The Future of Bay Area Journalism
... the days of 20% profit are long past
• • • • • November 27, 2023 • • • • •
Onn 11/14/23, KALW Public Media held a Town Hall on the future of journalism. The site was 220 Montgomery Street, KALW’s new community space and part of the City’s “Vacant to Vibrant” project to revitalize downtown.
KALW Executive Producer Ben Trefny moderated a conversation with San Francisco Chronicle Editor-In-Chief Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, KQED Managing Editor of News Otis Taylor, Jr., Mission Local Founder, and Executive Editor Lydia Chavez, and The Berkeley Scanner Editor-in-Chief, Emilie Raguso. The event was co-sponsored by the Nor-Cal Society of Professional Journalists, where Ben Trefny previously served as President. Some 60 people attended, despite the nearby APEC meeting’s impositions – including a startling disruption by raucous demonstrators for a Free Palestine.
How do you see the status of Bay Area Journalism?
Garcia-Ruiz noted that there is “no news desert” in the Bay Area, citing some 36 competitors in the news-gathering realm. Plus, local TV and radio stations are doing “good digital work." Chavez agreed; "lots of media - but not enough journalists on the ground." Taylor found the competition encouraging and is enthused by the many newsletters available. Yet, some areas are “under-covered," thereby providing opportunities to distribute reporters to cover them. Similarly, while working at Berkeleyside and scanning postings on NextDoor, Raguso identified “a hole in the market” – namely, public safety reporting. She echoed the need for more reporters, especially in courtrooms where she is often the sole journalist. The success of her membership-supported Berkeley Scanner highlights the “super-high interest in public safety and crime reporting."
Chavez, formerly a UC Berkeley Journalism Professor for 20+ years, explained that Mission Local started as a 2008 UC Berkeley project to promote hyper-local media outlets. Mission Local went independent in 2014, hired award-winning reporter Joe Eskenazi in 2017, and currently has a staff of 7 people. Training future journalists remains a key part of its mission. Readers provide 60% of revenues, while the rest comes from foundations and grants. Chavez recently hired a "Business Person" to take over the financials. Even with Mission Local’s impressive growth and impact, Chavez recently admitted that; “Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me."
That, of course, was the underlying theme of KALW’s Town Hall. Garcia-Ruiz described how the thinning of the SF Chronicle and the painful downsizing of its newsroom resulted from the loss of regional advertising revenue. Gone are the days of 20% profit margins. The newsroom has dwindled to 170 workers, thereby limiting news coverage. What was once “The Voice of the West” had to ration its coverage to the San Francisco region. The Chronicle’s sortie into audio journalism and podcasting had to be curtailed. Why? “No revenue” and, given the limited resources available, a “lack of growth trajectory."
Despite "constant transformation, changes in leadership structure and more diversity of thought," even the Chronicle is "in search of a business model," Garcia-Ruiz lamented. Meanwhile, the Chronicle’s electronic version, SFGATE, gets by as an advertiser-funded enterprise.
Emilio Garcia-Ruiz worried about the New York Times becoming a “huge competitor” in the Bay Area by “undercutting the market on subscription costs to $1/week.”
After working as an SF Chronicle columnist and then a stint in Atlanta, Taylor joined KQED in 2021 as its Race and Equity chief. Interestingly, while committed to “the cultural transformation of KQED," he preferred working with reporters rather than top executives. This bottom-up approach to cultural change involves deciding “how to frame stories” and “who gets to do the story."
Maintaining a community perspective can be challenging, particularly in the Public Radio sphere. There, per Garcia-Ruiz, the focus has been on older white people because they have the money to fund listener-supported radio. Revenue streams matter.
Is Competition Damaging Journalism?
Views were mixed on whether competition is harming journalism. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz worried about the New York Times becoming a “huge competitor” in the Bay Area by “undercutting the market on subscription costs to $1/week." Otis Taylor asserted that competition for a story can enhance the quality of reporting. However, competition among colleagues needs to be managed by supervisors. Lydia Chavez shared how her tenure at the New York Times showed that supportive newsrooms and staff collaborations are beneficial. Also, finding a “unique niche” sidesteps competition. Emilie Raguso also favored “camaraderie” over “cut throat competition” for news reporting.
Larger-scale collaborations could be helpful, but Garcia-Ruiz noted that anti-trust laws historically inhibited inter-media collaborations. Inevitably, Emilie Raguso noted, “big stories attract everyone," resulting in some redundancy. But media outlets have always competed to place their brand on breaking news.
A devastating aspect of competition is the emergence of social media. Studies have shown that around half of surveyed Americans get their news from social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (now “X”), among others. So, professional newsrooms have been raked by this diversion of eyeballs and ad revenue. Unlike professional media outlets, social media sites are not constrained by journalistic standards, fact-checking or journalistic ethics. Hence, the content can misinform. Citizen Journalism carries the same risk. Although social media can unearth important stories, the panelists urged a “trust but verify” attitude.
Ben Trefny identified another threat to journalism – parasitic or “vulture” hedge funds like Alden Global Capital. As reported by Julie Reynolds, Alden’s business model is to buy financially-strapped newspapers, gut newsrooms, and ransack assets like buildings and real estate to turn a big profit. Locally, Alden took over and flayed the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune, folding them into its depleted Bay Area News Group. Garcia-Cruz explained that the Chronicle is one of 30 businesses owned by the Hearst Corporation, and there's no indication that Hearst plans to relinquish it.
Sustaining Student Journalists
The panelists agreed that Journalism has always been a low-paying field. The call to public service sustains it. The best hope for fiscal support rests with foundations and philanthropy. Additionally, universities can be persuaded to pay part of the cost of internships.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough internship slots for interested students. For example, the Chronicle admitted just nine interns from a pool of 1,300 applicants! For Chavez, an essential attribute of successful students is; "being curious and finding stories." Garcia-Ruiz offered this tip; “pick the thing you are really good at. Don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none." Of course, supportive newsrooms are needed to develop budding journalists into pros.
For Emilie Raguso, the goal of journalism is; “providing information for making decisions – not advocating." To that, Lydia Chavez added, "to inspire people to engage in…civic life." Journalism training makes “a huge difference," helping to "avoid agenda-pushing."
Hope for the Future
Otis Taylor, Jr. sees opportunities in “partnering with outside voices, cross-pollinating to get unique stories." For Emilie Raguso, future progress means “hyper-local reporting” and “micro-projects” connected to community concerns. Lydia Chavez places her hope on student journalists. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz remarked that "communities will have to support local news." For that to happen, "media must engage and reflect the community."
Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter for the Westside Observer and a member of SPJ-NorCal. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
November 27, 2023