Since the Bay Area News Project was announced last year, I’ve followed its development with some interest. First, I want vigorous media in the Bay Area (the major local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, is better than many people think, but its resources are pretty stretched). Second, I’m a small media entrepreneur in the Bay Area myself. Third, I’m convinced that securing a healthy future for journalism is important for society, and we need many different experiments to see what models will be sustainable over the long term.
But now that BANP has found a name (The Bay Citizen), a URL and announced a launch date (May 26), I’m stunned by their first effort. People on the mailing list received today an email encouraging them to become a “founder” by donating money in a number of tiers with various privileges. Ponying up $50 gets you a couple of tickets to the launch party, $1,000 gets you a lunch with Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Weber and CEO Lisa Frazier, $100,000 and up gets you “customized recognition opportunities”.
What’s wrong with that? If The Bay Citizen were really a grassroots effort it would make a lot of sense. But it’s not. I find it bordering on deceptive that The Bay Citizen is seeking individual donations without noting clearly that the Hellman Family Foundation gave $5 million in “seed” funding (that information can be found on the site’s FAQ). Warren Hellman, one of the richer people in the Bay Area, is chairman of the board. Frazier left a highly remunerative job at McKinsey & Co to lead The Bay Citizen for lower rewards, but a reported salary of $400,000 plus is absurd in a start-up of this scale. Weber, a very talented editor who created and led New West, can also be presumed to be earning significant six figures.
I know, however, that a fundraising email that said, “We have $5 million from a local financier and philanthropist and we’re paying ourselves very high salaries. Help us get this project off the ground”, would be unsuccessful, even if truthful.
I’ll admit to some sour grapes. I started Berkeleyside with my two partners on a shoestring (or perhaps half a shoestring). We just did it (just as Dave Winer and I just did InBerkeley before that). We’ve recently started taking advertising, which might be one way to become a sustainable business. We certainly didn’t bang the drum and make great noise about being “a source of ambitious, balanced journalism for the Bay Area” (from Bay Citizen’s dunning email) before we’d actually done anything.
One of the things I’m discovering as we develop Berkeleyside is that there are a host of wonderful local and hyperlocal sites around the country that are fueled by energetic entrepreneurs who have just gone out and done it. Like us, they are bootstrapping their businesses, and some have even managed to develop decent businesses, without much hoopla.
I still want The Bay Citizen to be wonderful and to succeed. But there’s a very sour taste in my mouth. I still think our modest, bootstrap approach, building readers and community organically and then finding our way to sustainability once we have something to show is the right way to do things.