Reporting the Hard News: Your Help is Needed

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday June 29, 2010 - 11:34:00 AM

So, the dust has finally settled around here. Mike O’Malley (heretofore “The Publisher”, now “Chief Technical Officer”) and I are more or less smoothly ensconced in the routine of online publishing.Because we have been advised by our lawyer to wait and see what taxes the Berkeley Daily Planet LLC might owe (after our payroll service absconded with payments intended for the state and federal governments) we’ve been working for free (which is fine with us) without employees (somewhat harder).. In the past couple of months, we’ve been gratefully publishing work contributed by public-spirited Berkeleyans, both professional journalists and passionate amateurs, who haven’t been paid either. Now it’s time to ask the readers for their help in improving what’s here. 

We’ve been very pleased with the success of one new idea, creating printable pages (“PDFs”) from the online copy.These PDFs are posted every week on the website so that anyone can print them out on standard computer printers.Greg Tomeoni and the other clever civic-minded people at Copy Central on Solano have availed themselves of the opportunity and are printing and distributing paper Planets for a nominal charge to cover their costs at several locations around town. 

Now we are equally pleased to announce that we’ve gotten the help of the William James Association as a fiscal sponsor of a new non-profit Fund for Local Reporting, which has the specific goal of paying independent freelance journalists to cover hard news about matters of local importance for the urban East Bay, with a focus on Berkeley. 

What is all too often ignored in the stampede to online publication is the question of who pays for newsgathering.It’s far and away the most expensive part of news publishing, with the cost of either printing or web publication far behind.Or rather, it should be the major investment, but all too often it isn’t. 

Increasingly, publications are doing little more than taking in each other’s laundry.The same soft feature may be published three times: in a local blog, in a metro paper, and finally in a national paper—and meanwhile the hard news goes unreported by any of them.Some online news sites rely heavily on links to other sites, but all that means is that a vanishingly small number of original stories are endlessly republished, and there’s still almost no real reporting being done. 

We were proud, last week, to be part of a joint project orchestrated with a long list of small publications by the very worthwhile organization Spot.Us in which investigative reporter Peter Byrne uncovered what looks like serious conflicts of interest on U.C.’s Board of Regents. This kind of collaboration works well for a story of statewide or regional interest, but is not as useful for covering small cities like Berkeley.  

Advertisers are by and large no longer interested in local news sources, if they ever were.Many publications have experimented with various forms of subscriptions and pay-per-view schemes, but so far none have worked at any level. It seems clear that if local citizens want real coverage of local hard news, they’re just going to have to pay for it themselves. 

That’s where the Fund for Local Reporting comes in.In the last year of the printed Berkeley Daily Planet, readers contributed almost $50,000 in a vain attempt to save it, which was much appreciated.Since the Berkeley Daily Planet LLC was not a non-profit, these contributions weren’t even deductable for the donors, which makes their gifts even more impressive. 

It’s clear that there’s strong continuing interest in Berkeley in some form of local “paper”, whether online or in print.Since we went online, we’ve been offering free subscriptions, and so far at least 700 people or households have subscribed.Now we’re asking Planet fans to think about whether they can offer tax-deductible financial backing to the FLR. 

Contributions will go directly into the pockets of the reporters, with the William James Association taking only a small percentage to cover their administrative costs. The berkeleydailyplanet.com website will serve as a free means of distributing the news stories funded by the FLR. The articles produced by independent reporters will be published first on this site, and can be picked up from there by other publications at no charge, either to link online or to copy for distribution in any form. Mike and I will continue to maintain the site without payment, and will work with independent journalists on assignments, editing as needed, and providing technical support. 

The Planet will also continue to be an open forum for ideas of all kinds, as it has in the past. No FLR funds will go to pay for opinion pieces or to support candidates for office.We will continue to welcome articles and graphics of all kinds freely contributed in the public interest.  

How can you contribute to the Fund for Local Reporting? 

1) You can send a check, cash or money order to: 

Fund for Local Reporting
c/o William James Association
P.O. Box 1632
Santa Cruz, CA 95061 


2) You can contribute securely online with a credit card using Google Checkout by clicking on the “Fund for Local Reporting” button at the right side of this page. 

The amount of money raised for this fund will determine how much news of local interest you’ll see in this space in the future.It’s really up to you, our readers, to decide. 

P.S.: Many readers will wonder if this is a first step toward resuming full-scale newsprint publication.Until our peculiar tax problems have been resolved, which could take years, Mike and I can’t be part of funding such an effort.The print-on-demand plan is working well with no help from us, so that’s probably the solution for dedicated print junkies in the near future at least.Here’s where you can now pick up printed copies in return for a small donation.: 

Tangerine Food Bar – 1707 Solano Ave
Harmonique Home – 1820 Solano Ave
Mo Joe Café – 2517 Sacramento St
7 Eleven – 1540 Solano Ave
Payn’s Stationary – 1791 Solano Ave
Copy Central – 1553 Solano Ave
Redwood Gardens Co-Op – 2951 Derby St
Berkeley Public Library – Shattuck & Kittredge