By Cliff Barney
Special to Calbuzz
San Francisco philanthropist/financier Warren Hellman grabbed most of the ink, and pixels, after the announcement last month that he would provide $5 million in seed money to help UC Berkeley and KQED sponsor a nonprofit multimedia local news website. Pretty much ignored in the press coverage was the role of the local Media Workers Guild in creating the Bay Area News Project (BANP) – the current informal name of the embryonic news enterprise.
But the Guild has been involved from the beginning. Backed against the wall by the Chronicle’s demand for substantial layoffs and other contract changes last February, it proposed a right of first refusal to purchase the Chron. That was declined by Hearst, and the union then appealed to the community; it asked local politicians and business leaders – including Hellman – to find a way to resuscitate Bay Area journalism.
Hellman convened a score of interested SF power barons in March, when the idea of taking the Chron nonprofit was floated. That notion quickly sank, but Hellman persevered, commissioning a local research firm to coordinate hundreds of interviews with interested parties to determine what kind of new organization could work. The new news project was the result.
Assisting throughout these events was Carl Hall, onetime Chronicle science writer (he took a buyout in August) and current Guild field rep. Hall made the first phone call to Hellman; and from an ensuing breakfast meeting, Hellman has said, came the idea of creating a local nonprofit news organization.
KQED and the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, both nonprofits, jumped at the chance to take part in the new venture, and will dominate BANP’s board, when it gets one. But now that the project is under way, the Guild has held back; all it wants, Hall says, is the chance to organize the newsroom.
“We were an instigator, now we’re advisers and cheerleaders, hoping to make it a success.” Hall says. There is no legal reason, he adds, why a union cannot have a board seat. Still, he says, “I trust the individuals at KQED and Berkeley. They are really remarkable people. I would rather have a bargaining unit.”
The Guild, according to Hall, is trying to change along with the industry it depends on. “We want to represent newspaper workers and their new media evolutions – we do that all over country. We look for alternative ownership strategies. The Guild will organize anything.” It has even, he notes, created a freelancers’ unit for the hundreds of laid-off Bay Area journalists.
Hall says the Guild urged a nonprofit business model for BANP in order to preserve the core of journalism, the local and investigative news that is sacrificed when, as now, newspaper revenues are falling. In the nonprofit world, a mission, such as this one, is primary; in the profit world, it may be sacrificed.
Nonprofit ownership is one of many experiments being carried out by today’s wandering journalists. Propublica uses the structure to fund investigative journalism. The Voice of San Diego takes the same route for local coverage. The model is not universally esteemed, however, and many promoters of online journalism think it’s simply a blind alley lined with begging bowls. But it was a key element in attracting the participation of KQED and Berkeley.
At the moment, Hall has nothing to organize; BANP has no employees, nor is there even a hiring schedule yet. Nevertheless, the founders have said that they hope to begin operations early next year.
The new organization will be independent of its sponsors, except indirectly through its board. It will not use J-School students as reporters, as earlier news stories suggested. Rather, says J-School Dean Neil Henry, the school will provide coverage through its own hyperlocal sites (in San Francisco’s Mission, Oakland, and Richmond), and assist BANP through multimedia training for the journalistic retreads it hires. BANP plans to put a heavy emphasis on hiring professional journalists, few of whom have much training in multimedia skills.
Henry also wants to enlist other Berkeley departments, such as business, engineering, and information technology, to provide guidance and research.
KQED will increase its own attention to local news and coordinate coverage with BANP and Berkeley. It will participate in setting editorial guidelines for the new entity. Managerially, it will reportedly have power to appoint a majority of the board (although the actual makeup of the board has not yet been set; BANP is still operating informally).
KQED will also lend its considerable experience in nonprofit fundraising. Hellman’s money will eaten up quickly and one of BANF’s first tasks will be to figure out what to do then.
One avenue will be in selling its product, and BANP is already in talks with the New York Times to provide print content for the Times’s planned San Francisco edition. (Last week the Times announced that it plans a similar local edition, similarly fed, in Chicago.) The Times would be a customer of, not a partner in, the new enterprise.
The announcement of BANP has provoked local speculation, fueled by Hellman, about whether it might be the final nail in the coffin of the financially struggling Chronicle. Hall doesn’t think so. BANP will have only a couple of dozen reporters and editors, he points out; while the decimated Chron still musters 141 newsroom staffers. Its website, SFGate, is extremely popular and it has its own relationship with the Berkeley J-School MissionLoc@l site.
Audrey Cooper, the Chron’s Metro editor, recently sent out an ebullient internal memo threatening to “smash” any newcomers who try to poach in the local market. The Chronicle, at least on its editorial side, is not giving up just yet.
That’s fine with Hall and the Guild, which doesn’t care to trade the paper’s 141 members for a few dozen prospects on an untested news site. Hall acknowledges that BANP will definitely apply some pressure on the traditional newsroom. But, he adds, “The Chronicle won’t go away – it will get better.”