Bay Area News Project: Serious Money Behind Nonprofit Journalism

Warren Hellman, the patron saint of the Best. Festival. In. San Francisco. Ever. is plunking down $5 million to seed the creation of what’s being called the Bay Area News Project, a journalism outfit that’ll be linked with KQED public radio and television, UC Berkeley’s J-School, and it looks like The New York Times.  Alan Mutter has the best summary of the deal, and Dave Cohn just put up a smart post about what he hopes Hellman’s project does. Lots of details still to be worked out, so I think it’s way too early to say much more than that I’m really hoping this works out.

Okay, that having been said, I’ve got a couple more things to say.

Finally, a local news project at scale.

Mutter’s right: This is probably the first local news project that is being funded at a scale where it really can have an impact. Here’s a chart from Alan’s blog, which compares the Bay Area News Project to local news operations in San Diego, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Texas. local nonprofit fundingIf, as seems likely, Hellman and his team go after additional Bay Area philanthropic support, then we are probably talking about a $10 to $15 million a year operation. (For comparison, MoJo’s a $9 to $10 mill shop, with about 50 people working here including paid interns.) So this is serious money.

This is a genuine disruptive intervention in the regional news scene.

For one, the scale at which this project will be operating has just upended the equilibrium of the Bay Area news scene. Executives at the SF Chron have been staying on message with weasel words about how much the paper and its website SFGate.com have improved of late, but that’s what you’d expect them to say. In private, no doubt the newspaper guys are looking at the Bay Area News Project with real worry. And based on some conversations with folks working in the “new news” media space today, they’re as unclear about what the future will bring as the rest of us – a sure sign that the rules of the ballgame just changed.

But that’s not the only – or maybe the main – disruptive moment in play now. The alliance between a new news shop, a public university, a first tier public radio and TV station, and a national newspaper that’s made it clear it wants in to this market completely rejiggers our thinking about what a daily news “paper” is all about. Put another way, I really hope that the folks at KQED see this as the crown jewel of their future network. After so many years of opinion-based talk radio and feeder content from the national network, a smart, top notch local news shop that not only goes head to head with the papers but the lost cause that is TV and radio news would be an amazing thing. So if it’s done right, we’ll be seeing a situation where a collaborative network will be competing against traditional news shops. That’s going to be something to witness.

You can find an extended version of this post at Steve’s personal blog, www.maimonidesladder.com

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