Media experiments

Can Bay Citizen and other news start-ups revive Bay Area journalism?

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The Bay Citizen brings big money and experienced journalists to San Francisco

news@sfbg.com

With traditional journalism outlets still struggling through the Great Recession and into an uncertain future, some interesting new media experiments have been popping in San Francisco, including much-anticipated The Bay Citizen, an initially well-funded newsroom that launches this week.

It will join a media landscape filled with a wide range of new ventures: general news websites ranging from the nonprofit SF Public Press to the theoretically for-profit SF Appeal; niche sites such as the popular SF Streetsblog; the Spot.us media funding experiment; and the MediaBugs accountability project. And it isn't all online — McSweeney's magazine put out the one-time San Francisco Panorama newspaper in December and SF Public Press plans to print a similar demonstration newspaper next month.

But for all the high hopes and talk of using strategic partnerships and new funding models to overcome economic and readership trends that have hobbled the San Francisco Chronicle and other big media companies, those who run The Bay Citizen and other start-ups still need to prove their worth and sustainability.

Whatever The Bay Citizen becomes, it will break new ground — nobody has ever put this level of money into creating a nonprofit, online-only daily newspaper in a major market, or had such significant media partners, ranging from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism to The New York Times, which will run the newsroom's content as its twice-weekly Bay Area section.

Some people think this is the future of journalism; San Francisco-based financier Warren Hellman, who provided the seed money, thinks it's worth $5 million or more to get the project off the ground. But since there's no model out there, the crew at The Bay Citizen will be making it up as they go along. And at this point, even with what most Web publications would consider a huge amount of money, it's clear that The Bay Citizen will not be replacing the Chronicle any time soon.

Jon Weber, the publication's editor, knows the world of mainstream daily journalism (he was a writer for the Los Angeles Times); the world of high-paced big-money startups (he ran the Industry Standard); and the world of low-budget fledgling operations (he founded the small online magazine New West). And the first thing he had to figure was exactly what this new online daily was going to look like.

With a staff of just six news writers — and a regional focus — The Bay Citizen can't try to cover breaking news the way the Chronicle, Examiner, or even Bay City News Service do. So the publication will be different from a traditional daily, with more enterprise reporting and less of the types of features dailies typically offer.

There will, for example, be no daily sportswriter. "There won't be stories on every game, every day," Weber told me. "We'll pick our spots with enterprise reporting." The Bay Citizen won't try to compete with the Chronicle on national or international stories, either: "It's a Bay Area focused site," Weber said. "That doesn't mean we won't cover national stories when they impact the Bay Area. But that's not part of our beats."

The reporters will cover land use and environmental issues; health and science; education and social issues; business and finance; crime; and government and politics. The politics reporter won't be able to cover San Francisco City Hall every day, either — he or she (that's the one slot still open) will have to stay on top of local and statewide issues.

But what could make the Bay Citizen truly unusual is the extent to which Weber plans to partner with existing local bloggers and nontraditional news outlets. "We hope we can be a supporter of the local media ecosystem," he said.

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