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Hellman's new nonprofit newsroom sparks hope

The Public Press
 — Sep 24 2009 - 7:25pm

Warren Hellman, a San Francisco financier, had planned to announce his intention to launch a well funded nonprofit Bay Area news organization — until someone else broke the news.

Hellman, The San Francisco Bay Guardian first reported, will be partnering with KQED radio and television, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism, and, "potentially," The New York Times.

Hellman told the Guardian and confirmed to a reporter at the Times that he will give $5 million to something called the Bay Area News Project, and hopes to hire two-dozen full-time reporters who will work in collaboration with Berkeley students, among others.

The organization will cover local news, politics and the arts, and it will also have a bureau in Sacramento.

Hellman expects to begin publishing stories next year. The organization will publish online, through KQED's radio and television stations, and possibly in a print edition included in the New York Times, Hellman told the Bay Guardian.

The deal with the Times has yet to be solidified, but Diane McNulty a spokeswoman for the company said in an e-mail to The Public Press that conversations “have been fruitful.” But she added that it is too soon to discuss details.

The announcement is a financial shot in the arm for the Bay Area media industry, which has been hit hard by a combination of a recession, migration of readers from print to electronic publications, and falling advertising income. In the last five years, the number of jobs at local news organizations shrunk by at least half. Just last week the Hearst Corp. laid off five employees from The San Francisco Chronicle.

“This is great, because money is coming into journalism in the Bay Area,” said Sandip Roy, an editor at New America Media, a nonprofit agency that has been producing news for years in collaboration with the ethnic press. “Warren Hellman is one of the luminaries of San Francisco. The fact that he is taking a proactive step and putting in money into the Bay Area is fantastic.”

“This is a great investment,” said Sandy Close, New America Media's director. “We need broad, collaborative and ambitious projects.”

But Close cited the need for a new type of organization that offers a spectrum of opinion and reports on traditionally under-reported communities. Without a diversity of reported opinion, “we’ll go to bed in Kansas and wake up in Oz,” Close said. “We’ll wake up and not know what is happening in our own communities.”

Hellman is the chairman and co-founder of San Francisco-based Hellman & Friedman, a private equity firm that has raised $5 billion in capital and invested in over 45 companies. He was also a member of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition team and economic recovery council.

The project has been in the works since the Chronicle announced in February that it might fold or sell the paper if it could not find millions of dollars in savings. Hellman has been working with the California Media Workers Guild — the Chronicle’s union — and hired McKinsey & Co., an international consulting firm, to do a summer-long study of alternative media models including nonprofit and collaborative approaches.