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January 19 2011

18:30

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money — rather than the $4 million it had actually spent. (The Chron item also didn’t mention the additional $9.5 million the organization had raised.) Other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures tweeted their skepticism, including Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, who wrote, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

How does Weber expect it all to pay off? “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

July 13 2010

17:02

When It Comes to Corrections, Most News Sites Fail

Because web pages are just computer files, news stories on the web can be altered at will after publication. That makes corrections on the web a little more complex than corrections in print -- but it also makes them potentially much more effective. Unlike in print or broadcast, you can fix the original. You can make errors vanish -- though not without a trace, if you're doing it right.

So why do so many news organizations continue to handle their online corrections so poorly? At MediaBugs, where we're devoted to improving the feedback loop between the public and the press, we've just published our first survey of corrections practices at more than two dozen Bay Area news outlets. The report's top-line conclusion? Mostly, they're doing it wrong.

Findings

Three quarters of the 28 news outlets we reviewed provide no corrections-reporting link of any kind on their home or article pages. Even media organizations that show signs of working to handle corrections carefully fall down in various ways -- and lots of others don't look like they're even trying.

Many bury information about how to report errors behind confusing trails of links. Some provide multiple, poorly labeled avenues for feedback without telling readers which ones to use for error reports. Others provide no access to recently corrected articles beyond a search on "corrections," which often turns up multiple stories about prisons.

These findings are disheartening -- not simply for how poorly editors are protecting their readers' trust in them, but also because handling these matters better doesn't take that much effort.

There's really just a small number of things any news website needs to do if it wants to handle corrections and error reports responsibly:

  • Append a note to any article that's been corrected, explaining the change;
  • Keep a list of these changes, linking to the corrected articles, at a fixed location on the site;
  • Post a brief corrections policy, with information about how readers can report errors they find;
  • Make sure that your corrections listing page and your corrections policy (whether they're on the same or different pages) are part of your site navigation -- they should be accessible by one click from any page on your site.

In addition to our survey, we've provided a brief summary of best practices for corrections and error reporting that we hope will be helpful to news site editors and their readers alike.

No More Excuses

Fifteen years ago, in the early days of web publishing, it might have been understandable for editors to have a hard time figuring out how to handle corrections: This pliable medium was new and strange.

But news on the web is no longer in its infancy, and "We're new to this" just doesn't cut it anymore as an explanation for the kind of poor practices our MediaBugs survey documents. The explanations you generally hear are truthful but don't excuse the problems: "Our content management system makes it too hard to do that" or "we just don't have the resources to do that" or "we've been meaning to fix that for a while but never seem to get around to it."

The web excels at connecting people. That's what its technology is for. Yet when it comes to the most basic areas of accuracy and accountability, the professional newsrooms of the Bay Area (and so many other communities) continue to do a poor job of connecting with their own readers.

It's time for news websites to move this issue to the top of their priority lists and get it taken care of. They can do this, in most cases, with just a few changes to site templates and some small improvements in editing procedures. Of course, we hope, once they've done that, that they'll do more: At MediaBugs, we want to see that every news page on the web includes a "Report an Error" button as a standard feature, just like the ubiquitous "Print" buttons, "Share This" links and RSS icons.

MediaBugs offers one easy way to do this -- our error-reporting widget is easy to integrate on any website. You can now see it in action on every story published over at Spot.Us. But there are plenty of other ways to achieve this same end.

As long as readers can quickly and easily find their way to report an error with a single click, we'll be happy. But before we get there, we've all got some basic housekeeping to take care of first. End the suffering of orphaned corrections links and pages now!

April 14 2010

17:05

Spot.Us Expands to Seattle

We have been hinting at Seattle as the next Spot.Us city for some time and I'm very excited today, with the click of a few buttons, to make it a reality.

It would be a crime to keep Spot.Us limited to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It would turn us into a non-profit news organization when, as I've said many times, we are a platform. A platform for freelancers to pitch the world (editors and the public) in one fell swoop. Non-profit news organizations can use this platform to fundraise, local papers and bloggers can use this to expand their freelance budget, and through Spot.Us the community can have a say in what news gets covered. So it's time to start opening up the platform. We may be coming to a region near you, so join our newsletter or suggest a city on our home page.

This is the first phase in a larger expansion. We are already talking with folks in other cities where we hope to expand. Perhaps some of these local Spot.Us networks won't pan out. Hopefully they will. This depends entirely upon the public. We need your help to spread the word and to get folks involved. It's a chance for the public in Seattle to take ownership of the media.

This is an experiment for the larger journalism community to take control of. This belongs to everyone.


Why Seattle?

My first response is: why not?

Aside from being the next major city on the West Coast, Seattle is a hub of hyper-local media experiments and projects. If my hunch is correct these local media projects need as many revenue sources, platforms and tools as possible. There are a ton of organizations and sites we hope to partner with like Investigate West, West Seattle Blog, Seattle Post Globe, Capital Hill Blog, Next Door Media, Seattle PI, CrossCut, Wallywood -- and that's literally off the top of my head.

Why Now?

About six weeks ago I was having a meeting with Spot.Us media advisor Jeremy Toeman, one of my oldest "Internet friends," who gave me a polite kick in the butt as only an e-friend can. "You aren't learning fast enough," he said.

He was right. Something was holding me back and he aptly pointed it out. I was starting to talk with news organizations in various parts of the country about expanding Spot.Us in partnership. I still want to, but I can't wait for that to manifest. Especially not when it really only takes a few clicks for us to create a new Spot.Us network.

And besides: The mission of Spot.Us as a no-nprofit is not to partner with newspapers. Those are welcome events, like today's article in the SF Bay Guardian funded in part by Spot.Us, but it is not our driving mission.

Creating a new network without a strong partnership does feel vulnerable -- but that is what is needed in this phase of Spot.Us' growth. And more networks will come. We are looking at Austin and Minneapolis next.

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