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Feb. 27, 2014, 2:56 p.m.

Cut loose by UC Berkeley, hyperlocal site Mission Local looks to spin off as a for-profit

Once lauded as an early example of the teaching hospital model of journalism education, Mission Local will now fend for itself outside the j-school.

Five years ago, in the worst days of the economic collapse, Len Downie and Michael Schudson wrote their benchmark report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” attempting to chart a course forward for a news business in trouble. One of their major recommendations was that universities should become more engaged in producing reporting for their communities. If their teaching hospitals could both train future doctors and serve the public’s health, why couldn’t journalism schools fill some of the holes newspapers were leaving behind while training future reporters?

One of the examples Downie and Schudson cited favorably was the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where journalism students were “reporting in several San Francisco area communities for the school’s neighborhood news Web sites.”

While some j-schools have embraced the teaching hospital model, this week Berkeley announced that one of those neighborhood sites, Mission Local, would no longer be attached to the j-school. Instead, it’ll be spun off at a private entity with a less-than-certain future, no longer getting student reporters as part of the school’s course offerings. Dean Edward Wasserman said in a memo that the move was prompted by Mission Local’s cost and because it distracted students from the core curriculum of the program. The site, which covers San Francisco’s Mission District, will relaunch as a for-profit.

“It’s now time for Mission Local to take the next step and re-launch itself as an independent, stand-alone media operation,” Wasserman wrote. “That means ending its role in the J-School’s curriculum. While [Berkeley professor Lydia] Chavez would have liked to see the school keep the site, she is ready to assume responsibility for the site, and we expect that it will continue under her ownership.”

Chavez said the site will continue to experiment and try to find a sustainable model to support quality local journalism and provide young journalists learning opportunities. She said she’s in the process of seeking investors; she declined to discuss her plans in depth, as they are still in the works.

“It would’ve been wonderful to have this site, to have all of the sites, really continue to experiment and grow in the community that we’re in and to represent Berkeley, but you have have to have someone who is really strongly behind them, and the new dean is not,” Chavez told me. “He has other ideas that I’m sure will be exciting, so we’ll see what his ideas are.”

With funding from the Ford Foundation, Berkeley launched Mission Local in 2008 — along with a number of other sites covering other underserved neighborhoods in the Bay Area — to provide students with hands-on reporting experience in communities that are not typically covered by larger outlets. Whether the school will continue to support Oakland North and Richmond Confidential, its two other hyperlocal sites, is “up in the air at the moment” as the school reconsiders its curriculum, Wasserman wrote.

In his memo, Wasserman, who was appointed dean in January 2013, gave three specific reasons for ending Berkeley’s involvement with Mission Local:

  • It’s expensive: Berkeley pays to operate the site all year, even though the graduate class affiliated with Mission Local is offered only for the fall semester. “The curricular value to our students is limited or even, at times, non-existent,” Wasserman wrote. The rest of the time the site is run by a smaller corps of Berkeley students as well as a mix of students other local universities, freelancers, community contributors, and interns. “It was a fantastic educational tool, but it was not inexpensive,” Chavez said, adding that the program at Berkeley is quite small, with only 55 to 60 students per class.
  • It keeps students away from campus: Berkeley is “bulking up and enriching” its program with new courses, additional speakers, better career services, and more, Wasserman wrote. So sending students off campus for class is not beneficial to their education, he argued.
  • It doesn’t fit into Berkeley’s curriculum: Over the course of its existence, Mission Local has evolved into a full-fledged media organization requiring marketing, ad sales and other business side activities, which aren’t part of the school’s curriculum, Wasserman wrote. Mission Local has produced a print zine, it created an app that gives tours of the Mission District, and it’s even launched a Spanish language version of the site. “Those are specialized areas, and the J-School doesn’t have the instructional capacity to teach them to a Berkeley standard of excellence,” Wasserman wrote.

    He added: “What’s more, our students wouldn’t have the curricular bandwidth to learn them—not unless we pared back other areas, and redefined our core mission as something other than journalism education.”

Wasserman did not respond to requests for comment. (Update, Feb. 28: We did have a chance to talk with Wasserman after this story was published; see his comments here.)

The teaching hospital model has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, in large part because of the work of the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton and others in philanthropy who see local coverage as a useful extension of j-school’s educational mission. (Disclosure: Knight is a funder of Nieman Lab.) Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at American University, said that Mission Local has been among the best of its kind.

Schaffer lauded Mission Local’s frequent updates as well as its attempts to experiment with different products in various mediums. “Nobody else that I know of does that,” she said. “Nobody else that I know of does that level of content.” She said that sites like Mission Local are about “learning it on the ground. Learning it everyday. Learning how you distribute a hard copy newspaper, how many donations are coming, how many volunteers you need to make it work, how to write a grant proposal, how to sell an ad. Even if they’re not themselves doing that, just an awareness of that landscape is very valuable.”

Many, including a number of former Berkeley students, said they were concerned about how the school would replace Mission Local in the curriculum:

Still, Wasserman emphasized in his memo that the school would continue to prioritized educating students on the business of journalism as well as on “improving on what we’ve done in the past, and making sure the future offers opportunities here at least as rewarding and memorable as theirs have been.”

Photo of a Mission District mural by Gwendolen Tee used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 27, 2014, 2:56 p.m.
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