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Hellman and partners to launch Bay Area newsroom

San Francisco Bay Guardian
 — Sep 24 2009 - 3:09pm

San Francisco financier Warren Hellman -– in partnership with KQED, the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and perhaps even the New York Times – is about to launch a nonprofit, locally focused, online news organization with a medium-sized newsroom of full-time journalists, Hellman has confirmed to the Guardian.

Hellman says he will provide $5 million in seed money for the Bay Area News Project, which is about half the annual budget for a projected staff of about two-dozen journalists, and he expects to get foundation funding and perhaps even government grants for the rest. They are currently interviewing for a managing editor, which they hope to hire in the next month or so, and expect to go live sometime next year.

“We’re forming a new media news center. Basically, it will be a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) that will be source of Bay Area news,” Hellman said. “It will focus on local news events, including politics and the arts, the kind of thing that is just dying at the Chronicle.”

While Hellman launched his effort to revive Bay Area journalism earlier this year in cooperation with Hearst Newspapers executives, even publicly raising the possibility of turning the beleaguered San Francisco Chronicle into a nonprofit, that relationship quickly broke down and Hearst executives are apparently not happy about Hellman’s project.

But he said the Chron’s union, the California Media Workers Guild (which just last week suffered yet another round of layoffs at the Chron), has been very supportive of the project and helpful in its creation.

“The Guild has been fantastic, very, very supportive. They recognize that the world has got to change,” he said. Hellman said the partnerships he’s helped forge have been key to pulling the project together.

“We’re quite far along in our negotiations with the New York Times, which has wanted a local edition for some time,” Hellman said. The idea behind the collaboration is that news would be simultaneously published online (he’s still trying to secure a domain name), on the KQED radio and television stations and in a print edition that would be included in the New York Times a few days each week.

He said the full-time staff of professional journalists (which he estimated will number “two dozen or less”) will process information from a variety of local sources, including students from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “They will be sorting, sifting and editing stuff that comes from a number of sources,” Hellman said.

As far as a governance structure, Hellman said there will be a board comprised of KQED members (making up half the board), Hellman’s representatives, members from UC Berkeley (which is Hellman's alma mater) and perhaps representatives from other partners and local entities.

The idea behind the project is to create a nonprofit news organization that is not dependent on corporate advertising or control, although the exact limits on the kinds of funding that won’t be accepted is still being worked out. The editorial focus will be on San Francisco and the entire Bay Area, with a presence in Sacramento to cover state politics as well.

Hellman, the founding partner of investment firm Hellman & Friedman, has long been a big presence in San Francisco. His philanthropic ventures range from the San Francisco Foundation to leading various campaigns to support San Francisco schools. Although he was a longtime Republican (until he soured on former President George W. Bush) who has generally been allied with the downtown business community, he later worked with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and progressive groups on open space issues and became a more complex figure who was the subject of a Bay Guardian cover story.

“I’m starting this thing with $5 million, which makes it more expensive that the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival,” Hellman said, referring to the free music festival he hosts in Golden Gate Park every year, which is coming up on Oct. 2-4. Hellman has always been a huge fan of the music form and plays banjo with a band called the Wronglers.

Hellman has been concerned with the state of the local media, which has shed about half its journalism jobs in the last five years and fallen under increasing centralized corporate control, with MediaNews now owning the vast majority of Bay Area newspapers. Check back later for more on this breaking news story, including local reactions and comments from his partners.