Can Warren Hellman Save Journalism?

By Becky O'Malley
Monday May 17, 2010 - 12:44:00 PM

It’s an unusual experience to go to a meeting and afterwards read not one but two reasonably accurate reports about what happened there. But since the one I went to on Friday was the latest installment in the ongoing saga of The Future of Journalism, it’s not surprising that at least two accounts were online before two sunsets had passed.

There have been many stories told in various places about what’s happening with Warren Hellman’s media baby, born as the Bay Area News Project but recently rebaptized as the Bay Citizen. I took my little spiral reporter’s notebook to the meeting which they hosted for a few of the Bay Area’s many blogs and online news organs, but I don’t think I can improve on these two renditions. 

One is the straight dope on what happened, with just the right edge of snark, written as a blog for SF Weekly by Lois Beckett. It’s surprising to see something so good in the often awful SF Weekly, and it’s even more surprising when you google the writer’s gold-plated bio (Exeter, Harvard Crimson, Nieman award, yadda yadda.)The journalism market is in a sorry state indeed if this is the best job she can get. 

And the other one’s a satiric column, on the Smirking Chimp site, from Bob Patterson, an old-timer who’s been around more than one block—you’d think there would be a solid job for someone with his experience too, but no more, no how. 

I will say that as a person with some business experience I was not one of those whose eyes sparkled when 25 bucks was mentioned as the—let’s just call it an honorarium—for the right to re-publish content on the Bay Citizen site and even in the New York Times. 

Bob raised a valid question: “Staff members from both the Berkeleyside and Berkeley Daily Planet websites were present and that brought up an interesting aspect of the new journalism venture: will competitors be comfortable in a co-op group?” 

Given the current crash of news reporting in general, it’s hard for us at the Planet to worry about competition. As Berkeley citizens who care a lot about outcomes, we think the more everyone knows about what’s going on, the better off we’ll all be. We appreciate any newsgathering efforts from any source—the more the merrier. 

We got into this in the first place because we were tired of nothing but oh-so-quaint Bezerkeley stories in the Chronicle, a phenomenon that has largely disappeared. I myself even enjoy a bit of soft-feature fluff coverage of food and fun, apparently the bread and butter of the Times’ newly launched Bay Area coverage, as long as it’s not All Cutesy All the Time. 

In the seven years since we purchased the Planet, real reporting on Berkeley and the urban East Bay has improved dramatically, even in the face of drastic funding cutbacks at what’s left of the major metro dailies. We believe that we contributed to that improvement by setting a new standard, breaking real news stories in our print paper that others copied. 

But fifteen years in a small software company trying to deal with the likes of AT&T, Microsoft and Apple gave us a good perspective on how big operations play small creative suppliers off against one another to keep prices down. I was primed for the software marketplace because before we started our company I was a freelance magazine writer, back in the days when the lively magazines which paid writers real money were just winding down. Talk about competition… 

The most depressing commentary on journalism today which I’ve seen recently was in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a theme issue devoted—like a lot of the contemporary New York Times—to Money.It was called, in fact, The Money Issue

(Brief digression: why is the New York Times increasingly the bible of Lifestyles of the Rich and Tacky?The wedding write-ups alone are too disgusting to read over breakfast, devoted as they are to ostentatiously displaying the lucrative jobs of both partners and their often multiple parents and step-parents. Vulgar—a word my great-aunt was too polite to use—doesn’t even begin to describe it.) 

The issue as a whole was a textbook example of chronicling the price of everything and the value of nothing. The article “Putting a Price on Words”, by Andrew Rice, examines a great number of start-up enterprises aimed at monetarizing—for the benefit of the investors, of course—the work of those who write for Internet outlets. Pay, he reports, is approximately pennies on the dollar: “For instance, Examiner.com, owned by the billionaire Philip Anschutz, has a gigantic audience and a nationwide army of 36,000 localized contributors, or “examiners,” who produce articles on subjects like community news, lifestyle issues and pets, and are paid about 1 cent per page view.” Quality has nothing to do with it. 

Hack writing gigs, paid by the word, are nothing new. I wrote abstracts of research papers for an academic journal about hospital administration in my youth—a younger friend wrote entries for an encyclopedia of religion in the 80s. But don’t confuse that kind of thing with news reporting, a serious profession best practiced by intelligent people able to make a living wage from their endeavors if they need to. 

Crumbs from the entrepreneurial table are not enough. Rice quotes one Sam Apple, the person behind one of the more earnest start-ups: “ ‘I have a friend who is a behavioral economist,’ he said. ‘He says that if you pay people tiny amounts, it’s worse than not paying them at all.’” But Apple admits he’s still paying writers what’s known in the trade as bupkes

I had only a couple of quibbles with Beckett’s otherwise excellent piece on Bay Citizen. Two color points she missed: the host's comment, without apparent irony, that rumors that reporters were being paid huge salaries are untrue (the rumors are about huge executive salaries) and the view of luxury gift emporium Gump's across Post Street through the huge plate glass windows. 

We would like to see the Bay Citizen succeed in the goal of bringing lower-case bay area citizens more of the news they need to know. From that perspective, especially since we’re lucky enough not to be supporting a family on the proceeds of our activities these days, we’d even be generous enough to kick back the $25 they offer for any of our pieces which they’d like to use. There was talk at the meeting of some sort of collaboration on stories which were too big for the underfunded small fry to tackle on their own, and I have about 5 of those in my back pocket right now. 

Of course, at the moment the Planet is not just underfunded, it’s unfunded, because of our strange tax problems (check Planet archives for lurid details). But it’s interesting that while we are in a period where all of our contributors are working for free (which we hope eventually to change) we’ve been getting excellent pieces from people we could never have afforded to pay what they’re “worth”. 

Even in our least profitable years putting out a print paper with staff reporters and editors making respectable salaries, our losses which were not covered by advertising amounted to less than the non-profit tax-deductible Bay Area News Project’s announced compensation for just one of their many well-paid executives, several of them listed on the Bay Citizen web site as former employees of McKinsey & Company, a fancy global consulting firm. I’m sure there’s a moral in here somewhere, but damned if I know what it is. 

P.S. Just as I finished this, I got an email from the SFAppeal online newspaper with a link to their story on the meeting. It’s also quite good and includes some very illuminating comments. For the record, when I wrote those nasty things above about the Chron and the Times, I didn’t know that the Berkeleyside principals were also associated with those publications. Big targets, okay, small targets, no.