The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner are the city’s largest mainstream newspapers, but their reporting staffs have been gutted by layoffs over the last couple decades, leaving hyperlocal blogs and community newspapers to fill the reporting gaps. But now it appears the hyperlocal blogs, a good source of neighborhood news, are also facing hard times.
A memo released last week revealed a striking split that could affect media coverage in the Mission District: hyperlocal news site Mission Local is being dropped by its main fiscal sponsor, the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
“It’s now time for Mission Local to take the next step and re-launch itself as an independent, stand-alone media operation,” J-School Dean Edward Wasserman wrote in a department-wide memo. “That means ending its role in the J-School’s curriculum.”
Mission Local is a journalism lab for the UC Berkeley graduate students, covering everything in the Mission District from the Tamale Lady to Google bus riders. It’s popular in the neighborhood, reaching as many as 100,000 unique visitors a month. In keeping with its locale, the website is available in English and Spanish.
The UC Berkeley graduate students serve as the site’s reporters and a little bit of everything else, from advertising sales to audience-building. That was a problem, Wasserman wrote.
“That’s not really what we do,” he wrote. “Those are specialized areas, and the J-School doesn’t have the instructional capacity to teach them to a Berkeley standard of excellence.”
But the main issue seems to be cost. “It’s an expensive undertaking,” he wrote. This and other hyperlocal sites were initially funded with grants from the Ford Foundation, but UC Berkeley started picking up the tab when they ran out, among other fundraising avenues.
Lydia Chavez, a professor at the J-School and the head of Mission Local, told the Guardian she disagreed with Wasserman’s decision, and with his reasoning.
“To be clear, I would have preferred to have Mission Local and the other hyper locals at the core of the school’s curriculum,” she said. And as for cost, she contests that Mission Local raised many funds on its own — Mission Local’s cost to UC Berkeley was minimal, she said.
But tales of Mission Local’s demise would be exaggerated. Alex Mullaney is the editor in chief of the Ingleside Light, a neighborhood paper in the Ingleside District. He speculated that Mission Local’s financial independence may thin out the staff, but it could help it find its footing editorially.
“I think it’s probably best for the publication,” Mullaney told us. “It could gain permanent staffers rather than students, who are fleeting.”
Mullaney’s paper is a testament to the power having a permanent presence in the neighborhood. Walking in the Ingleside district, he waves at shop owners he knows, and walking into The Ave Bar for him is like a homecoming, as bartenders and patrons alike give him warm, drunken hellos.
Most local papers are similarly embedded in their communities, sometimes leading to stories that are picked up by larger papers. The Ingleside Light was the first to report on the rise of Internet gambling cafes, and subsequent rise in crime, in the Excelsior. The Examiner later picked up the story, publishing the neighborhood’s plight to the city at large.
Eventually the SFPD moved in and broke up one of the largest gambling Internet cafes, Net Stop, a victory for the neighborhood.
It’s safe to say Mullaney has his thumb on the pulse of the Ingleside, but although he partners with City College and San Francisco State students, he has two stable freelancers.
Similarly entrenched in their neighborhood, the West Side Observer ran a column from Laguna Honda Hospital whistleblower Derek Kerr for years, who famously outed money scandals there. The Central City Extra in the Tenderloin continues to report on the conflicts and successes of Twitter’s new presence in the area.
Though neighborhood papers have always been part of the city, the past few years have seen a rise in financially independent hyperlocal neighborhood blogs, whose ranks Mission Local will now join. From Haighteration to Mission Mission, Richmond Blog SF to Castro Biscuit, they cover almost every nook and cranny of San Francisco. Even a Muni line has exclusive coverage in the form of the N-Judah Chronicles.
Roy McKenzie, 31, is a web developer who runs Castro Biscuit. Though the blog had humble beginnings, lately it’s taken on heavy stories such as Sup. Scott Wiener’s campaign funding, alleging he took big bucks from developers with interest in evicting tenants.
“When I wrote that I thought I’d get some blowback. The money is dirty not in that it’s being laundered, but it’s tied to people who are tainted through evictions,” McKenzie said. Castro Biscuit first took off with his early and extensive coverage of the Castro nudist controversy. McKenzie says he covers stories he feels will be on everyone’s lips, which he susses out through his love of the Castro.
“This is my neighborhood, I live here, and it’s more interesting than you think,” he said.
Mission Local does the same. It spent over a year fact checking the Chronicle’s coverage of Mission vacancies, exploring the arguments for and against opening a new outlet of the chain American Apparel in the neighborhood.
Castro Biscuit though isn’t McKenzie’s main job, but a hobby, he said, which doesn’t spell financial wonders for Mission Local.
Perhaps a better comparison would be the Mission’s El Tecolote, which fundraises through its parent nonprofit, Accion Latina. It holds art gallery openings, fundraisers, and parties throughout the Mission, and even in the backyard patio of its newsroom on 24th street.
Chavez reported nationally for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but feels equally protective of the Mission neighborhood as McKenzie does of the Castro. She told us she isn’t willing to walk away from Mission Local despite any funding challenges.
“The Mission is now ground zero for so much that is happening in the city and the country that if I walked away from it now,” she told the Guardian, “it would be like walking away from a terrific story.”