Where We Are This Week, and What You Can Do About It

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday March 18, 2010 - 01:00:00 PM

It’s time for a bit of housekeeping, to clear up questions we’ve been getting around town and in letters. Many faithful Planet readers have inquired about the absence online of familiar features they knew and loved in the printed paper. In the last few weeks we’ve gotten a better understanding of the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves, and now it’s time to share it with the public. 

Because of the theft by a payroll preparer of approximately half of the taxes which the Berkeley Daily Planet Limited Liability Corporation was supposed to have paid on behalf of up to 20 employees over a period of seven years, attorneys advise us that the corporation can no longer pay for anything until the extent of its tax liability is understood. The standard analysis is that every dollar that comes into the corporation has the IRS’s name on it until proven otherwise.  

The approximately $50,000 contributed to the Fund for Local Reporting by almost 400 friends of the Planet was fortunately paid out to reporters before the IRS problem materialized. But if we continued to sell ads or even raise funds any other way, all of the proceeds would have to be held in reserve against the possible taxes owed. 

Nor should Becky and Mike O’Malley start a new corporation using our personal funds to publish the paper as before, even if we wanted to. That might be viewed by tax authorities as an effort to evade the responsibilities of the Berkeley Daily Planet LLC, the lawyers say. So we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.  

And the really bad news is that it’s expected to take years for everything to be sorted out. 

There’s been a rumor in circulation that the online paper will soon stop. It was started by a writer who mistakenly interpreted our inability to pay him as inability to put out any kind of online publication. 

Most of the people who contributed the work which produced the printed Planet were paid, as they should have been, and we have no legally advisable way to pay them any longer, that’s true. The calendars, for example, much appreciated and much missed, required perhaps 3/4 of the time of one full-time employee, thirty hours a week, and there’s no way we would be able to pay for that under the circumstances. 

So what’s been in the online paper the last two weeks? Those valiant souls whose bylines you’ve seen have contributed their work for the time being while we tried to figure out what might be done to pay them legally. Others have, quite reasonably, preferred not to work without being paid.  

Mike and I have always worked for free. 

We can probably continue to put out a pretty good online paper with volunteer labor for a while longer, thanks to our community-minded contributors. The opinion section has always been one of the best-read parts of the paper, and writers there have always worked for free. In the brave new world of citizen journalism, it’s even possible for excellent news reporting to be done by unpaid reporters, especially if they have editorial supervision and advice.  

Fred Dodsworth’s story last week about unpermitted building projects at the home of two councilmembers’ aides, one of whom is a Zoning Adjustment Board commissioner, is a fine example of the quality of reporting that can be done by independent community journalists. And no, he wasn’t paid to do it. 

A couple of stodgy readers were shocked by his sarcastic style. They must be too young to know about the “new journalism” revolution which started in the sixties, or so old that they’ve forgotten about it. The story has been widely copied by competitors since it came out, and that’s partly because of its biting tone .  

As I said in an Editor’s Note appended to the story on Tuesday, the Daily Californian in re-reporting this story mistakenly referred to it as an "op-ed". Fred's story is not an op-ed—it’s a hard news story written from a personal perspective. The information in the story came from an anonymous tip to the Berkeley Daily Planet, which was then checked by two independent citizens who follow planning issues, and only then turned over to Fred, an experienced independent journalist with a long professional resume, who did one more check to be sure of the facts.  

He added to the story by bringing in his personal experience and his son’s as reported in the Planet in 2005. This provided background for readers who have no experience with the planning process. But the story isn’t just opinion, it's facts checked by three knowledgeable people. 

The bottom line is that if talented people like Fred Dodsworth continue to step up to the plate we will go on trying to publish the Planet online on less than a shoestring. (Would anyone like to try their hand at a calendar, for example?) Please keep on subscribing,so that we know you're reading, and thanks for the encouraging notes with your subscription letters. 

Thanks to the new virtual world we don’t really need an office to do the work, but the rent on the office is paid up at least for a couple of weeks anyhow. Several people have suggested that the space would be ideal as a cooperatively run place for independent journalists to work—if anyone’s interested in that idea we’d be glad to put them in touch with our gracious landlords, the Sugimoto family, who have been very supportive in our difficulties.  

And it should be possible for a new entity, either for profit or non-profit, to raise enough money to set up some kind of print or online news source which could pay independent or staff journalists, but others would need to take a leadership role in organizing it because of our legal constraints.  

There are also multiple new projects paid for by various philanthropists and philanthropic organizations whose announced aim is to fill the gap left by the decline of newspapers. It’s too soon to see if they have any chance of working, but they seem not very interested in what used to be called local news, now “hyper-local” if it’s about anything smaller than a major metropolitan area.  

Could any of this come together to create a new news publishing organization for the urban East Bay? Does anyone around here care enough about local reporting to pursue such a project? Perhaps.  

There’s a lot of talent in Berkeley and beyond. If it could be done anywhere, it could be done here, we think. Someone should give it a try. We’ve done all we can for the time being.