Just Press On

Templates for Anytown, USA

Nic Roethlisberger and Dhyana Levey now live in the foggy Richmond District of San Francisco, flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate. The couple spent the mid-2000s in and around Modesto—Nic as a copy editor at The Modesto Bee and Dhyana as an environmental reporter for the Merced Sun-Star and the Sonora Union Democrat. In 2008 they gave up on the Central Valley to return to San Francisco, where both had gone to college, for better work and school opportunities. The contrast in media, they said, was stark.

“Modesto is a different universe,” Roethlisberger says. “The Bee is pretty much the only professional news organization covering the city. That’s it. In San Francisco you have the Chronicle and Examiner and umpteen wire services. That just doesn’t happen in Modesto. There are some very good reporters there, but not too many of them. You can count the number of news reporters who cover Modesto on two hands.”

Levey covered satellite communities outside Modesto. She says several small cities that used to have a full-time reporter now only get written about two or three times a week.

Neither is sanguine about the future of the professional reporting that mid-sized cities had in the last century. At The Modesto Bee and other McClatchy-owned papers in the region, Roethlisberger says, the few journalists often don’t know what they don’t know. “If you’re sitting around Thursday afternoon and think, ‘Well, can we hold this for after the weekend,’ you’re more likely to do that if you know there’s no competition. You can get lackadaisical.”

Corporate consolidated journalism—illustrated in California by MediaNews’s feasting on the carcass of Knight Ridder—has not served communities well. Quality journalism needs an environment of diverse editorial focuses, revenue models, and ownership structures.

My project, the San Francisco Public Press, is one particular flavor of local news startup. The two-year-old nonprofit, run by a mix of volunteer professional journalists and freelancers, produces a daily website and a quarterly, ad-free print newspaper about city and regional politics and public policy. In addition to group reporting projects that become special sections in print (the topics have included a big development project, the woes of public transit, the downsizing of the region’s press, painful budget cuts in San Francisco), the newspaper also aggregates stories from local public broadcasters, civic organizations, and a variety of nonprofit news outlets. It is an effort to edify and give new life to the burgeoning (but so far underfunded) public-media ecosystem that is breaking out of its broadcast-only roots.

The idea behind the Public Press and myriad local experiments like it, though, is to create models that can work in more than one place. In fact, our noncommercial print newspaper model might actually be a better fit for Modesto than for San Francisco. As a membership organization supported by readers and not advertisers, it would be insulated from the economic ebb tide that has hit the Central Valley particularly hard.

Ideally, templates like the Public Press could work in nearly any community. But if we have learned anything, it’s that a startup’s success is dependent on lining up sufficient resources ahead of time from civic-minded people and organizations. The editor and publisher would have to be local. Key supporters could be found among groups like the Rotary, the League of Women Voters, and supporters of the public library. With luck, local philanthropists could then be persuaded that accountability journalism should no longer be left only to the whims of the market.

Whatever model is used—ad-based or noncommercial, private or nonprofit, advocacy or straight down the middle—some of the revenue needs to be earned. We sell our papers for a dollar, syndicate our reporting, and engage in public broadcasting-style membership drives. It’s no way to get rich, but as a nonprofit, all we have to do is break even.

Roethlisberger says perhaps the best chance for Modesto would be the arrival of AOL’s Patch.com model of networked small-town blogs. But he worries that Modesto doesn’t have the advertising base to keep even that going.

But the press’s contraction in cities like Modesto does represent an opportunity for new entities to sprout and take hold. It would be fascinating to see a major foundation or journalism organization hold a conference there to get the best brains in a room and dream up ways to get this done.

This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.

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Michael Stoll is the executive editor of the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit news website and ad-free quarterly newspaper founded in 2009.