Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Is the Future Of News Dependent On The Generosity Of Billionaire Philanthropists?

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 10, 2010

James Rainey, at the The Los Angeles Times, reports on the "Bay Area News Project" financed with $5 million by Warren Hellman, a local philanthropist.

The project has a CEO with a $400,000 salary and its editor, Jonathan Weber, used to run the Industry Standard, a popular magazine during the dotcom era.

Bay Area News Project has high hopes, few employees - latimes.com

When the Bay Area News Project launches its website in late spring or early summer, it will be just the latest -- and perhaps the most ambitious -- nonprofit venture among a string of similar start-ups.
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"On the one hand, you want to have big ambitions," Weber explained from his office, a stylish but spartan space donated by a San Francisco law firm. "On the other hand, you don't want to be presumptuous about what you can do with a small newsroom.
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The project will have to rely on paid interns from one of its partners, UC Berkeley and the Graduate School of Journalism, to provide some of that coverage. The university also intends to bring an R&D component.
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Weber has committed to covering public institutions like government, education and the law. But he conceded in a recent meeting with freelance writers that even this civic mandate would be an enormous challenge. And with a couple of other editors likely to come on board in a week or two, he's yet to hire another editorial employee.
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"I think that in some ways we are kind of entering a Golden Age of journalism," Weber said, "because the barriers to entry have been largely removed."

Foremski's Take: The great thing about emerging new media business models, is if one media organization figures it out - we all figure it out - we can all adapt and adopt a similar model. It's win-win.

But I don't see the Bay Area News Project being able to do that, for several reasons:

- The salaries and the organization. The CEO is being paid $400K, and editor Jonathan Weber has wisely declined to publish his salary. I would estimate it to be between $300K and $200K. The salaries of the other journalists will be far lower, and most will be intern level pay because the work will be done by journalism students.

- The non profit model is a problem. The point is to find a media business model that is profitable. There's plenty of 'non-profit' media businesses around, the largest local one is the San Francisco Chronicle.

- A philanthropist led news business is not a sustainable or reproducible model. Mr Hellman has done wonderful things with his money and his interests in the news business are commendable. But the way this venture is set up, it doesn't look like there will be much to be learned, or adopted, by other news organizations.

- This project will compete with local media organizations that are trying to create for-profit news media business models. Having a very well financed competitor, with it's saintly 'non-profit' status will suck revenues away from them.

We need media business models that are viable, profitable, and self-sustaining - without relying on philanthropists, cheap labor from J-schools, and expensive consultants. That's where Mr Hellman's money should be going, imho, to develop reproducible news media business models.

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Please see:

Here is a PearlTree - a visual organization of web pages related to this story:

 Bay Area News Project 
The Bay Area News Project // FAQ

A new convert to nonprofit journalism out west? » Nieman Journalism Lab


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