Michael Stoll persists in vision to create a public-radio-style newspaper despite lack of funds

This is the third of four profiles of journalists at nonprofit news startups.

Michael Stoll
Michael Stoll

Michael Stoll started his nonprofit, noncommercial investigative news venture from scratch in 2008. Stoll was an experienced reporter living in the Bay Area during the painful shrinking and transformations of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner. He had reported for established newspapers and at the nonprofit, "Grade the News," which was affiliated with Stanford University.

After teaching for two years at San Jose State University and the University of San Francisco, he "started gathering together some folks to talk about a public radio–style newspaper, to do some interesting things with an interesting model."

His idea was to create a local news source with hard-hitting stories, which financially pinched local newspapers might no longer have the time and space to cover. He would focus on investigating local issues related to public policy, housing, healthcare, homelessness, human rights, the environment, sprawl, labor, police, domestic violence – all things readers would want to know about their own backyards, neighborhoods, cities, and region.

Screengrab of the San Francisco Public Press website.
Screengrab of the San Francisco Public Press website.

Stoll and his business partner, Lila LaHood, a former business writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and also a Columbia J School graduate, organized the website as the San Francisco Public Press. In 2010, they started publishing a quarterly newspaper with the most important and best of what reporters for the Public Press and their partner media organizations had produced in the past several months.

Having that paper copy makes the news organization "more than a 'fly-by-night' opinion website," Stoll says, and it also allows them to "cross the digital divide, to [reach] people who are not plugged in all day or want to unplug." Print issues cost $1 and are sold at cafés, newsstands, and grocery stores, and given away free at community centers. The day I spoke to Stoll, he was about to head over to the group's table at a local fair, where he would be handing out the newspapers "free in exchange for email addresses, so we can spam them," he said half-jokingly.

The Public Press, now a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN, which started out as the Investigative News Network), consists of a network of partners, all nonprofits, and is meant to "bolster public broadcasting [and] local newswires." Stoll explains that the partners engage in "content exchanges: we take the best of what they do and publish it, and excerpt it online. ... We go from project to project. We plan 6 to 9 months out and structure [the published editions] like a small magazine," with front-of-the-book short news bites and longer features.

The organization is run by: a part-time business manager, editors, freelance reporters, and interns, who put together the web page and print publication. "That's the value of the good we buy as a nonprofit: bartering content," Stoll says, noting that city's flagship NPR station, KQED, is a partner, among others.

He also says they rely heavily on people with jobs in the mainstream media: "busy freelance or full-time journalists collaborate with Public Press to get a team environment, or the chance to [have their own] creative process, interns, multimedia … and more in-depth reporting projects."  Maybe they want to do database-driven projects or try something new, outside their beats. "They're willing to work with us. We benefit from that. But we do have to pay for that. So there's tension there."

The organization's budget historically has been small: the total for 2014 was $110,000. Stoll an LaHood are relying on the Public Broadcasting trust model.  They want to "work on small budgets relative to commercial guys" and "rely on [their] audience," Stoll says. Such an outfit needs only "seven to 12 percent of [its] audience willing to pay something per year to support you."

Stoll was reporting, writing and editing, but now must focus on fundraising. Email addresses don't pay the rent."Foundations are fickle," Stoll says. "The Holy Grail is local philanthropy, not a local individual or foundation, but [members to] create community," but that's easier said than done.

Stoll has a general sense from quarterly financials and the information gathered for grant applications that the organization is growing. "No one's asked for an annual report; [we take] opportunistic snapshots. If we spent all our time on [stats], we wouldn't have time to do what we do… We just do awesome stories."

Public Press has enough funding to support 4 to 5 part-time people, but Stoll does not have enough to cover salaries. The rent for the organization's small office in downtown San Francisco is $12,000 a year. The group's distribution manager is also a part-time administrator with another company; the design director has a full-time job and works for Public Press nights and weekends. A part-time editor waits tables at an upscale restaurant.

Stoll is in the office every day, unpaid. When he started, he says, "I told myself I would have to bring in $150,000 in a year to pay myself. I was teaching, editing part-time for the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). I am currently not working. This is still a garage startup."

My question was, after more than five years of garage-startup status, when would the organization be sustainable? When would Stoll be able to draw a salary?

Stoll himself is more philosophical. In the long term, life on Earth is not sustainable.  So in what time frame and what scale, he asks, should Public Press be sustainable? "I would say that 'sustainable' means that it's still around and can keep going, regardless of how you get there," he says.

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