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July 10, 2019, 9:24 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How CALmatters is growing out of its startup stage

“We’re Switzerland…We’re not anybody’s competitor. We’re in a good place to do good and raise money statewide and use that money for improving journalism.”

Four years ago, CALmatters launched as a new statewide, policy-focused, nonprofit reporting machine for California. Two years ago, the organization was building relationships with other local and regional outlets to grow its presence.

Now, it’s time to tweak a few things — starting with its business plan and branding as it steps into the role of “convener of journalism across the state.”

That’s how Neil Chase describes it. He joined CALmatters as CEO from Digital First Media’s Bay Area News Group in January, taking the executive baton from Dave Lesher who stepped fully into the other half of his role as editor. (Marcia Parker is still publisher/COO.) The first order of business was, well, creating a business plan.

“For an organization that started with an editorial focus and very generous founding donors, it wasn’t necessary to build up the business side any earlier — but it is now,” he said. CALmatters has a full-time editorial staff of 20 and four on the business side — not atypical for a nonprofit news outlet started by journalists in the past decade. But the news industry’s current state makes it clear not all good journalism will pay for itself, and so CALmatters decided to go in for some internal rejiggering.

And so it became The News Project’s test subject. Founded by longtime journalism executive Merrill Brown, The News Project (the name came from their initial corporate registration in Delaware and it stuck, okay) markets itself as a “news business in a box.” The company works with audience development tech company Piano, designer Charming Robot, website builder 10up, and others to outsource the backend tech work a midsize newsroom needs. TNP, which has raised almost $1 million from 18 investors including Automattic, also has an audience development advisor and several product folks on its 10-person staff.

“As the news ecosystem evolves and we move to a world of smaller newsrooms, those smaller newsrooms in order to be successful need to have the same capabilities large newsrooms have, at a price point that makes sense for their business models,” Brown said.

The company has built more than 70 templates for different news site elements, according to product head Miguel Ferrer, and has a scoring system for business goals to translate them in real-time to the rest of the news organization. “The box is inclusive of the CMS, security side, engineering capabilities, newsletter campaigns, and the know-how of editorial workflows,” he said.

There’s no shortage of startups and tools trying to help news outlets make the transition: Pico is attempting to build a comprehensive CRM, the News Revenue Hub and WordPress are developing Newspack for local sites, and the Washington Post’s Arc Publishing has become a go-to CMS for larger media organizations. (Vox Media’s Chorus is working on it too.)

The News Project is aiming for those publishers in the middle. It’s previously worked with Opioid Watch (which has since stopped publishing) and is in early stages with ThinkProgress, Brown said (the site is now up for sale). (It’s hard to grab hold of a potential client long enough for them to stay in business these days!) The Associated Press has also partnered with TNP to hook up the latter’s customers’ content with AP-classified feeds.

CALmatters decided to go for an overhaul, replacing its ripped-typewriter-paper logo for a more lean, state-outline image. (It “reflects the sun, sky, water and land — and bright optimism — that is California.”) The homepage is shuffled around, too.

Before:

After:

And that’s just skin deep: TNP also helped CALmatters migrate to the latest Gutenberg-powered version of WordPress and add in newsletter nudges to grow its membership program beyond its roughly 1,000 current participants in a state with 40 million people.

“A lot of the stuff on the site was homemade and worked on most browsers but not all. It worked well this way, but not this way,” Chase said. “This is more resilient, less ‘hey, the system’s down.’ We’re just growing out of that initial level of tech startup-ness.”

Support from the Knight Foundation, on the guinea-pig condition of reporting back how the process worked, helped CALmatters pay TNP’s bill. The current rate card — Brown stressed that it is negotiable — asks nonprofits to pay $25,000 at launch and $5,000 a month for supporting services. The price for for-profits is double that, $50,000 at launch and $10,000 per month.

CALmatters hit $3.5 million in revenue last year, with about 75 percent of that coming from individual major donors. They’re trying to diversify with community foundations, other local and national foundations, policy-focused events, and a more built-out membership program.

The site’s reporting has continued to grow through its state capital coverage, explainers, and election guides. Its 180-member partner network first brought Chase into contact with CALmatters, which he now sees as a place to make more of a difference in the state’s local news crisis than at the hedge-fund–owned Mercury News.

“We’re Switzerland,” he said. “Rather than build an empire with bureaus across the state, we are testing out the funding of adding reporters to existing newsrooms [with a Report for America initiative]…We’re not anybody’s competitor. We’re in a good place to do good and raise money statewide and use that money for improving journalism.”

Photo of the California State Capitol’s dome by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 10, 2019, 9:24 a.m.
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