Report card from the trenches: the ‘Solving Sacramento’ experiment 16 months in

Photograph by Stephen Leonardi

By Scott Thomas Anderson

“Is there no play, To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” Shakespeare pondered in Act III of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

Here, in the deep heart of California, the answer to that question could soon be grim.

This week, working in conjunction with SN&R and the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative, veteran theater writer Patti Roberts broke a story that has shaken the area’s arts community. The Sacramento Theatre Company, or STC, a mainstay in the cultural life of the city since 1945, appears to be in genuine danger of folding for good.

This wasn’t what Roberts was expecting to find when she first set out to gauge the overall health of live stage action Downtown and Midtown. And once that picture started coming into focus, Roberts had to do the hard work of fact-checking resignations and layoffs, verifying different management changes and talking to as many people as possible who are within STC’s orbit. The result was our story, published Aug. 3, under the headline, “Sacramento’s theaters hit hard by declining audiences, face serious challenges ahead.”

Most of the reporting that Solving Sacramento engages in is known as “solutions journalism.” That just means it’s meant to be in-depth storytelling that not only diagnoses daunting problems but also tries to identify realistic ways to tackle and improve those very dilemmas. In other words, it is supposed to be the antithesis of the old “if it bleeds, it leads” credo.

Ironically, Robert’s initial story on local theaters was one of the few Solving Sacramento pieces that was green-lit lately that didn’t have a big solutions journalism component to it. Little did anyone on the joint editing team know that Roberts would soon run head-long into a major problem – and one that calls for an emergency-level solution.

When the story was posted to SN&R’s Facebook page, someone apparently affiliated with STC left a comment that read, “Remember when you had a robust review system? That helped us.” There is no doubt that the financial mauling that News & Review took during the first year of COVID, which forced us to dramatically scale back our theater coverage – and all other areas of coverage – probably did hurt STC and other performance venues as they tried to make their own comebacks. But understanding that reality is what drove SN&R’s ownership worked so hard with the owners of The Sacramento Observer, Outward Magazine, The Sacramento Business Journal, Russian American Media and California Groundbreakers to form Solving Sacramento. I think everyone can see that the broader media landscape is changing at hyper-speed; and yet the need for enterprising, independent journalism on tough social issues, as well as independent, earnest coverage of the arts in Sacramento, has never been greater. If STC actually goes totally dark, that would be the ultimate proof that we never asked for, nor wanted.
The concept behind Solving Sacramento is a nonprofit collective that can wield both grants and donations, while simultaneously using the combined legacy audience reach of its member news agencies to touch as many readers as possible. It might actually be the only viable option to keep meaningful journalism alive in the Capital City. At least, that’s what all the different journalists and editors currently engaged in the endeavor are trying to find out.

In its first year, Solving Sacramento had seed funding to cover the affordable housing crisis and the scope of regional homelessness. More recently, the collaborative has gotten grant funding to expand its charge into issues of economic equity and the survival of the arts. Regarding the former, this week SN&R is proud to publish a piece in concert with Solving Sacramento, written by one of our most-popular journalists over the years – Rachel Leibrock – about the city’s latest attempt to cope with a dark history of redlining in its most diverse neighborhoods

While Solving Sacramento now has a plethora of different reporting projects underway, it needs more resources to meet the challenge of the moment, and it also needs to show potential funders that there’s community hunger and buy-in for real journalism. So, please consider donating to Solving Sacramento’s mission.

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