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Finding, and funding, a way forward for local media

Written version of comments delivered at the Dec. 4 Public Press/ fundraiser-friendraiser party in San Francisco

I want to thank you all for coming. I think your presence here is a testament to the passionate belief of journalists and supporters of good journalism that a vibrant and independent press is essential to keeping our democratic system healthy.

  Download a PDF version of the event brochure.

But it's clear that for generations, journalists have been reluctant, even resistant, to thinking about the business side of their profession. The last year has shaken most of us out of our complacency, with the truly alarming consolidation of papers under the Bay Area News Group and cutbacks of hundreds of reporters and editors. Just today, Editor & Publisher said Wall Street ratings firms expect that several cities will lose their only newspapers in the next two years if ad revenues fall as much as 9 percent, as they predict.

So in the last year or two a lot of creative thinkers have proposed turning the whole business model on its head. That’s why we’re here. Philanthropy and audience support have worked well for public broadcasting for decades. Now is the time to experiment with these new business models.

Local nonprofit news Web sites are popping up all over the place. The Voice of San Diego, MinnPost in Minneapolis, and ProPublica, based in New York, are all nonprofit ventures that put public service journalism first. UC Berkeley now has six hyperlocal Web sites throughout the Bay Area staffed by students. KALW Radio launched the daily CrossCurrents news program this summer on a shoestring, and does awesome original reporting.

So The Public Press and Newsdesk are really about expanding the traditional definition of public media. Newdesk hopes to build an online syndication model with a national network of small bureaus, and the Public Press wants to build a local print-and-Web subscription model.

What’s really exciting is that local philanthropies are now getting in the game. We’re really excited to announce that The Public Press Project has received a $20,000 seed grant from the San Francisco Foundation to start doing original San Francisco coverage early in 2009, on topics like economics, cultural diversity, the environment, labor and public policy. This money will help us hire a part-time editor, redesign our Web site and maybe have some money left over for freelancers. So anything you can give will go directly into helping us hire energetic out-of-work professionals to do serious, hard news and investigative reporting in the city.

But none of this would have been possible without the help of half a dozen interns and more than 50 volunteers who will continue to run the project because they believe that a better way is possible if we create it ourselves.

Thanks especially to Lila LaHood, the Public Press development director, for throwing an awesome party, and thanks to the host committee, the Public Press steering committee and everyone who’s contributed to our lengthy and nearly complete strategic planning process. Please donate, and please volunteer one or two days a week starting in January, if you can, to help create something this town has never seen before.

UPDATE 1: Ward Bushee, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was interviewed on "Forum" with Michael Krasny the morning of our fundraiser, Dec. 4. He said the Chronicle, like other papers, was going to be relying more and more on the readers to support the cost of producing the paper in the future. Listen to him here:

UPDATE 2: Also check out a sobering article in Metro Santa Cruz by Public Press steering committee member Tom Honig, who was editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel from 1992 to 2007, when he laid himself off rather than make further cuts that the corporate owner, MediaNews Group, wanted to make.