Not my style of journalism experiment

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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.

4 thoughts on “Not my style of journalism experiment

  1. Tracy at WSB

    I just threw out most of the long agreeing-with-you rant I was going to post. Except, the part about the “donate $1,000+ and get to lunch with us” REALLY bugs me. Reminiscent of those Washington Post influencer dinner invites that drew so much fire a few months back.

    Maybe we’re just not brazen enough to dare sending out letters requesting potentially huge sums of cash. Even though, unlike this enterprise (which we too hope grows and flourishes), we have a four-plus-year track record of growth and service. OMG, suggesting that a four-digit donation would buy a chance to lunch with co-publisher hubby and me? Cough. If you want to meet “readers” (we prefer “collaborators”) and other supporters, I think *you* should be buying *them* the food and drink. We’re not much for meetups, tweetups and happy hours (we are covering community-group meetings most nights), but one of these days we’re going to throw one whale of a party to celebrate all this fun we’ve been having, thanks to our wonderful community. And we wouldn’t dream of charging WSB peeps a dime.

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  2. Becca

    Personally, I was underwhelmed with the long editor’s note about the choosing of the name Bay Citizen. I don’t care what you call yourself. Tell me what you’re going to DO.

    Reply
  3. Rose

    As the Director of Membership for The Bay Citizen, I wholeheartedly agree that “we need many different experiments to see what models will be sustainable over the long term.”

    Yes, we have a $5 million grant from the Hellman Family Foundation. That much is clear and readily known. We will need this kind of funding if we are to accomplish our ambitious mission of being a destination for insightful, quality news about the nine counties and 7 million people of the Bay Area. So why do we need to raise $50 here, $100 there from our members? Because we will not accomplish our mission if we don’t have broad support from our community – moral, yes, but also financial. In five years’ time, we expect to be over 50% funded by membership support from the Bay Area community. Warren’s generous seed funding is exactly that – money to help get us off the ground.

    We’ve gotten a hugely positive response to The Bay Citizen so far. It’s up to us to live up to the Bay Area community’s high expectations, and ultimately the community will determine how well we succeed.

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