Media experiments

Pub date May 25, 2010

With traditional journalism outlets still struggling through the Great Recession and into an uncertain future, some interesting new media experiments have been popping in San Francisco, including much-anticipated The Bay Citizen, an initially well-funded newsroom that launches this week.

It will join a media landscape filled with a wide range of new ventures: general news websites ranging from the nonprofit SF Public Press to the theoretically for-profit SF Appeal; niche sites such as the popular SF Streetsblog; the media funding experiment; and the MediaBugs accountability project. And it isn’t all online — McSweeney’s magazine put out the one-time San Francisco Panorama newspaper in December and SF Public Press plans to print a similar demonstration newspaper next month.

But for all the high hopes and talk of using strategic partnerships and new funding models to overcome economic and readership trends that have hobbled the San Francisco Chronicle and other big media companies, those who run The Bay Citizen and other start-ups still need to prove their worth and sustainability.

Whatever The Bay Citizen becomes, it will break new ground — nobody has ever put this level of money into creating a nonprofit, online-only daily newspaper in a major market, or had such significant media partners, ranging from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to The New York Times, which will run the newsroom’s content as its twice-weekly Bay Area section.

Some people think this is the future of journalism; San Francisco-based financier Warren Hellman, who provided the seed money, thinks it’s worth $5 million or more to get the project off the ground. But since there’s no model out there, the crew at The Bay Citizen will be making it up as they go along. And at this point, even with what most Web publications would consider a huge amount of money, it’s clear that The Bay Citizen will not be replacing the Chronicle any time soon.

Jon Weber, the publication’s editor, knows the world of mainstream daily journalism (he was a writer for the Los Angeles Times); the world of high-paced big-money startups (he ran the Industry Standard); and the world of low-budget fledgling operations (he founded the small online magazine New West). And the first thing he had to figure was exactly what this new online daily was going to look like.

With a staff of just six news writers — and a regional focus — The Bay Citizen can’t try to cover breaking news the way the Chronicle, Examiner, or even Bay City News Service do. So the publication will be different from a traditional daily, with more enterprise reporting and less of the types of features dailies typically offer.

There will, for example, be no daily sportswriter. “There won’t be stories on every game, every day,” Weber told me. “We’ll pick our spots with enterprise reporting.” The Bay Citizen won’t try to compete with the Chronicle on national or international stories, either: “It’s a Bay Area focused site,” Weber said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t cover national stories when they impact the Bay Area. But that’s not part of our beats.”

The reporters will cover land use and environmental issues; health and science; education and social issues; business and finance; crime; and government and politics. The politics reporter won’t be able to cover San Francisco City Hall every day, either — he or she (that’s the one slot still open) will have to stay on top of local and statewide issues.

But what could make the Bay Citizen truly unusual is the extent to which Weber plans to partner with existing local bloggers and nontraditional news outlets. “We hope we can be a supporter of the local media ecosystem,” he said.

That could eventually set The Bay Citizen apart — and provide a new model for daily journalism. The publication has pending agreements with a dozen local Web sites and bloggers, some of them well-established and funded, and some more homegrown efforts. It’s also working with New American Media, which for many years has represented and encouraged ethnic news outlets.

Yet this isn’t exactly a new idea. SF Gate, the Chronicle’s Web site, has been running content from local blogs, including SF Streetsblog, for more than a year. But it doesn’t pay for that content and so far there have been few discernible benefits for either side of the equation.

“That’s been an experiment for us, but I’m not sure we see much of a return,” Streetsblog SF Editor Bryan Goebel told us. “The question is how you make these partnerships sustainable.”

That’s a question he’ll continue to explore with his newest partner, The Bay Citizen, which is promising to pay bloggers $25 for each post they run and to partner with them on larger projects. Although he’s still waiting to see a contract from Weber, Goebel said, “The model Bay Citizen is using could potentially work.”

Goebel needs something that will work. After 16 months in business, he said SF Streetsblog has 14,000 weekly readers and a loyal following among those interested in transportation and urbanism, but it’s funding (primarily from two rich individuals) has dried up to the point where he’s worried about the site’s future.

“I was hired to be the editor, but now the onus is on me to also keep it going,” Goebel said. “If the community likes this valuable resource … then the community needs to step up and support it.”

The Bay Citizen is also relying on that community-supported paradigm, using a four-part plan to pay the bills. At first The Bay Citizen will be heavily dependent on big donations. But Weber wants to see the operation transition to a more independent program that will rely on public broadcasting-style memberships (small donations), sponsorships (read: ad sales), and the sale of original content (syndication).

There’s already been some grumbling in the local blogosphere about Bay Citizen, from noting the outsized salary of the project’s president and CEO Lisa Frazier (a media consultant who led the search and then took the job at a reported $400,000 per year) to concerns about this big venture exploiting small local partners.

Frazier answered the salary question by noting that she has been working on the project for 14 months and emphasizing her business development experience. “This is a difficult problem we’re taking on and we need to put together a sustainable business model,” she told us. “It’s about results and our fundraising response has been fantastic.”

Another eyebrow-raiser is the background of The Bay Citizen’s Chief Technology Officer Brian Kelley, founder of the Web site ReputationDefender, which promises to remove negative items from the Internet searches of its paying clients — an antithetical mission for news organizations that expose the misdeeds of powerful figures.

Kelley downplayed his former company’s role in countering good journalism, telling us, “I do intend to take that knowledge here to promote our online content.”

Weber said the new venture won’t use its considerable initial resources to try to steal the show, and they’re bringing something truly valuable to the local media scene: a paid staff of journalists to counter the steep declines in local news-gathering.

“Listen,” Weber told us, “I was there for five years. I was running a little start-up with no resources. The last thing I want to do is hurt the smaller outfits. We think we can work together in ways that benefit everyone.”

SF Public Press has pursued a model like Bay Citizen’s for two years. But without millions of dollars in seed money, it’s still hobbling along as basically a volunteer newsroom despite getting around $35,000 from San Francisco Foundation, another Hellman-funded enterprise. “It’s an uncertain model. It’s a leap of faith for the writers to get involved with this,” said project manager Michael Stoll.

Yet Public Press is still moving forward with a newspaper (due out June 15) featuring content culled from a wide variety of local partners ranging from the Commonwealth Club and World Affairs Council to local public radio stations, local blogs, and The Bay Citizen. “We’re calling it both a pilot and a prototype,” Stoll said. “We want to get people’s reactions.”

Weber says he’s also eager to see how people react to The Bay Citizen when it launches May 26, because it will need to quickly establish itself. At the rate The Bay Citizen is spending, Hellman’s money won’t last more than a couple of years, and the financier told us he may be willing to put in a bit more, but he’s going to want to see a plan for financial stability that doesn’t involve him underwriting operations forever. It’s an experiment, but one most observers say is worth trying.

“We need to keep experimenting,” Goebel said, “because not every experiment is going to work.”