Can Bay Citizen and other news start-ups revive Bay Area journalism?
That could eventually set The Bay Citizen apart — and provide a new model for daily journalism. The publication has pending agreements with a dozen local Web sites and bloggers, some of them well-established and funded, and some more homegrown efforts. It's also working with New American Media, which for many years has represented and encouraged ethnic news outlets.
Yet this isn't exactly a new idea. SF Gate, the Chronicle's Web site, has been running content from local blogs, including SF Streetsblog, for more than a year. But it doesn't pay for that content and so far there have been few discernible benefits for either side of the equation.
"That's been an experiment for us, but I'm not sure we see much of a return," Streetsblog SF Editor Bryan Goebel told us. "The question is how you make these partnerships sustainable."
That's a question he'll continue to explore with his newest partner, The Bay Citizen, which is promising to pay bloggers $25 for each post they run and to partner with them on larger projects. Although he's still waiting to see a contract from Weber, Goebel said, "The model Bay Citizen is using could potentially work."
Goebel needs something that will work. After 16 months in business, he said SF Streetsblog has 14,000 weekly readers and a loyal following among those interested in transportation and urbanism, but it's funding (primarily from two rich individuals) has dried up to the point where he's worried about the site's future.
"I was hired to be the editor, but now the onus is on me to also keep it going," Goebel said. "If the community likes this valuable resource ... then the community needs to step up and support it."
The Bay Citizen is also relying on that community-supported paradigm, using a four-part plan to pay the bills. At first The Bay Citizen will be heavily dependent on big donations. But Weber wants to see the operation transition to a more independent program that will rely on public broadcasting-style memberships (small donations), sponsorships (read: ad sales), and the sale of original content (syndication).
There's already been some grumbling in the local blogosphere about Bay Citizen, from noting the outsized salary of the project's president and CEO Lisa Frazier (a media consultant who led the search and then took the job at a reported $400,000 per year) to concerns about this big venture exploiting small local partners.
Frazier answered the salary question by noting that she has been working on the project for 14 months and emphasizing her business development experience. "This is a difficult problem we're taking on and we need to put together a sustainable business model," she told us. "It's about results and our fundraising response has been fantastic."
Another eyebrow-raiser is the background of The Bay Citizen's Chief Technology Officer Brian Kelley, founder of the Web site ReputationDefender, which promises to remove negative items from the Internet searches of its paying clients — an antithetical mission for news organizations that expose the misdeeds of powerful figures.
Kelley downplayed his former company's role in countering good journalism, telling us, "I do intend to take that knowledge here to promote our online content."
Weber said the new venture won't use its considerable initial resources to try to steal the show, and they're bringing something truly valuable to the local media scene: a paid staff of journalists to counter the steep declines in local news-gathering.
"Listen," Weber told us, "I was there for five years. I was running a little start-up with no resources. The last thing I want to do is hurt the smaller outfits. We think we can work together in ways that benefit everyone."