hired well. We filled all the desks.
We did so well that, in September, we added two more desks. This time, I didn’t have to place the order. Our operations and finance director made the purchase. And our new Omaha reporter – completely of his own volition, I promise! – actually put the desks together (thanks Jeremy!).
One of our core beliefs is that we are building this new kind of newsroom with you. Your story ideas are the grist that keeps us going. Your donations power us, literally. Without you, no stories. Without you, no desks.
So in the spirit of growing together, I wanted to share a recap of what I will always remember as the year we came into our own.
Silicon Prairie News. In late 2022, we began meeting with the brain trust at the AIM Institute. AIM has shaped and grown Omaha’s tech sector since I was in grade school. In 2015, it swept in to save Silicon Prairie News, ensuring that the news startup continued to deliver top-notch coverage of our tech community.
We met, and it was astonishing how much we overlapped. They shared their vision for SPN: That it be a catalyst, convener and community hub for the startup ecosystem. We shared our vision for Nebraska Journalism Trust: that high quality, professional journalism can and should be a community good.
It made too much sense. Within weeks, AIM had graciously agreed to donate SPN, its archive and other assets, to the Trust. Throughout 2023, they’ve been fantastic partners as we’ve learned the ropes of the fast-moving news source. Together we have seen Silicon Prairie News flourish under editor Stefanie Monge and multimedia producer Karlha Rivas. It has added hundreds of new subscribers and now reaches thousands each week. In January, SPN will announce an acquisition of its own, and I’m thrilled about what it will mean for our ability to even better serve its audience.
I can’t be more grateful to AIM. We’re honored to have them as an ongoing SPN sponsor.
From the start, we’ve known the Nebraska Journalism Trust should be ready to play in any news sandbox. The loss of reporting has been drastic. There’s plenty to do. When it makes sense, we should do it.
Silicon Prairie News was our first opportunity to deliver on that promise. As the second title under our umbrella organization, it’s been instrumental in helping us plan how we can grow deliberately and sustainably.
Meanwhile, I’ve loved getting reacquainted with the state’s thriving startup scene. At the end of the day, we too are a startup. We’re peas in a pod. The energy, the big ideas, the bootstrap ethos… these are our people. Telling their stories is a joy.
American Journalism Project. Last January, I shared that we were one of three recipients of a transformational grant from the American Journalism Project. The three-year grant has allowed us to bring aboard three key members of our leadership team.
- Operations and Finance Director Christine Baude joined us in May. She runs the day-to-day of human resources, technology and payroll, and brings order to chaos.
- Advancement Director Barbara Soderlin came aboard in August, where she oversees all aspects of our donor programs. With backgrounds in both fundraising and journalism, she’s been invaluable in shaping how we grow our journalism operations.
- Ciara Lee signed on in October to take the reins on marketing and outreach. She has helped us deliver our stories on new channels – including through live events.
These three roles have created capacity and revenue. Their work let us hire additional journalists, expand our freelance program and dramatically increase our output over 2023.
We’ve only been at full power for two months, and already we’re reaching new heights. I cannot wait to see what this team does.
Flatfest, listening tours and other events. We believe journalism, done right, starts a conversation. In that vein, we held or participated in nearly two dozen “journalism on stage” events this year. Flatwater held listening tours in Grand Island, Valentine and Red Cloud. Silicon Prairie News attended every day of Startup Week Omaha and Lincoln. We held a discussion on nitrate in water at Northeast Community College and spoke to Rotary Clubs and One Million Cups. We attended the Nebraska Community Foundation’s annual celebration and participated in journalism symposiums around the state and nation.
The coup de grace came in September, when we held two events over three days. On Tuesday, we invited donors to a special showing of On the Record, a documentary about a small town newspaper in Texas fighting to stay afloat.
Then on Thursday, we held our first-ever Flatfest, a celebration of Nebraska journalism. More than 360 people packed into a beautiful barn in Bennington to celebrate the people and stories that make this place great. We saw a fun, honest, illuminating, panel of some of the best Nebraska journalism brains talking shop. And, mostly, we celebrated.
In November, I had the pleasure of attending State of Our Union in Jackson, Mississippi. The daylong conference of local and national journalists — a partnership between our friends at Mississippi Today and The Atlantic — dug into the toughest questions of the state, and featured local leaders wrestling with them in real time. I walked away with new ideas about how to bring journalism to life, and you can bet you’ll see that put into action next year.
That mix of approaches – small, focused events, big-picture talks and an even bigger party – is inspiring our events approach for 2024.
El Perico and the Reader. My very first job in journalism came at the Reader, where a 17-year-old Matt was paid in coffee to attend city council meetings and write what he saw.
I was bad. I learned a lot. In spite of my mishaps, publisher John Heaston and I became friends. We stayed in touch as I went to college and had my first few jobs. He was one of the first Omahans I met with when I moved back to Nebraska more than a decade ago. And he was key as we got the Trust off the ground.
Earlier this year, Heaston announced that he was facing a health battle. He’s winning, thank goodness. Still, he needed to clear the decks to focus on the fight. In September, he closed both the Reader and El Perico, Omaha’s first Spanish language newspaper.
That meant that there were talented journalists available to hire. A gracious donor stepped up to allow us to bring two of them, Reader editor Chris Bowling and El Perico editor Karlha Rivas, aboard. Chris as a reporter at Flatwater, and Karlha as a multimedia producer at Silicon Prairie News.
They make us better, and I can’t think of a more beautiful example of the need for the Trust, and our ability to deliver. The symbolism and the personal connection make it one of our most meaningful moves during an extraordinary year.
The journalism. Of course, every single bit of this is just icing on the cake of an informed and empowered public.
We set out with big plans.
In 2023, we delivered.
Flatwater reporter Natalia Alamdari wrote about a county of 17,000 that accounts for a third of all the state civil asset forfeiture seizures in Nebraska – a controversial program that has netted millions.
Sara Gentzler wrote about a state agency that was coming up short by just about every metric. Within weeks, the director resigned.
We unearthed a scathing memo about the mismanagement of funds at UNO.
We dug into the environmental impact of our Governor’s sprawling pork business. Several of his farms, state records show, recorded sky high nitrate levels.
Stefanie Monge wrote about how companies are increasingly coming to grips with the childcare crisis, going to new lengths to help the families of their employees.
Most recently, we dug into the data to answer a question that’s the topic of kitchen table conversations and coffee shop gossip: Who’s buying Nebraska? The truth, it turns out, is more fascinating and nuanced than the rumor – though there’s some truth to the rumor, too.
We also told some just plain ol’ extraordinary stories, the kind of writing that connects us as Nebraskans and leaves you teary-eyed.
Well, leaves other people teary-eyed. Not me, of course.
We wrote about one of the most acclaimed chefs in Nebraska’s history, who bet it all to start a world-class restaurant in uber-landlocked Nebraska that serves, uh, sushi.
We published a touching first-person account of why a startup business had to close up shop, and what its founder took from the experience.
We wrote about a high school coach in Gretna who touched lives and is now going through a fight for his life.
We wrote about the reality of Sidney, where people had predicted the sky would fall after Cabela’s pulled up stakes. Not so true, we learned.
I’m especially honored when our work can help right wrongs. That was the case in Norfolk, where the buses stopped running after a nonprofit leader made off with the funding. Flatwater wrote that story. Within hours of publishing, an anonymous donor called asking how much it would take to get Norfolk’s buses running again. Within days, they were.
We won a heap of awards. In the Great Plains Journalism contest pitting us against colleagues from the Dakotas to Texas, we qualified in seven categories. We won first place in three. Reporter Yanqi Xu won a national INNY for explanatory journalism. We saw our grant writer, Shane Pekny, recognized as the newcomer of the year in the nonprofit news ecosystem.
As a data nerd, it’s been especially gratifying to see how all that good journalism results in real, measurable numbers. In June, Flatwater had its most well-read story of all time, with hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans clicking through to read.
It was a short-lived reign. In July, a new story took the crown. Then again in August and October, and twice more in November.
With two weeks to go, Flatwater has already tripled its traffic year over year.
2023 has been great. And next year is set to be even better. I’m already outlining a piece introducing our new board members – and a third title we’ll add to the Trust’s portfolio.
One of my (many) faults is that I focus on the imperfections, see the cloud to every silver lining. Looking around our newsroom, I can see all the little flubs in the desks I built a year ago. The controls are a tad off center. The staple meant to hold a power line needs to be replaced.
But writing this, looking at this newsroom, I can’t help but see the good. Sure, Destiny Herbers’ desk is a little jacked up. But this fresh University of Maryland graduate just helped put the finishing touches on a series that has appeared in dozens of newspapers across the state and informed hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans.
Chicago native Jeremy Turley is so fed up with his desk that he’s sitting on the 60-year-old Mastercraft couch. His story about an Omaha government agency just landed in a national publication. Yanqi Xu won’t be at her desk in February – she’s been invited by the National Press Foundation to speak to a group of young journalists and be recognized in our nation’s capital.
There’s a seven-foot-tall cardboard prairie dog on our conference table. A neon light that we don’t generally turn on. About half the frames on our gallery wall of Nebraska artifacts are slightly askew to the left or right.
And the desks, all 14 of them, are in use. Soon, we’ll need more.
I cannot imagine any place I’d rather be.