Public Comment

A Community-Owned Daily Planet

By Matthew Taylor
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 07:59:00 PM

It would be a tragedy to lose the Daily Planet—especially Richard Brenneman’s reporting. 

I propose that the Planet become a KPFA-style, community-owned and operated nonprofit media outlet. If all Berkeleyans felt a sense of ownership, I imagine they’d be more likely to donate. This would not merely be a scheme to increase financial support. It would be a serious overhaul in order to broaden the content, broaden the audience, and involve the entire community in the creation and distribution of the Planet. 

The executive editor told me she sees the Planet as focused primarily on Berkeley’s older crowd; in other words, well-to-do folks who get worked up about land use issues. What the Planet does, it does well. At the same time, I think this focus to the exclusion of other priorities and audiences is a limiting factor in the paper’s viability. I imagine that folks from other backgrounds know there’s little inside the Planet’s pages for them, and they steer clear. 

If it is to survive and thrive, I believe the Planet must serve all Berkeleyans, including younger people, college students, folks who are newer to the area, and those who are diverse in age, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. KPFA offers a diversity of content, so can the Planet. 

Here are a few ideas: 

• Become, at least in part, an alternative to the Daily Cal. The Planet has played that role to an extent, thanks to Brenneman’s thorough and invariably exclusive reportage on major UC issues like the BP deal and the oak grove. The commentary pages have also provided an alternative to the Daily Cal’s pro-administration sycophancy. Still, there’s a lot more that could be done. The progressive student community is disgusted with the conservative Daily Cal’s boot-polishing propaganda. Witness for example the Daily Cal’s editorial board coming out in favor of UC’s development of nuclear weapons! (See “Losing a Legacy,” Feb. 17.) Progressive students have talked about starting an alternative paper to tackle a range of UC issues beyond what the Planet currently covers as well as to provide some level of critique/oversight to the Daily Cal, but that’s an enormous endeavor for overworked, transient students. The Planet could provide space and institutional support for progressive student journalism at UC. If students write the Planet, students will read the Planet. 

• Humor. For years, I picked up the East Bay Express for one thing only: Dan Savage’s column. Not because I wanted advice on my love life, but because Savage’s sex column is hilarious. 

• Design: the Planet is too text heavy. Many of the articles could be edited, and open up room for photos. More images would make the paper more engaging. Certainly the online version—where space is theoretically unlimited—should have lots more photos and images. 

• Coverage of the arts and events that appeal to young people. Yes, the Bay Guardian does this well at times. Why not the Planet? Where’s the coverage on Burning Man parties, dance jams, cultural and social events for those in their 20s and 30s? 

Those are just a few starting ideas. Most important: ask. What do people want? For those who currently don’t read the Planet or don’t really care about it, what content would get you excited? 

On distribution: The more the community is involved in contributing and guiding the direction of the Planet, the more likely people are to e-mail links to Planet stories to their friends, thus driving readership, interest, and financial support. 

In terms of the web/print dilemma, I think the Planet’s future—like much media—is on the web. On a website, space should be no constraint, so adding more content does not necessarily involve sacrificing something else. The print edition should be more balanced between new kinds of content and the Planet’s traditional content, with only the very best in print and the rest on the web. 

Speaking of which, the website needs a serious redesign if it is to appeal to a wider audience. More than that, I think it needs to be completely restructured to become a more dynamic, interactive, community-driven format. Imagine that a community member is at a tense City Council meeting, and something important happens: they jump online, go to the Planet site, and blog about it. Others post comments. An interactive dialogue develops. 

The Planet’s barebones site offers little in the way of Web 2.0 features—like comments/talkbacks, ratings, blogs, videos, podcasts, social networking, etc. Functionally, it’s a 1999 website in a 2009 world. Look at how Daily Kos evolved from a blog created by a handful of writers, to a blog created by its readers. The Planet could take a cue from that approach. 

A community-owned Planet should bring in web gurus to devise a site that would truly meet the needs of a community-owned, community-driven media outlet. That doesn’t mean a community-owned Planet wouldn’t have paid staff news reporters—the average Joe can’t write a Richard Brenneman investigative report. We need both: paid news reporters, and community members who can dash off missives and post their own content. 

A caveat to all of the above: I’m not suggesting the Planet alter or compromise what it does well. The Planet shouldn’t sacrifice its distinctive, progressive voice. The last thing we need is yet another media outlet that kowtows to UC imperialism, Mayor Bates’ collaboration with said imperialism, or the right-wing pro-Israel lobby. 

What’s most important is that the ideas to save and restructure the paper come from the community. If the community is to finance the Planet, it should have oversight and shape the creative and editorial direction. 

Some might say that adopting the KPFA model is pointless, given the KPFA’s dysfunctional board. That would be like saying just because a given nonprofit has a dysfunctional board, being a nonprofit is pointless. The Planet should learn from KPFA’s problems and ensure that the governance structure is designed to maximize productive collaboration while upholding progressive principles and erecting firewalls to prevent disruption or takeover by agents provocateurs. 

If we own the Planet, we can save the Planet. 


Matthew Taylor is writing a book about the Memorial Stadium oak grove tree-sit.