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July 3, 2017, 7:41 a.m.
Business Models

Two years in, state government site CALmatters is collaborating to make a name for itself

“Looking ahead, we are at something of a pivot point. For our mission purpose of just informing voters, does it matter if CALmatters wrote a story that appears in the L.A. Daily News?”

A new era has risen in California politics, and CALmatters plans to be there to cover it.

Two years ago this summer, a small team of seasoned reporters and California experts launched the nonprofit journalism venture to serve as an explanatory hub for ordinary citizens interested in how the capital works and why it matters.

With the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as president, the mission took on a new level of urgency when Trump claimed California was “out of control.” CALmatters launched a project called Trump v. California, highlighting the punches thrown by the president against the heavily Democratic state, issue by issue.

But as most of the battle takes place on the national stage, CALmatters keeps a close eye on everything local — such as a wide open governor’s race next year.

“We’re growing into a package of what people want to know about at the state level in California,” said David Lesher, the editor-in-chief, CEO, and co-founder of CALmatters. Marcia Parker is the publisher.

Trump v. California is only one of the site’s many Policy 101 initiatives, including a report card on the state’s public school spending and its relation to the achievement gap; an award-winning series going back to basics on the pension system; a guide to 15 propositions on voters’ ballots last year detailing supporters, opponents, and where the money behind the campaigns came from; and a boatload of stories on the effects of climate change policy in California.

Most of these projects are juggled by the 12-person team, which recently expanded by bringing longtime Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters onboard, alongside collaborators at 90 statewide media outlets like KQED in San Francisco, Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, and the Los Angeles Times. Now CALmatters hopes to continue cementing its status as a civic coverage hub by making sure its own name gets out there through its collaborations.

“In our first two years, our priorities were putting together a really good team of journalists and getting the operation going, and also developing relations with the traditional media around the state. Looking ahead, we are at something of a pivot point,” Lesher told me. “For our mission purpose of just informing voters, does it matter if CALmatters wrote a story that appears in the L.A. Daily News? It’s important that we know that we’re reaching voters. It’s important that we get it out to as many people as we can.”

Balancing resources is something Lesher is familiar with from his previous stints as director at two California policy institutes as well as a longtime writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times. Building a media organization from scratch, however, was different.

“We started out with plans for building a pretty big comprehensive database at the beginning, and that did not work,” he said. The original conceptualization involved a network of information on the policy making process: “every legislator, every vote, every contribution, every bill, all the interests groups behind the lobbyists.”

Lesher and the CALmatters team realized they were in over their heads. “We had a kitchen cabinet of reporters helping us figure out what types of data sources would tell those stories, and it was very ambitious,” he said.

CALmatters has been adjusting to its size and limitations, even as it grows. Two years ago, the former president and cofounder of CALmatters Kaizar Campwala, now of AJ+, told Nieman Lab that the nonprofit had already raised almost $3 million of its $5 million goal to supply a budget for the first three years.

Now, Lesher said, CALmatters is at a budget of $2.2 million and on track to grow next year, with a base of individual donors and grants from the Knight Foundation and the Irvine Foundation. Small-amount donors also helped CALmatters raise $60,000 in its 2016 year-end drive. There are plans in the works to develop a formal membership program with the News Revenue Hub and build audience engagement through tools by Hearken and Spaceship Media.

“Some of the collaborations we’ve been doing could not have been done just two years ago,” Lesher said. “It’s still pretty difficult work to reach audiences and grow a base of support, but there’s a lot of help and tools there that are still fairly new.”

Photo of California state flag by Håkan Dahlström used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 3, 2017, 7:41 a.m.
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