Non-Profit News Shakes Up Bay Area News Scene

Something that’s been bubbling just below the surface finally emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area news landscape. Financier Warren Hellman announced the creation of a new, non-profit news organization. This news organization will partner with KQED, the Berkeley Journalism School, and most likely the New York Times.

The Bay Area News Project has a web site. And a Twitter feed. The San Francisco Chronicle had a story. And so did The New York Times.

Despite the big splash, there were actually very few details available in terms of the scope, how the organization will function, and exactly what types of stories it will do. I happened to catch the following interview with some of the major players on KQED’s Forum this morning. It’s worth a listen:

The reaction has ranged all over the place, and I must say I’m quite surprised. On the positive side, David Cohn weighed in with advice for Hellman, including to hire folks who think “web first.” I agree for the most part, but would tweak it to say “multi-platform.” Because, in fact, the organization will be publishing online, to mobile phones, radio (via KQED) and yes, print, once the New York Times partnership is ironed out.

Not everyone was giddy. Popular local blogger Greg Dewar, who writes the N-Judah Chronicles, of the Njudah blog, tweeted: “this Hellman/KQED/UCB J School thing sounds like a disaster in the making, at least for us who don’t have wealthy financiers..” And Suzanne Yada tweeted: “@mediatwit I am *only* officially speaking for myself re: Public-Press. But yes, I feel like Hellman ganked our model & left us to dry TBH.” The Public Press is another non-profit news organization in San Francisco that’s been gathering momentum over the past year, but mostly through bootstrapping and small grants.

And the East Bay Express worried that this project “threatens traditional news media in the Bay Area, because it will rely on 120 journalism students at Cal who will work for free.”

Let’s start with that last point. If the writer above had taken a moment to think before writing, they would have noticed a couple of things. First, this new organization plans to hire a couple dozen paid, professional journalists. That’s a big reason the California Media Workers Guild led the creation of this project. They wanted to create new opportunities for paid journalists. It’s why the headline on the guild’s site today read: “Journalists: Dry your tears.” Yes, they’re going to using student volunteer labor. But that’s not going to be the main focus.

The Guild has not gotten must attention on this today. But in fact, the guild jump-started the whole thing back in the spring when Hearst threatened to shut-down the Chronicle if guild members didn’t agree to massive concessions. It was a heavy-handed threat. But if Heart executives are stewing about the announcement, they really have only themselves to blame. Their threat, which was probably mostly bluster, was the catalyst to start events in motion that resulted in today’s announcement.

I think the fears of the other local and hyper local news start-ups are valid. Hopefully, the organization will take a collaborative approach that builds the news ecosystem.

But let’s also have a reality check: $5 million sounds like a lot. But it’s not. Not when you’re talking about starting an actual news organization with paid reporters. Today, I happened to be visiting a start-up in San Mateo called Caring.com, which produces content related to elder care. The CEO said he needed to raise a little money to get through the next year, about “$5 or $6 million dollars.” That would sustain an online only content start-up with a staff of 14 that already has a growing revenue stream.

That’s all to say that $5 million is purely seed money. KQED and the other parties are going to need to put serious fundraising muscle behind this. They still need to hire a CEO, executive editor, and staff. Heck, they still need a name and a domain name for the thing. It’s an exciting start, but it’s going to be some time before it’s having any impact on the ground.

But despite the qualms, today is a good day for news innovation.

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One Response

  1. If it sounds like I have sour grapes, I do. But I’ll get over that. I know ultimately this is good for the people of San Francisco. I just wish this wasn’t handled so poorly.Again, I’m only speaking for myself.

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