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January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

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 second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 17 2010

20:00

Seeking Sustainability, Part 1: Voice of San Diego’s Woolley and others on the role of the “venture mindset”

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: sustaining nonprofit news organizations after an initial injection of funding gets them off the ground. The Seeking Sustainability conversation sought to examine nonprofit outfits not just as recipients of philanthropic funding, but also — and more so — as businesses that share many of the same concerns that their for-profit counterparts do.

“Traditional media companies have been particularly distressed by shifts in the markets and business models that historically supported them — and the conversation about how to ’save’ or ‘reinvent’ journalism has been largely focused on their concerns,” Knight noted in its summary of the roundtable. But

to a growing group of practitioners, funders and observers…the challenge is not saving traditional news organizations or traditional forms of journalism. The challenge is creating, strengthening and protecting informed communities and local information ecosystems, of which journalism is a necessary component.

Thus enters the nonprofit model, which allows organizations to pursue a journalistic mission without the competing demands of operating a for-profit business. Nonprofit news startups have been created in communities across the country, most with funding from major donors or foundations. The Knight Foundation alone has funded more than 200 experiments with what it calls a “build to learn” approach.

To benefit from the education those startups have been receiving, the foundation convened a group of experts to share practical insights about improving and sustaining nonprofit journalism. It also, thankfully, recorded the conversation that resulted. In a series this week, we’ll pass along the videos of those conversations (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section).

In today’s first pair of videos, Buzz Woolley, chairman of Voice of San Diego, discusses the power of what he calls the “venture mindset” in journalism (above). In the second video (below), he is joined by an all-star panel of nonprofit startup leaders, including — in general order of appearance — J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos and Jim O’Shea, the St. Louis Beacon’s Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis, Knight president Alberto Ibargüen, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, the Connecticut Mirror’s James Cutie, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, Oakland Local’s Susan Mernit, and the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass.

April 20 2010

14:00

“Revenue promiscuity”: The many ways in-depth and investigative reporting will be funded (hopefully)

John Thornton, the chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, has a term he uses to describe how his investigative news venture will stay afloat: revenue promiscuity. “You have to get it everywhere and often,” Thornton told a crowd of journalists this weekend at the Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium.

Thorton’s crass imagery was a hit with the crowd and his fellow panelists, who agreed that funding high-quality investigative journalism can’t rely on just one or two sources of cash. The days of advertising and circulation revenue alone is over. We’re looking at a new era of mixed streams of revenue.

A spirited discussion — among The Washington Post’s Len Downie, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Bay Citizen CEO Lisa Frazier, Newsosaur Alan Mutter, and Thornton — sketched a picture of a diverse (if uncertain) future for paying for the hardest of hard news. Here are three of the themes that emerged:

Beyond big money: tapping the grassroots

Just two years ago, whether or not foundations would step in to support investigative reporting was a point of discussion at this same seminar. This year, the question shifted to for how long — or for how many dollars — foundations will continue to do so.

Thornton, a venture capitalist who doubts investigative journalism works as a for-profit endeavor, said it’s not enough to think about foundation support. He described the Trib’s a public-radio-style model of tapping into reader donations to cover operating costs. Before The Texas Tribune launched, a splash page enticed 1,600 locals to give money to the site. (Thornton noted that all funding momentum stopped once the site actually launched: “Content is the enemy of conversion.”) Thornton hopes to pull in 10,000 supporters at an average of $100 each across the state over the next year. In three years, he hopes to pull in $3 million from readers, one third of the site’s operating costs. In addition, the Tribune plans to raise money by selling premium content and hosting live events.

For-profit plus

Alan Mutter, the panel’s most vocal proponent of a for-profit approach, argued that a strategy based on multiple revenue streams doesn’t have to exist in a nonprofit environment to work. Mutter proposed a multi-pronged approach, adding diversified revenue streams (from things like helping advertisers with their online presence, along with events and paid content) to more traditional ones — even if profit margins still wouldn’t be what they were in the glory days. Mutter’s pitch was received with some grumbling; Thornton said there’s no way news organizations can staff that kind of operation and still make money, the payoff of each wouldn’t make it profitable.

The future as experimentation

Frazier, of Bay Citizen, made clear that her yet-to-launch organization doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but that testing new ideas will be critical; she repeatedly referred to her operation as “an experiment.” She talked about using technology to make journalism more efficient (a.k.a. cheaper) to produce, but also said she’d be testing money-making models.

Rosenthal shared Frazier’s experimentation mentality, and offered some hope for anyone wondering about increased competition among nonprofits for foundation support. Two years ago Center for Investigative Reporting had a staff of about seven. Today it’s 26. “We’ve been remarkable in raising money.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

January 22 2010

17:01

A new convert to nonprofit journalism out west?

The start-up Bay Area News Project announced its new leadership team yesterday, as reported by the New York Times and paidContent, and it’s unfortunate that the most eye-catching bit of the news was CEO Lisa Frazier’s $400,000 salary. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and, like the news about Paul Steiger getting $570,000 to run ProPublica, it invites questions about what are appropriate salaries for a nonprofit.

But let’s set those aside for now, and let’s appreciate the news about the hiring of NewWest.net founder Jonathan Weber as editor-in-chief of BANP.

A year ago, Weber authored a thoughtful and well-argued, if withering, critique of the nonprofit model as a solution to the financial problems plaguing newspapers and journalism more generally.

Weber’s essay, entitled “The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism,” dismisses the nonprofit model as an ill-suited to define what is newsworthy and unlikely to be sustainable. Here’s a passage:

[W]hen I started NewWest.Net in 2005 I considered going the non-profit route, but decided against it for what I still think are good reasons. I had to raise investment capital, which was arduous and way, way more time-consuming than I anticipated, but with luck I won’t have to do it again. Even more importantly, we are held to the brutal discipline of the market, which is very unpleasant a lot of the time but I think is ultimately a healthy thing. For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse. Managers at good companies can think for the long term and the greater good — and in fact there is clearly a market for thoughtful journalism — but as the VCs like to say, eventually the dogs have to eat the dog food. It keeps you honest. In a non-profit, either the board or the employees decide what is worthy — and why them?

Think Weber included the essay when he sent his resume to BANP founder Warren Hellman? Me, neither.

But this is not the place or time for told-you-so’s or questions about how much Weber’s being paid to run BANP. Rather, I take Weber’s conversion as validation of the nonprofit model as a place “to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive,” as University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer said in 2004.

In his own way, Weber said as much in the paidContent article when asked how a nonprofit differs from his work at NewWest:

In terms of profit versus non-profit, I’ve certainly been an advocate of the for-profit model. I do think there are for-profit models that work, but at the same time, the reality these days is that investment capital is not going into for-profit companies where the primary use of proceeds of that capital is to pay journalists. For whatever reasons, investors have not seen that as a big opportunity to date. There may be a few exceptions in narrow niches but certainly for general news there’s been very little investment of that type.

But I think there’s more to it than where the capital is flowing.

Since Weber wrote his essay just a year ago, the nonprofit model in journalism has undergone a full generation of transformation and growth. It used to be that nonprofits were oddities and one-offs, however successful financially or journalistically. ProPublica was really the only grand experiment anybody could name. But now, there are any number of start-ups that are using nonprofit status and the IRS 501(c)3 tax designation as a tool to create new business models that can sustain socially responsible journalism. In addition to BANP, we now have examples in Texas Tribune and the Chicago News Cooperative. And some of the early, community-based experiments such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego seem to have held their own through the downturn in the economy while finding new ways to attract readers and donors.

It is said that converts become evangelists. I’m looking forward to seeing what Weber will do at BANP — and what role he will play within the nonprofit sector. As a co-founder of the now-defunct magazine The Industry Standard, Weber has a distinguished track record as an innovator, and I think he’ll find his new environs will be a hospitable place for his creativity.

Welcome aboard, Jonathan.

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