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Wild Experimentation in San Francisco's Local News Scene

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2010-08-11-LocalNews.jpg

It was only a few years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle was the only go-to source for local news. Looking back, what a relative news desert it was.

Our bookstore still sells the Chronicle albeit fewer copies than in the past. The Booksmith did also sell the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Business Times and distributed the free weeklies: the Bay Gaurdian, SF Weekly, the Bay Reporter, SF Bay Times, and the Onion SF edition. No longer. Demand did not warrant the space they were allocated.

This morning over coffee, I clicked on my more than 9 bookmarks of local news websites for items of interest. A virtual forest of local news sources are now available online. And though I don't usually make it to them all every day. I do usually scan them all at some point in the week to read the stories they are covering.

In rank order, these are the sites I visit most frequently:
Baycitizen.org
Sfist.com
SFgate.com (the San Francisco Chronicle's web portal)
SFappeal.com
SFpublicpress.org
7x7.com (also a monthly local print magazine)
NYtimes.com Bay Area Report
SFBG.com (the weekly Bay Guardian's website)
SFWeekly.com (the print weekly's website)

Though, that is a good list of the most prodigious SF news sites, it omits the numerous, detailed & colorful hyperlocal sites which have sprouted in all compass directions with their terrific reporting of local neighborhood news including the pioneering Mission Local, our neighboring Lower Haight neighborhood blog Haighteration and my current favorite, the TenderBlog (their About Us page says, "we're tired of all the hate that our neighborhood constantly receives from the people of this city, and we decided to start this blog to show that there's much more to it than pee smell and drugs.")

On August 9th, I moderated a panel at the Booksmith on the topic of local news journalism with three pioneering leaders reshaping local news: The Bay Citizen's Lisa Frazier, SF Public Press' Michael Stoll, Mission Local's Lydia Chavez."

We discussed the sustainability of their organization's funding models, the quality and caliber of their news reporting and what we can expect for the future of Bay Area news reporting as the SF Chronicle continues to make cuts.

In particular, I asked them about their experimentation with citizen-funded news stories and reliance on foundation grants. All three said their news organization had not yet reached sustainability. They all described foundation and citizen donations, or "the NPR model" of news underwriting through sponsorship, as their aim.

Lisa Frazier disclosed the initial endowment of $5 million dollars the Bay Citizen received from Warren Hellman as a "tremendous gift" that has allowed her organization to fund its start-up costs, hire 26 journalists "at market rates" and develop a plan to reach sustainability in 5 years. She said organizations like hers have been established in major cities around the country and are focused on professional, original content reporting. This as compared to the abundant content on the web from citizen journalists which she described as mostly news opinion/commentary lacking in original news content.

Each of the three organizations are primarily made up by seasoned journalists, j-school students and interns. Mission Local originated as an experiment in hyperlocal journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has become a training ground for student journalists. All three said the quality and caliber of their news reporting was on par with reporting done in the traditional local news outlets such as the SF Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News or other Bay Area regional papers.

Though not their focus, the panelists said they aren't completely ignoring the role of the untrained, citizen journalist. Bay Citizen encourages anyone interested to request a login for their Citizen Blog platform. Along with the lead story, featured news, staff blog is a featured citizen blog entry on their site's homepage. Michael Stoll said the SF Public Press makes it easy for anyone to submit news tips through their site and Mission Local's Lydia Chavez said that she welcomes proposals from anyone interested in covering a particular news beat.

Today, the news stories they report are distributed online on their website. Lisa Frazier said that approximately 25% to 30% of people are getting their news from friends posts on Facebook and Twitter and that online is the first place to be. But all three have news stories which have gone to print. Many of the Bay Citizen's stories are printed on Friday and Sunday in the Bay Area Report section of the New York Times. Mission Local recently printed copies of their top stories half in English, half in Spanish. And, Michael Stoll said that Public Press had just broken even with their first print edition which is sold for $2 at independent bookstores around the city and that they plan to print quarterly with their next issue in the fall.

I asked all the panelists for their predictions for the future. Looking into their crystal balls, none would say if the Chronicle would still be around in two to three years though the regional paper's management had said that they'd recently re-emerged out of the red and into profitability again following numerous staff cuts. The future is uncertain they said but all had glimmers of optimism for what might emerge. New content distribution agreements, more citizen-funded reporting, and new payment models for professional journalists are all likely to be part of the equation. One thing is for certain, there is some radical experimentation going on and it will be news which start-ups succeed and which fail.