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June 8, 2015, 12:19 p.m.
Business Models

CALmatters aims to make people interested in state government and fill a gap in California

The new nonprofit news site has raised almost $3 million for explanatory reporting on state government and lawmaking. They’ve also been gathering advice — and advisors — from places like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

This is the idea: A small collection of journalists, with backgrounds in newspapers, broadcast, and years of investigative work, join together to create a nonprofit news outlet. Their mission: to fill the gaps in coverage on state politics and policy, the inner workings of government that send ripples far beyond the state capital.

Ideally, with enough hustle and reinvention, they’ll be able to support their enterprise through a mix of generous members, purpose-driven foundations, and maybe a little advertising (also known as sponsorships).

If the strategy for CALmatters sounds familiar — especially to those who’ve followed the rise of The Texas Tribune — that’s on purpose. Over the past year, the founders of the Sacramento startup have been consulting with journalists from news nonprofits around the U.S. on how to chart the best course for their fledgling organization.

They even hired one: Kate Galbraith, a former Tribune energy and environment reporter, is now a reporter for CALMatters.

The thing that continues to set small news nonprofits apart is the focus on mission and the flexibility that comes with being small, Galbraith said. “You get to hear about and be involved in some interesting early discussions, and that’s pretty exciting,” she said. “Then, also, to be a real startup, you have to answer questions like how does the printer work.”

The goal of CALmatters is to shed more light on the capital through explanatory reporting. The small team — around 11 total when they finish hiring — will focus on telling stories about issues like education, the environment, and prison reform in a way that spells out the costs and consequences of legislation.

“We’re going after a set of civically engaged Californians who feel very disconnected from their state government,” said Kaizar Campwala, the president and cofounder of CALmatters.

When CALmatters officially launches later this year, reporting from the staff will be available on their website, but also distributed through partnerships with newspapers, radio, and TV stations around the state. It’s another strategy borrowed from their nonprofit peers: build recognition, and hopefully an audience, by means of distribution in the state’s established media channels. But the staff of CALmatters is mindful of the fact that simply following the recipes of other news nonprofits is no guarantee of success.

Campwala says they know recognition, and readership, takes time. That’s why they’re trying to build as long a runway as possible. Campwala says they’ve raised almost $3 million of their $5 million goal to supply a budget for the first three years. That money has come mostly through fundraising from individuals and foundations.

As the current era of nonprofit journalism matures there have been a share of successes as well as stumbles, leaving plenty for new entrants like CALmatters to learn from. Just within California, the nonprofit journalism landscape has seen significant movement: California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, was ended after the center merged with the Bay Citizen in 2012.

What hasn’t changed is the need. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, the number of newspaper statehouse reporters fell 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. While some for-profit outlets, most notably Politico, have marshaled reporters to enter the state politics beat, nonprofits have been a big part of trying to shore up those losses.

In California, voter turnout reached a record low in the 2014 election. At the same time, approval ratings for Governor Jerry Brown and the legislature remain fairly high.

According to Pew’s study of statehouse reporting, California, the most populous state, had the second highest number of full-time reporters at the capitol, behind only Texas. But on a per capita basis, it has one reporter per 866,371 residents — the worst ratio of any state.

State Full-time statehouse reporters State population Population/
reporter ratio
Vermont 13 625,741 48,134
Alaska 8 710,231 88,779
Wyoming 6 563,626 93,938
Montana 8 989,415 123,677
Idaho 12 1,567,582 130,632
Rhode Island 8 1,052,567 131,571
North Dakota 5 672,591 134,518
Nebraska 11 1,826,341 166,031
Maine 8 1,328,361 166,045
Hawaii 8 1,360,301 170,038
Oklahoma 17 3,751,351 220,668
Connecticut 16 3,574,097 223,381
New Jersey 37 8,791,894 237,619
Minnesota 21 5,303,925 252,568
New Mexico 8 2,059,179 257,397
New Hampshire 5 1,316,470 263,294
West Virginia 7 1,852,994 264,713
Delaware 3 897,934 299,311
Wisconsin 19 5,686,986 299,315
Iowa 10 3,046,355 304,636
South Carolina 15 4,625,364 308,358
Kentucky 13 4,339,367 333,797
Kansas 8 2,853,118 356,640
Ohio 32 11,536,504 360,516
Alabama 13 4,779,736 367,672
Utah 7 2,763,885 394,841
Missouri 15 5,988,927 399,262
South Dakota 2 814,180 407,090
Arkansas 7 2,915,918 416,560
Indiana 15 6,483,802 432,253
Massachusetts 15 6,547,629 436,509
Nevada 6 2,700,551 450,092
Tennessee 14 6,346,105 453,293
Louisiana 10 4,533,372 453,337
Virginia 17 8,001,024 470,648
Texas 53 25,145,561 474,445
Maryland 12 5,773,552 481,129
Arizona 13 6,392,017 491,694
New York 39 19,378,102 496,874
Michigan 19 9,883,640 520,192
Pennsylvania 24 12,702,379 529,266
North Carolina 18 9,535,483 529,749
Washington 12 6,724,540 560,378
Florida 33 18,801,310 569,737
Georgia 17 9,687,653 569,862
Illinois 22 12,830,632 583,211
Oregon 6 3,831,074 638,512
Colorado 7 5,029,196 718,457
Mississippi 4 2,967,297 741,824
California 43 37,253,956 866,371

Simone Coxe, cofounder and chair of CALmatters’ board of directors, hadn’t intended to launch a news nonprofit. “I thought I would find somebody and fund them,” Coxe said.

Coxe, who is on the board of KQED and Internews Network, said she originally wanted to direct funding for a state government reporting project to an existing media company. While a number of editors liked the idea, most didn’t have the capacity to graft a new reporting project onto their existing newsrooms, she said. Others, while already established as a nonprofit, either were not a good fit because of their mission or partisan identification.

Coxe, working with cofounders David Lesher and Chris Boskin, then began seeking advice from the broader nonprofit media world while also exploring funding options. A number of the early people they first consulted, ProPublica president Dick Tofel and John Thornton, cofounder and original backer of The Texas Tribune, now sit on CALmatters’ advisory board.

Gregory Favre, editor of CALmatters, said their job is to supplement the work being done by existing media outlets by using explanatory journalism to cover the big issues. “Our goal is that we hope to create more knowledge and understanding and clarity around issues that many, many people in California don’t know anything about,” he said.

Favre, a former editor of The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy, said they don’t expect to be producing daily stories in the beginning, focusing instead on investigations and explanations. Galbraith said CALmatters, much like the Tribune, is trying to keep the needs of readers in mind when they pitch and produce stories. “Not just what do they want to read, but what issues are important that they should be learning about,” she said. “And how can we present it in a way that is meaningful to them?”

On top of explanatory reporting and deep dives into policy, CALmatters also intends to make extensive use of databases. Specifically, Campwala told me they’re developing a tool that would allow Californians to explore bills and legislators in depth. Combining more than two dozen datasets, the tool could paint a picture of the legislative process, showing how your state representative voted on certain items, their committee assignments and bills sponsored, and what people and organizations have provided them with funding. They plan to roll out the database as a beta to journalists first, followed by access to the public.

“What we’re trying to do is explain the policymaking process a little bit and explain how outcomes happen for people who don’t live in Sacramento,” said Campwala, who joined CALmatters from Stitcher.

From a product standpoint, Campwala said they want to emphasize utility, making data easily accessible and giving readers options to follow specific stories and topics with a single click. Campwala said that also extends to the idea behind the distribution partnerships with other media outlets. “We have to be user-centric,” he said. “The whole reason to do these distribution partnerships is because that’s where the audience is today. To reach people, we have to find them where they are.”

It makes a kind of sense that CALmatters is closely modeling itself on the Texas Tribune. Their coverage area is similar, focusing on government in two of the largest states, with populations that rival small countries. It also doesn’t hurt that both states have high concentration of wealth, which makes for ample targets for funding.

The path the Tribune has laid out also provides examples of the challenges CALmatters could face as it tries to grow. One area is audience development. Last year, as the Tribune reached the five-year mark, the staff surveyed their readership and found they had captured their base of politics junkies and insiders, but noted a lack of readers outside of Austin.

On the business side, the Tribune has found success by being “aggressively entrepreneurial” when it comes to creating multiple sources of revenue. That includes a blend of earned revenue from events and sponsorships as well as donations from individuals and foundations.

Coxe said they know there is no silver bullet for sustainability. After the initial three years of funding, Coxe said they’ll need to have a combination of revenue sources to succeed. She said they’re open to holding events and conferences, but knows those aren’t guaranteed moneymakers. In the abstract, they know their funding will come through philanthropy as well as reader donations. One area they’re targeting for funders: Silicon Valley. Coxe said they hope CALmatters’ mission of transparency and innovation will resonate with the people who run — and fund — technology companies.

“If you want to solve problems, you have to engage with government, and media helps with that,” Coxe said.

Photo of a window of the state seal of California by Amy the nurse used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 8, 2015, 12:19 p.m.
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