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Bay Area News Project has high hopes, few employees

A wealthy philanthropist has kicked in $5 million in seed money. A top management consultant has come up with a business plan. A renowned university will lend not only its students but research help. And the budding endeavor has a chief executive who will pull down $400,000 a year and one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers ready to give its future news offerings a home.

When the Bay Area News Project launches its website in late spring or early summer, it will be just the latest -- and perhaps the most ambitious -- nonprofit venture among a string of similar start-ups. Now all it must do is figure out how to provide coverage for a nine-county region, starting with only 15 employees.

Mainstream news operations have been stripped of journalism in recent years as outlets have hemorrhaged at least half of their reporters. But the San Francisco Chronicle, which has a news staff of 165, still dwarfs the newcomers.

That could explain why, when I visited the new news project’s recently named editor, Jonathan Weber, this week, I spotted a sleeping bag stowed across from his desk on the 23rd floor of a high-rise overlooking San Francisco Bay. It’s easy to get stuck late in the office when you’re figuring out how to save journalism.

From San Diego to Minneapolis to Austin, Texas, and points beyond, nonprofit Web newcomers have broken stories, carved out new niches and injected a bit of optimism into an embattled profession.

Most have not tried to replicate the kind of broad coverage that once distinguished newspapers and in some cases still does. Many of the upstarts have also failed to make sure they have the money, or a plan on where to get it, for the long run.

The Bay Area News Project looks poised to build on what the others have done. It has a shot at outdoing them on the financing front but will have its steepest challenge as it reaches for the sweep of old school news outfits.

Chronicle rival

Onetime philosophy student Weber, 49, seems to be summoning the proper Zen for the challenge. He talks about endless possibilities, but also about inevitable limitations.

“On the one hand, you want to have big ambitions,” Weber explained from his office, a stylish but spartan space donated by a San Francisco law firm. “On the other hand, you don’t want to be presumptuous about what you can do with a small newsroom. I don’t think we will be replacing the Chronicle any time soon.”

The 145-year-old Chronicle is like a lot of big city papers: diminished from the salad days before advertising and readers began to shift to the Internet. But even with only about one quarter of the editorial staff it once had, it’s still the dominant source of news for San Francisco.

Still, sharply diminished coverage by the Chronicle and other Bay Area papers prompted multimillionaire investor Warren Hellman to think about how to prop up journalism in his hometown. He considered, but passed on, the idea of buying the money-losing Chron. Instead, he promised $5 million to start a news website.

“Money is like manure. If you hold on to it, it stinks,” the banjo-picking, bluegrass-loving venture capitalist likes to say. “But if you spread it around, good things grow.”

High-priced CEO

Among those called in to help with the initial planning was a partner from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Lisa Frazier. She knows a little about a crisis, gaining acclaim for her work on the firm’s study of the emergency response to the 9/11 terror attack on New York City.

Cash-poor journalists have been grumbling since Frazier’s $400,000 CEO salary became public. But the investment will be worth it if Frazier, 40, can map out a long-term, sustainable money stream.

Although she’s still working out specifics, Frazier said she plans a four-pronged model she hopes five years out can bring in as much as $12 million annually -- with money coming from multiple sources, including public-radio-style memberships and syndication payments from news outlets that use the project’s content.

The New York Times has lined up to run stories in its twice-weekly Bay Area pages. That brings a certain cachet. It also brings challenges. Will the paper of record, known for somewhat formal prose, adapt to the colloquial, Web-friendly tone Weber prefers?

The editor worked at newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, before helping launch the business, tech-focused and now-defunct the Industry Standard magazine in the late 1990s. In his last job, he founded and helped run New West, a website on the Rocky Mountain West.

The Montana-based site has a certain Big Sky ambition and Weber wants no less for the Bay Area News Project (or BANP, which badly needs, and is pondering, its eventual name). He plans “a rich panoply of coverage” that makes the site “an agenda-setter for news in the region.”

The project will have to rely on paid interns from one of its partners, UC Berkeley and the Graduate School of Journalism, to provide some of that coverage. The university also intends to bring an R&D component. Any computer-driven newsgathering breakthroughs will be shared with other news organizations. “We are not going to solve this news dilemma on our own,” Frazier said. “We are going to solve it by collaborating with others.”

Optimistic editor

Weber has committed to covering public institutions like government, education and the law. But he conceded in a recent meeting with freelance writers that even this civic mandate would be an enormous challenge. And with a couple of other editors likely to come on board in a week or two, he’s yet to hire another editorial employee.

“You are launching when? And you haven’t hired anybody yet?” friends ask him. “Are you freaking out?”

Weber swears he is not. And that the weight of high expectations and hundreds of résumés is not crushing. He has the solace of living in the corner of the news biz that is talking about growth and the future.

“I think that in some ways we are kind of entering a Golden Age of journalism,” Weber said, “because the barriers to entry have been largely removed.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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