KQED jilted by partners in S.F. news startup
The Bay Area News Project announced last fall as a next-generation local newsgathering collaboration is moving forward after dropping KQED, the San Francisco pubcaster that had been recruited as a founding partner.
The project needs to establish itself as an independent news organization, CEO Lisa Frazier told Current. “It’s a new company and, when you look across innovation in the industry, you see that innovation best happens in independent entities.”
The major forces behind the project and Frazier’s recent hiring are its funder, philanthropist and venture capitalist Warren Hellman, and the journalism grad school at the University of California at Berkeley.
As expected, the project also signed the New York Times’s Bay Area edition as an outlet for its reporting. The Times began publishing a localized edition last fall and plans similar arrangements in other markets. It also started a Chicago edition last fall, with news from the Chicago News Cooperative. PubTV station WTTW is a founding partner in the new cooperative.
With the Jan. 21 announcement of its two top hires and the Times deal, the project is gearing up to hire journalists and begin producing regional coverage of civic affairs and politics this spring.
Frazier, the CEO, is a McKinsey & Co. media specialist who had served as a consultant on the project for months. She had been a partner in the company’s San Francisco office, leading its media and entertainment practice. Weber, the editor-in-chief, is the journalist and new media entrepreneur behind the Montana-based New West. He’s also a veteran of the Los Angeles Times and the Industry Standard, a defunct technology and business magazine that chronicled the dot-com boom of the 1990s.
Hellman established the nonprofit project in September and backed it with $5 million from his family foundation. KQED was to be a founding partner with the Berkeley j-school, but now only the school has an ownership role. KQED may still forge an editorial relationship with the project.
What’s “independent” media?
KQED President Jeff Clarke said he’s puzzled about why the project broke up with the station. He learned of the decision in late December, directly from Hellman, a member of the KQED Board. “I respect the decision but was a little surprised by it,” Clarke said.
"The easiest way to explain it is that, after we went through the whole process of helping them get through planning the organizational structure, they decided they needed to be more independent,” Clarke said. “Having KQED in the mix would not allow them to be perceived as such because we are seen as such a force” in the regional media landscape.
The break occurred as the KQED Board searches for a successor to Clarke, who plans to retire by June.
The partners initially set out to be producing news by now, but they’ve delayed launch until late spring, according to Weber. He’ll hire as many as 15 professional journalists and define the scope of coverage centered on civic affairs and politics. Weber plans to negotiate editorial relationships with other news organizations, possibly including KQED.
“We are very much looking forward to exploring an editorial collaboration with KQED,” Weber said. The pubcaster has “great talent and assets, and I’d like to see how we can work together.” It’s unclear exactly what role the j-school will have beyond providing student interns for the newsroom.
Business plans for the project adapt pubcasting’s approach of soliciting support from individuals and foundations and selling corporate underwriting, Frazier said. In addition, the project will earn money through contractual relationships with content partners such as the New York Times. The five-year plan envisions a news operation run on a yearly budget of $8 million to $12 million.
The nonprofit aims to fill the vacuum of local news coverage created by the decline of ad-supported daily papers—namely the Chronicle, now owned by Hearst; the Examiner, now reduced to a free tabloid; and the San Jose Mercury News, whose owner filed for bankruptcy last week.
The Bay Area has lost some 50 percent its working journalists, Frazier said, and the shrinkage of civic affairs coverage “has created a substantial unmet need for the community.”
“We believe this is a public good we are creating,” Frazier said.
But delays in its launch and the lack of transparency in decision-making so far have gotten the project off to a rocky start. The executive appointments and Times partnership were announced nearly a week after the blogosphere erupted with an unsourced and seemingly erroneous report by former KQED exec David Weir that the news startup was dead.
Neil Henry, Berkeley’s j-school dean, denied Weir’s report, saying the project would proceed without KQED. A blogger for the San Francisco Weekly later cited an unnamed source alleging that KQED exited after objecting to the hiring of Frazier as chief exec.
Further reports confirmed that Frazier and Weber were about to be hired to run the project and that Frazier would be paid $400,000 a year.
Exactly why Hellman and Henry dropped the public TV/radio outlet as a founding partner remains a ripe topic for speculation. Was KQED any more of a barrier to “independence” than it was when Hellman created the partnership last year? The philanthropist referred an interview request to his public relations firm, and Henry declined to comment.
The decision to drop KQED came after months of work on the project’s business model, journalistic guidelines, and selecting execs, Clarke said. He denied that Frazier’s hiring has been in dispute. KQED’s Board approved joining the partnership in November. “We had made a decision to support the news project and go forward.”
Project leaders are “paying a lot of attention to the organizations that have been successful,” such as Politico and the Huffington Post, Weber said. “They have done a lot of tremendous things.” News nonprofits such as the Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, and ProPublica also have developed interesting models, he said.
“There have been a lot of successes and a lot of brave efforts, but there is still a lot of room for creativity and innovation,” Weber said. “No one has found the magic key.”
Web page posted Jan. 28, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC