Investment Banker, J-school and Public Broadcaster Join Forces to Launch Nonprofit News Organization in California

By: LISA LEFF A San Francisco investment banker is teaming up with the University of California's journalism school and public broadcaster KQED to create a nonprofit news organization that he says will fill a gap in local coverage left by newspaper cutbacks.

When it is launched next year, the Bay Area News Project will use a combination of paid reporter/editors and journalism students to produce stories for a Web site, KQED's radio and television outlets, and a print edition, said Warren Hellman, the financier and philanthropist spearheading the venture scheduled to be announced Friday.

Hellman's private foundation is giving $5 million to start the project, but he hopes it will be sustained primarily through individual and corporate donations, much like public broadcasting stations are.

Hellman, who is as well-known in the San Francisco Bay area for his work as a financier as he is for the free bluegrass music festival he sponsors each year in Golden Gate Park, said concern about declining coverage due to staff cuts at the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner made him interested in developing a new model for covering local news.

"I was appalled by how much the Chronicle has shrunk, how thin the Examiner is, and how little coverage there is for local news," he said. "I couldn't help but believe that local politics will be affected. We will have even weaker candidates than we have now with less local coverage, and it seemed to me there was something we could do about it."

Chronicle publisher Frank Vega said in a statement that the newspaper remains dedicated to serving the region and has boosted its online traffic with new neighborhood sections and blogs devoted to the city.

"Since we began our efforts earlier this year to secure a strong future for The San Francisco Chronicle, we have made substantial progress on improving our economics and the quality of our products," he said.

James Pimentel, executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner, said the free paper has maintained its staff and expanded its local coverage since it was purchased by Clarity Media in 2004.

"The Examiner is going to continue to provide the excellent local coverage we always have," he said.

Along with city council meetings, crime and other news that was once the province of daily newspapers, the as-yet-unnamed news organization will concentrate on local arts and entertainment coverage, including wine and food.

Hellman is not the only one looking to hyper-local journalism as a way to infuse fresh energy and money into the beleaguered U.S. news industry, which has lost much of the advertising that underwrites salaries and printing costs as readers and advertisers have shifted to the Internet., a nonprofit news startup founded two years ago, focuses on Minnesota news with a Web site updated every weekday, paid for in part with donations from hundreds of individual members. The Chitown Daily News, a Web site started by a former Chicago Tribune staffer as a nonprofit, ceased publication this month after concluding that "we cannot raise the money we need to build a truly robust local news organization that provides comprehensive local coverage." The Voice of San Diego, an online newspaper founded in 2005, also has found an audience among readers who want more information about the Southern California city.

Neil Henry, dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said collaborating with Hellman makes sense both for the school and its 120 students, who already are producing stories for Web sites focused on seven San Francisco Bay area communities. Besides content for the new news venture, the journalism school expects to provide overall editorial guidance and possibly technological and fundraising expertise, Henry said.

"The more partnerships we can build, the more collaborations we can seek, I think that serves everybody well," he said. "It serves the public well, and it serves the future of watchdog journalism."

Jeff Clarke, president and CEO of KQED/Northern California Public Broadcasting, said one advantage of having the journalism school and KQED on board from the beginning is the assurance that Hellman's endeavor will have professional journalistic standards. Clarke expects the new project and KQED to share stories for their respective Web sites.

"There will be a cross-pollination of content, but separate activities and journalists doing the work," he said.

Hellman said he is talking with the New York Times, which has been planning to increase its coverage of the San Francisco Bay area, about becoming the print outlet for his project's journalism. A Times spokeswoman did not respond to a telephone call and an e-mail seeking confirmation of the discussions.


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