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Dec. 10, 2019, 10:09 a.m.
Business Models

Berkeleyside is launching a sister site in Oakland to help fill the void left by pillaged newspapers

“As we build out that newsroom, how do we prioritize people who have experience serving info needs in communities across disciplines?”

With a twin $1.56 million each from the American Journalism Project (as part of its first grantees) and the Google News Initiative, 10-year-old independent news site Berkeleyside is growing from “seven people in one room” to a nonprofit network of local news sites in the Bay Area.

Berkeleyside — founded in 2009 by Lance Knobel, Tracey Taylor, and Frances Dinkelspiel — is spawning a new sister site in Oakland, Berkeley’s neighbor to the south. That site — as yet unnamed — will be led by Tasneem Raja, an NPR and Mother Jones veteran who spent the last three years growing her own unique local news site in east Texas, The Tyler Loop. Both sites will be under an umbrella nonprofit currently being formed.

“Oakland is where I really relearned how to be a journalist, to be an American of color, a daughter of immigrants,” said Raja, a UC Berkeley grad who spent the better part of a decade living in Oakland earlier in her career. “That happened in a lot of conversations with people I met while l was out here working on reporting projects. This is taking lessons I learned at [NPR’s] Code Switch, building my own nonprofit outlet, and being able to apply that to this place. It’s not my hometown, but it really feels like home.”

Consider this a local journalism power couple: Both The Tyler Loop and Berkeleyside started as homegrown, funding-free independent outlets that put in a lot of groundwork to get to know their communities. (Raja moved to Tyler with her husband, data journalist Chris Groskopf. The Loop is now being passed on to community partners.)

For the past three months, Berkeleyside has been developing relationships around solving info needs in Oakland (led by Cole Goins, formerly of the Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal, and more recently with Raja on board) and plans to launch the new outlet in the spring with a staff of eight.

The Oakland site starts with an edge over Berkeleyside and The Tyler Loop: kicking off with millions of dollars in the bank. “Oakland is four times the size and sixteen times as complex as Berkeley,” Knobel said. “With lots of years of sacrifice, enormous energy, and will, you can bootstrap something in a city the size of Berkeley. We managed it — it’s not easy, but you can do it. I really question, if you want to do something effective and significant, whether bootstrapping would be something viable to do in the size and complexity of Oakland.”

“It’s an opportunity to start with robust resources that I didn’t have in Tyler to leapfrog those first few years of figuring it out and running on fumes,” Raja said.

Berkeleyside has had its own interesting model, starting as a for-profit with event offerings, growing membership engagement, and raising $1 million from 355 readers in a direct public offering setup.

Now, with 501(c)(3) status and ten years of local news experimentation under its belt, Berkeleyside’s Oakland site will become the third guinea pig in the Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project, which also funds McClatchy’s Compass Experiment in Youngstown and elsewhere and Archant’s Project Neon in the U.K. to build innovative local news sites from scratch.

The new funding from the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy organization launched this year with $46 million to invest in the business side of civic news organizations, will go to support the (also as-yet-unnamed) nonprofit parent organization — hiring a development director, product director, and more to help spread Berkeleyside’s reach into more sites in the future.

The outlet decided to transition to nonprofit status, Knobel said, after starting conversations about expanding to fill the need for journalism in Oakland. In 2016, the 142-year-old Oakland Tribune was folded along with several other nearby dailies into the East Bay Times — one of the more egregious examples of Alden Global Capital’s pillaging of local media nationwide. The East Bay Times is all that’s left of what were 12 different newspapers a decade ago; it currently lists only 7 reporters dedicated to covering news in Alameda County, which includes both Oakland and Berkeley and has a population of 1.5 million.

That conversation evolved as he, Taylor, and Raja sat down at ONA this fall and realized their shared interest in building more local journalism in Oakland, while Goins led a community listening tour. Berkeleyside has experience building a local news outlet and finding partners and an audience — but Oakland has its own context and culture that would be cultivated in a different way for a news outlet. The Google Search results for “Oakland tensions” shed light on some of the issues currently simmering: homelessness, gentrification, education, and more — but many of the results no longer come from purely Oakland outlets.

Longtime Oakland resident and former Oakland Tribune editor-in-chief — now the co-executive director of the Maynard InstituteMartin G. Reynolds has faith in Berkeleyside and Raja’s approach. “When they approached me about joining the board [of the Oakland site], my first question was…why are you the ones to serve Oakland in this way?” he said. “They were very humble about going about this in a certain sort of way…They were very clear that this needed to be a diverse newsroom to serve a diverse community.” (He joined the board, for the record.)

Here are the values that Raja and her eventual team in Oakland will work toward (full list with descriptions here):

  1. Learning and growing through a commitment to deep listening
  2. Building a newsroom that represents and reflects Oakland
  3. Sharing the mic with people and communities
  4. Supporting Oakland’s existing information ecosystems
  5. Reflecting the value of Oakland’s communities
  6. Protecting our editorial independence

If you think those sound more open than how journalism values are traditionally framed, you’re right. “As we build out that newsroom, how do we prioritize people who have experience serving info needs in communities across disciplines?” Raja asked, suggesting community organizing, teaching, libraries, and yes, other journalists. The listening tour will continue the next few months with a series of public events to build up both supporters and people who should and could be heard in the Oakland site’s work — discussing housing, policing, the school board, and more. And yep, that $3.1 million will be put to work right away to develop a membership funnel, which will be critical to the Oakland site’s eventual sustainability.

“We are beset by all the pressures and problems that everyone working in local journalism faces. We’ve been fortunate enough to raise a bit over $3 million to start this, but we think we need $7.5 million over the next few years,” Knobel said. “One of the things we have learned at Berkeleyside is [how to build] a strong and robust membership program. We see the next five to six months as a wonderful opportunity to start the membership program even before the site exists — encouraging people to join the campaign and be part of bringing new civic journalism to Oakland.”

And beyond that? “We’ve got our hands full launching Oakland and getting it right, but we do want to start some others sites,” Knobel said. “There are information needs all around us, which is pretty extraordinary given that we are in one of the wealthiest regions in the world.”

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2019, 10:09 a.m.
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