NEW YORK TIMES: Bay Area Emerges as Center of Nonprofit Journalism

April 10, 2010
Frances Dinkelspiel

In its ten months of existence, California Watch, an offshoot of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which is located in Berkeley, has placed 21 stories with the San Francisco Chronicle. One of those stories, on seismic safety in California’s public colleges and universities, was distributed to more than 80 news outlets, Robert Rosenthal, the center’s executive editor, said.

It has become one of the most prominent examples of the Bay Area’s new growth industry: the non-profit news organization.

As regional newspapers have shed reporters over the years — a recent count said there are now 500 journalists covering news compared with 900 a few years ago — non-profit news groups have stepped in to cover the gap.

Non-profit news organizations are not a new concept around San Francisco; they have just taken on increased significance during the past year. Mother Jones magazine, the Pacific News Service and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been raising funds through foundations and individuals for more than 30 years.

In the new model, nonprofit news organizations sell their stories to multiple partners — newspapers, radio and television stations, blogs, and hyper local news sites — rather than to just one news organization. In a significant shift, traditional media outlets that once would have been phobic about printing any article that was not produced by their own staff writers are now running pieces executed by these third-party vendors.

The Bay Citizen, which is underwritten by a $5 million grant from Warren Hellman, a local businessman and philanthropist — and which is currently gearing up for it debut — will provide coverage of the area primarily available on its own website and also in the local pages of The New York Times, is the latest example of the nonprofit trend.

San Francisco Public Press, which started a year ago and soon plans to put out a newspaper, had a story in the Bay Area section of the New York Times recently and did a special report on the cost of the new Bay Bridge for Panorama, a one-time newspaper produced by Dave Eggers’s publishing enterprise, McSweeney’s.

Other sites include Spot.Us, which raises funds for journalists to do specific stories; Mother Jones magazine; and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which includes California Watch. KALW, 91.7 FM, owned by the San Francisco Unified School District, has just created a website that combines reports from its Crosscurrents show with local news reports. KQED also produces local news shows backed by foundation grants. New America Media works with ethnic media producers around the country to produce stories and played a major role in the Chauncey Bailey project, which explored the murder of an Oakland journalist.

Instead of relying on advertising for revenue, the old-fashioned way, these groups raise funds from foundations, businesses and individuals. In addition, they sell the journalism they produce.

A convergence of forces has made this area particularly conducive to the non-profit model, explained Ann Grimes, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and acting director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University. She believes that the chemistry includes a high concentration of technically savvy people, an abundance of highly skilled journalists looking for work, ample philanthropic dollars, an entrepreneurial spirit as well as a willingness to try to new things.

“It’s a market that has gone from one of the best news markets to one of the worst in the last five years,” said Ms. Grimes. “The market isn’t being served by its local news vendors so there is a lot of pent up demand for local news.”

“There has been a sea change on the part of legacy media organizations as well as these jumpstarts to partner and collaborate,” added Ms. Grimes. “Those who have suffered cuts in their reporting ranks are eager to collaborate. A lot of these new organizations are staffed by well-seasoned veterans so the legacy organizations know that the quality of the copy is well-vetted.”

But how many of these non-profit news organizations can survive in the regional ecosystem? It’s too soon to tell, but for now they are collaborating rather than competing.

“We are all trying to find what our niche is,” said Michael Stoll, the executive director of San Francisco Public Press. “All of these organizations have been talking to one another about doing collaborations and how we can support one another. There are not enough donors or people in these organizations to make a difference on our own.”

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