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Mat-Su Sentinel Launches Valley News Site

by | Jun 26, 2024 | Featured, Media & Arts, News, Nonprofits

Mat-Su Sentinel founder Amy Bushatz files her first story for the website while attending the Institute for Nonprofit News conference in June.

Photo Credit: Amy Bushatz

In Alaska, local newsrooms have struggled, with community newspaper buyouts resulting in jobs cut or even newspaper offices closed. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has been home to robust newsrooms in the past, but now only a few journalists focus on covering the burgeoning community.

Mat-Su journalist Amy Bushatz hopes to address that problem by providing straightforward coverage of local government via a website, the Mat-Su Sentinel.

Labor of Love

Bushatz launched the Mat-Su Sentinel this month, posting stories every couple of days. The first focused on challenged books that were returned to school library shelves. Another was about rerouting a trail after a landfill expansion.

The stories she’s written have been picked up by the Anchorage Daily News (ADN). For casual readers, though, her plan is to keep the news subscription free.

As Bushatz points out, this move is a public service, not a get-rich-quick scheme. The Sentinel is a nonprofit under the national Tiny News Collective, which helps first-time news founders build sustainable organizations. The Sentinel operates as a grantee of Tiny News Collective, Bushatz says, and the larger organization helps oversee tax-related requirements. She has a corporate support agreement from Matanuska Electric Association, and noted that she plans to apply for grants from other local organizations to help fund the effort.

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“The business plan is to mix philanthropy with local support and to build a product that people feel is worth supporting and is a value. We have to show people that news can be high quality, it can be local, it is important,” Bushatz says.

Bushatz has a strong reporting background, having covered the Mat-Su for the ADN and the Frontiersman. Prior to that she worked as executive editor of Military.com. She is a graduate of the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program, a recipient of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, and has a master’s degree in Public Leadership from the University of San Francisco. She’s also a mother and wife; her two sons attend Mat-Su schools, and her husband serves in the Alaska Army National Guard.

Preserving Community Through News

The state of local news is grim everywhere, not just the Mat-Su. In 2023, according to a Northwestern University study released in November, an average of 2.5 newspapers closed each week. Most were weekly publications in areas with no other sources for news. There are two primary reasons. One is declining ad revenue; many potential clients maintain their own websites, Facebook pages, or other social media presence instead of advertising in the local paper. The other is shrinking circulation; many would-be readers have canceled newspaper subscriptions or subscribe to a few national publications instead of national, state, and local publications.

This situation motivates Bushatz to make a change.

“In 2023, Palmer, Houston, and Wasilla city elections were decided by less than 9 percent of registered voters, while multiple council seats saw only one candidate run. Did residents know there was an election? Were they informed about the issues on the ballot? Were they familiar with the decisions made by the people they’ve elected, or how those decisions impact their everyday lives?” Bushatz asks on the Sentinel website. “The presence of a local paper also decreases polarization in both local government and in the community it serves, studies show. Communities are stronger when they work together to find solutions to local challenges. In an era where agenda-driven websites and social media posts sow discord, it is more important than ever to focus on facts, first. Quality local news reporting does that.”

Bushatz says she conducted a survey via social media, to which more than 100 people responded, in which she asked for the greatest news needs in the Mat-Su.

“The highest news need is local government coverage; that’s what we’re going to start with,” she notes. “As that need changes, or we hear different feedback, then that need may shift.”

The “we” reflects that the Sentinel is overseen by a board of directors, currently with two members. Bushatz asked Kevin Thompson, a business owner and military veteran who lives in Wasilla, and Steven Merritt, a longtime journalist based in Palmer, to be on her board. While they don’t have editorial oversight, they help guide the direction of the Sentinel as it grows.

“Wow, is it hard to find board members for things! I spent a lot of time looking for a board. I didn’t just want human beings; I wanted the right people on this board,” Bushatz says.

Thompson and Merritt come from different backgrounds and share different ideologies, but they share a belief in the importance of local news. And they, like any reader, are encouraged to read a Sentinel story and give feedback.

Bushatz says, “They are well within their parameters to read a story and say, ‘Are you sure this is nonpartisan?’ But that’s the kind of feedback that I hope everybody brings; humans are not nonpartisan—they bring their experiences… and one job of a good journalist is to make sure that you are not including that. One way to do that is through accountability.”

Until May, Bushatz had been covering Mat-Su news for the ADN, but outside of her work she had a plan for focused local news. Then she announced the Sentinel’s formation and her intent to depart ADN and focus on Sentinel full-time.

Bushatz planned to take a break between working for ADN and the Sentinel, but “the stories don’t stop, even though you’re taking a break from a publication. It makes sense to me to just keep covering the news, as time allowed,” she says.

Bushatz says she hopes to file a couple stories a week and plans to send out weekly newsletters. Find out more at matsusentinel.com.

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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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