Nonprofit news is good news


Some of you have suggested that we ink-stained newspaper wretches seem like a bunch of charity cases. Now comes proof positive that you were (at least partly) right.

Every few days in recent weeks, there’s been a new report about the advance of nonprofit journalism in California.

Philanthropists big and small have stepped up to fill the financial void left as advertising -- and staffing -- at traditional news outlets has withered away.


Sponsors announced the biggest and most ambitious of the new nonprofit reporting endeavors last week as San Francisco venture capitalist, philanthropist and bluegrass aficionado Warren Hellman pledged $5 million to create a new journalism operation in the Bay Area.

That development came not long after organizers unveiled plans for a watchdog journalism start-up in Orange County and as another upstart expanded to Los Angeles, with plans to pay for community reportage by getting readers to donate $5, $10 or perhaps $100 each per story.

Nonprofit journalism’s newest players will be following in the footsteps of others, including the Center for Investigative Reporting, which this month kicked off its “California Watch” unit with a project that ran in more than 30 media outlets statewide.

It’s hard to imagine that at current scale the nonprofit upstarts will completely patch over all the news holes that have been left behind by traditional news operations that have hemorrhaged advertising dollars and top-flight reporters.

But readers can expect to see more stories from the philanthropic news teams picked up by for-profit media outlets.

It’s heartening to see smart people like Hellman -- whose donations have also supported free clinics, a killer bluegrass festival and the ballet -- acknowledge that good journalism represents another crucial thread in a city’s social fabric.


“This is a start-up and I’m putting up the start-up money, which has driven my family to maybe think they ought to appoint me a conservator,” quipped Hellman, a onetime Lehman Brothers exec, who said he had become concerned in recent years about declining scrutiny of the Bay Area’s government, arts and culture.

Although Hellman’s San Francisco venture is unnamed and potential editors are still being interviewed, the project has substantial partners in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and KQED, the public television and radio station, both of which will provide reporters and expertise.

A marquee platform for the new journalism could be provided by the Bay Area edition of the New York Times, which is in talks to carry the start-up’s work.

The 75-year-old Hellman said the news outfit must attract other sources of revenue to survive and thrive over the long haul.

“Now we have some substance, we have a plan,” Hellman said. “We can start to raise some money.”

In Southern California, the 5-year-old Voice of San Diego is a relatively venerable institution in the quickly expanding nonprofit journalism world. Like others in the field, its leaders have been determined to expand and diversify their financial base.


Editor Andrew Donohue said that 70% of the money today comes from foundations, corporate sponsors and citizen-members and 30% from the two founder-philanthropists who once paid for the entire operation.

The San Diego website has been careful not to let its financiers dictate news coverage, to assure that it avoids undue influence or conflicts of interest. Hellman also said it will be critical for him to keep his nose out of news decisions in San Francisco.

“You have got to separate church and state,” Hellman said. “That’s absolutely fundamental or you can’t get anywhere. You won’t be credible.”

Journalists at established news organizations tend to view the newcomers with both admiration -- thrilled to see growth anywhere in their business -- and irritation, because some of the upstarts won’t acknowledge that even diminished newspapers continue to do the bulk of news gathering in most corners of the country.

“From a competition standpoint, I think a lot of us say, ‘Bring it on,’ ” said Marisa Lagos, who covers City Hall for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a good thing for the business. And even with all the staff cuts, we’re doing a lot and still doing it well.”

The San Francisco nonprofit’s overseers can’t yet say how big their staff will be or where they will focus coverage, but they are suggesting a more comprehensive report than the government-centric offerings others have provided.


The Voice of San Diego website made its mark, for example, with a couple of investigations that took down sketchy city redevelopment officials. However, with a news staff of only about a dozen reporters, it doesn’t try to be San Diego’s “paper” of record.

Voice of Orange County, an unrelated start-up that hopes to post its first stories by year’s end, intends to focus a relatively small staff of six to eight reporters solely on investigative, public interest journalism.

The website, meanwhile, maintains no staff and no big-money supporter, but the Bay Area-based site this month began soliciting readers to make small contributions to pay for stories on Los Angeles. A couple of initial story pitches have been posted on its website.

With nonprofit journalism marching up the coast, you would think L.A. journalism’s own Daddy Warbucks would emerge in a tomorrow not so far away.

Billionaire Eli Broad bid to buy Tribune Co., which owns the L.A. Times, a few years back, and he has described news outlets as a civic imperative.

But after talking about how foundations might band together to get in the news business, the city’s top philanthropist has made no public moves to make that happen.


Hellman took only a few months to go from musing to mustering the big money. But he’s always been a bit of an iconoclast -- winning horseback endurance tests, running ultra-marathons, playing banjo and poking fun at himself.

Under a sprightly, awe-shucks facade, though, Hellman builds community with the fierce conviction of his forefathers, one of whom helped build Wells Fargo into one of California’s banking giants.

Participants will not soon forget the climactic meeting a few weeks back when they sealed plans to create San Francisco’s newest news outlet.

One person who was in the room recalled that when Hellman pledged his $5 million to get things started, he said, “It’s what my great-grandfather would have done.”

That will strike some in the hard-bitten news business as corny. But anyone invoking boom times, community spirit and the news business in the same breath gets a vote of confidence from this corner of the newsroom.



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