Through My Eyes

Timing was everything.

The Bay Area News Project

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Explain to me again how this new editorial staff is going to bring innovation in delivering news to Bay Area residents.

Oh, it’s delivering web-only content?  Okay.  So are many other digital news organizations.  What makes the imminent Bay Area News Project so special?  How is it going to differentiate its products from what’s already being offered by existing news sources?

First of all, the Bay Area News Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, publicly supported news organization that includes a senior management team of Lisa Frazier (President/CEO), Jonathan Weber (Editor-in-Chief), and Brian Kelley (CTO).  Their mission is to: fill the gap in covering Bay Area civic and community news, stimulate innovation in journalism, and foster civic engagement, (all the while collaborating with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and the NY Times).

With $5 million in seed funding from the Hellman Family fund, it launched in the fall of 2009, but does not expect to publish online content until late spring of this year.  It will be an online and mobile source of news, and you can expect to see original content printed and distributed on the NYT’s Friday and Sunday Bay Area sections.  It will also be in partnership with other media outlets and distribute content strategically.

Weber noted the four key principles that support the project’s operational business model –

1) Public-interest focused (promising to deliver high-quality coverage of civic and community news ranging from public policy and education to arts and science)

2) Multi-channel and community-centered (broad distribution through various channels to encourage active engagement with diverse audiences, develop community networks, encourage new voices, and create compelling interactive content)

3) Sustainability driven (diverse revenue streams through member donations, sponsorships, earned income, and philanthropic investment)

4) Collaborative and inventive (strategic partnerships to produce, disseminate, and test news cost-effectively, while fostering an entrepreneurial culture and serving as a lab for experimenting with new tools and business ideas to support journalism)

Last night at the World Affairs Council, the newly appointed editor of  the Bay Area News Project, Jonathan Weber, spoke of his vision for the online news site.  To give you some background, Weber worked as a technology and business editor at LA Times, as well as founded former dot-com news magazine The Industry Standard before leaving to Montana to help establish New West and teach at University of Montana’s J-School.  Something Weber said that resonated with me was, “In order to break something big, you must go somewhere where quality journalism is lacking.”  It’s not to say that a journalist must go to a completely desolate region to face the least amount of competition, but come on – think about it – in a day and age when anyone can be a journalist (well, a citizen journalist), you (simply put) need to be one step ahead of your neighbor.  Although that’s nothing new, I feel it is critical now more than ever.

While Weber did his best to keep mum about certain details, such as the type of articles (or better yet, “holy shit” stories) he plans to publish, the pay scale for staff journalists and freelancers, and other trade secrets, he divulged a bit of information about the individuals and partnerships endorsing the project, the organization’s objectives, and the project’s current hiring status (he’s looking to hire 15 reporters at the moment).   He also made it a point to emphasize that Warren Hellman has very little, if any, influence on the current hiring process, and the two did not even meet until a few weeks ago.  He acknowledged the need to reassure his audience of journalists, as well as members of the public, that the Hellman clan will not use this organization as a vehicle to push a personal agenda.

What I didn’t get out of his presentation, though, was a definitive answer to the most important question we were asking:  What makes this project so different from any other online newspaper?  Yes, he talked about product-izing the news (which makes you wonder – how do you do that being a non-profit?), innovation in website management, the coverage of roughly 9 counties (between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa), an organic approach to developing staff (reporters will ideally wear all different hats), data-mining as a primary tool, and evaluating how the public will use the information distributed.  However, weren’t some of these the original goals of several Bay Area newspapers (Hello? The Chronicle,  SF Weekly, The Examiner, etc.)?  Over time, it seems that too many news organizations lose sight of their civic duties, and bureaucracy becomes an oppressor and not just a corporate nuisance.

Also, I’m sure that most of the local veteran journalists who attended last night were not pleased to hear of plans to grant somewhat of an advantage to students from Cal’s J-School throughout the hiring process.   An interesting question raised by a member of the audience was how the BANP planned to compensate staff journalists and freelancers.  Would the writers now be subjected to popular pay-per-click campaigns, or would they be salaried?  Weber replied that full-time writers would be compensated by salary and freelancers would receive a flat fee.  You could almost feel the wave of relief that washed over the audience.  It was a dead giveaway that indicated how negatively the economic downturn affected this industry and how much more cutthroat it has become.

The BANP will be assigned a different name when it is born this spring, and its editorial staff plans to provide internship opportunities, as well as instruction (workshops, classes, etc.) to Cal’s J-School students.  The J-School faculty will, in turn, contribute ideas for future topics and features and assist the organization in developing R&D centers across various departments throughout campus.  View it as a future think tank for journalists and news media professionals.  At least, that’s what it sounds like they are attempting to create.  In a nutshell, the BANP is planning to re-invent the metro newspaper.  I bid it good luck and an especially sympathetic audience.

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