Hellman and partners to launch Bay Area newsroom

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By Steven T. Jones
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Warren Hellman was featured in the Guardian two years ago.

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 501c3 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 increasingly 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.

Comments

First he attends Burning Mannow this. Warren Hellman, a closet progressive?

Posted by Greta on Sep. 24, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

Will Ken Garcia be involved?

Posted by Larry-bob on Sep. 24, 2009 @ 1:21 pm
Bob

They should give Jane Kay a ring. Sad to see one of the Chron's best writers not filing daily environmental news for a mainstream source anymore.

Posted by Bob on Sep. 24, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

Just in case Warren is reading, my "Ken Garcia" comment is not to be taken as asking for his involvement. Just the opposite!

Posted by Larry-bob on Sep. 24, 2009 @ 4:10 pm
Posted by Kimo Crossman on Sep. 24, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

I am amazed at how out of work reporters are sucking up to Hellman who must be licking his chops at having purchased (and ruined) the name of what used to be a good journalism school. It is NOT okay to eat lunch with “sources” who spin you to write what they want and it is NOT ok for Hellman’s money to control a journalistic enterprise. Whatever happend to charging readers for investigative reporting? Hellman has basically ruined every public entity he has touched. Remember the UC-Stanford med center merger disaster? That was all Hellman.

Posted by Peter Byrne on Sep. 26, 2009 @ 9:03 am

Thanks for weighing in, Peter, but it's my understanding that Hellman will not have editorial control over this venture. And I don't think his seed money for this project constitutes buying the UC Berkeley journalism program, whose students will probably benefit from close association with a professional newsroom. Granted, there are many details to this project that still need to be announced, but the idea as I understand it is to have an editor in charge of hiring and content but ultimately answerable to a nonprofit board, just as most newspaper editors answer to a publisher. And that to me seems an even better model than existed at your old paper, SF Weekly, where both editorial policy and even the predatory, below-cost ad rates were dictated by the corporate bosses in Phoenix.

Posted by Steven T. Jones on Sep. 28, 2009 @ 8:43 am