January 23, 2018

When Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor helped dream up a local news site for their community nine years ago, they knew coverage from a nearby major newspaper was declining, but they never imagined how far down it would go.

These days, their creation, Berkeleyside, has strong support from its readers and advertisers as it covers council meetings and sirens around the college town of Berkeley, California. The big dog on the East Bay, the once-mighty Mercury News, has seen its staff plunge from 400 in the 1990s to 39 today. The Merc’s parent company, Digital First Media, announced this week that more layoffs would occur.

The flip in fortunes says much about the challenges of mid-sized papers, the perils of relentless staff cuts and the slow farewell to a behemoth from an audience that has found other ways to get its news. Berkeleyside is just one of several California news sites that have grown as traditional newspapers have declined.

“Nine years ago, we were just trying to fill a vacuum, meet a need,” Knobel says.

It’s funny to think that Berkeley, the articulate, self-concerned birthplace of the Free Speech movement, had become a “news desert,” with less and less original coverage, but that’s what happened. It might sound odd that Knobel, a former trumpet prodigy, Oxford grad student and onetime programming chief for the annual Davos Conference in Switzerland, would emerge as a champion of hyperlocal news. But Knobel, Taylor and co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel did, telling residents they would respond digitally with what they called “a local newspaper without the paper.” (Dinkelspiel and fellow Berkeleyside writer Emilie Raguso are pictured in the lead image above this story after winning San Francisco Press Club awards in November.)

The site sets about to get local news up fast. If people in the city of 120,000 hear a police helicopter overhead, they turn to the site to find out what’s happening, says Knobel, only half jokingly. By 5 p.m., 11,000 of them get their daily newsletter telling them what happened that day. If they’re hungry, 6,000 of them get their weekly Nosh vertical to tell them where to go in the East Bay. The Daily Californian, the University of California newspaper, has been a primary source for students from campus and is covering more city news, but Berkeleyside always has focused on the city’s permanent residents and workers.

Many of its residents are devoted to it. Knobel can call upon some of the city’s glitterati to help out, as when “The Three Michaels” — literary giants (and locals) Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan — drew 600 people to a Berkeleyside event. Some speak for free at the site’s annual Uncharted ideas conference, the cornerstone of an events program that generates about a fifth of Berkeleyside’s revenues. Another 1,200 people provide annual donations to the site.

In 2016, Knobel began a direct public offering — selling shares in the Berkeleyside.com to readers who wanted to sustain the site’s intensive local news. (Pollan did a video interview encouraging Berkeleyans to invest, noting that “the notion of free journalism is just not sustainable.”)

Berkeleyside has beaten its $800,000 goal, collecting $830,000 from 240 investors so far, and the site now is aiming for $1 million. The investment has enabled Berkeleyside to create a mobile-friendly site, add an education reporter and an ad sales person and have a fund to respond to unexpected events. Last year, Berkeleyside was able to hire photographers and videographers to cover what became a national story in its back yard — street protests against scheduled right-wing campus speakers with a flood of far-right and anti-fascist demonstrators.

For that diligent, hard-edged work, senior reporter and community engagement chief Emilie Raguso won the Journalist of the Year award in October from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter. (In her acceptance speech, she  acknowledges that the demands on a small, local staff don't allow for broad investigations full-time, but the rewards at Berkeleyside include the direct feedback and appreciation from readers.) In December, she challenged a subpoena to testify in a criminal case that, her attorney argued, could have had a chilling effect on other journalists nationwide. She ultimately was not asked to testify at the trial.

Other publishers have taken notice of Berkeleyside's efforts to gain the loyalty of its audience. In September, the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute awarded Berkeleyside a $60,000 grant, seeking to understand and to get a checklist and training for other local outlets interested in sharing ownership with readers.

“As far as I know, they are the only local media company to do this kind of direct offering in this country,” says Burt Herman, Lenfest’s director of innovation projects. “They’re a smaller, local publisher. Why can’t one of these larger regional newspapers do that as well?”

Knobel says at least one other outlet already is considering such an offering. Another publisher is considering a membership model along the lines of Berkeleyside’s traditional donor program.

Like many news publishers, Knobel says he’s gotten a bump from the 2016 election — and the subsequent challenges to the First Amendment, immigration and the constitutional balance of powers.

“There’s no question whatsoever that Trump’s election helped us enormously,” he says. “It wasn’t explicitly expressed, but many of the people investing in Berkeleyside saw journalism under attack.”

Many shareholders also cited the day-by-day utility of the site. “We’re still new enough that people remember a day when they had no idea what was happening at City Council or why are there sirens on our streets. We tell them,” Knobel says.

Berkeleyside is not the only local site prospering in the receding shadows of California’s traditional media outlets. Others include Noozhawk in Santa Barbara and, north of the Bay Area, the Lake County News and the Mendocino Voice.

“There are things like us, popping up here, there and everywhere,” Knobel says. The Athletic, a startup that lured away many of the Mercury News’ sportswriters, has become indispensable to Bay Area sports fans, he says.

In some areas, the local coverage may be better than ever, says Matt DeRienzo, executive director of the Local Independent Online News Publishers, a national organization dedicated to supporting local journalism entrepreneurs. (Berkeleyside is one of the group’s 200 members).

“Berkeleyside simply covers Berkeley better than any newspaper has for a long, long time,” DeRienzo says. “That's the starting point for their success as a business, but they've also been highly transparent and engaged with readers about their journalism and about the resources involved in doing it. That has convinced readers to support the site through voluntary paid memberships. And of course, a highly engaged local audience is a great selling point for advertising as well.”

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Journalists need to learn how to ask for money: Lessons from Berkeleyside’s DPO (Local News Lab)

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