I got a sinking feeling on Oct. 18 when I read that El Paso’s online Newspaper Tree is taking a hiatus. “NPT staff, me and [reporter] David Crowder, took vacation time starting a few weeks ago,” wrote editor Sito Negron. “Unfortunately, that vacation has turned into an indefinite furlough.”
Newspaper Tree won a loyal following with original analysis, reportage on local public corruption, and a willingness to allow different perspectives. If you wanted to know what was really going on in El Paso—with local debates over revisiting drug policy, for instance, or harassment of gay couples in public—you went to NPT. Then you read the comments on the articles and op-eds. Readers were unusually thoughtful and engaged—and often contributed to understanding the stories better.
The NPT raised its level last year when it hired veteran investigative reporter David Crowder, who had worked for three decades at the El Paso Times. But the economy took its toll on the news journal’s owner, El Paso Media Group. The group has stopped funding Newspaper Tree. But Negron says he’s confident the site will be back. “What we’ve been doing has been very well received in the community,” he says, “and since we made the announcement we were going on hiatus, we’ve been contacted with some interesting options to keep NPT going.”
Negron says NPT has never made money. Going nonprofit might be the most viable option now, Negron says. Perhaps NPT can be supported by the community. It’s the tactic being taken by many newspapers and magazines these days. (The Observer has been nonprofit since 1994.)
Negron, 42, has been in journalism for at least two decades “and just about done it all,” he says. Now he has two kids to feed and no salary. But he waxes optimistic. He’s seen the need for tough local reporting and an open airing of community debates reflected in the response to Newspaper Tree.
“Journalism is super-healthy,” he says. “We used to bitch about the corporate media, and then there was an explosion of alternative weeklies, and there’s magazines like The Texas Observer and Mother Jones,” he says, along with sites like NPT. “There are multiple threads of journalism now.”
Multiple threads, but unfortunately none of them is spun out of gold.