With just twenty-five editorial staffers competing against the Chronicle’s sixty (less than a quarter the number it had in 2009, and one-tenth its peak in 2001), the Public Press would appear to be outgunned. But because we focus on public policy, economics, and social trends—and seldom cover sports, fashion, or random context-less crimes—we have developed a reputation as a credible source of important news. And while other papers still chase advertisers with elaborate Sunday sections devoted to new homes, wine, and automobiles, the Public Press focuses its coverage on rental housing, the environment, local arts, workplace safety, public health, transit, and reviews of consumer products and services aimed at people of all incomes and backgrounds. The classified ads we print are a free public service through a partnership with Craigslist.
That trust relationship with the audience, pioneered by public broadcasters such as PBS and NPR, has paid financial dividends, in the form of 35,000 memberships. It’s only a start in a city of 750,000 and a region of more than seven million. But the home-delivered paper is essentially just a premium membership benefit; anyone can view our work for free at www.public-press.org.
It wasn’t quick or easy to get to this point. In early 2009, we were able to leverage a seed grant from the San Francisco Foundation to hire a part-time editor to coordinate more than a dozen volunteer journalists to start producing local news on the Web. We followed in the footsteps of online nonprofit news ventures such as MinnPost in Minneapolis, GothamGazette in New York City, and VoiceofSanDiego, building an audience by covering our region’s bread-and-butter issues.
By 2010, we’d raised a few hundred thousand dollars—enough to pay decent freelance rates and begin limited-run printings of our work to distribute in a few neighborhoods. In 2011, we ramped up to monthly, then weekly, while cajoling barely three thousand San Francisco residents to become member-subscribers.
The daily print launch in 2012 gave our reporters more cachet with sources. But it also allowed us to reach a whole new audience: the working-class population in San Francisco. Low-income folk are of little value to the luxury-goods advertisers targeted by traditional papers, and the Internet doesn’t ameliorate this because even in 2014, a third of that segment of the population has limited or no broadband Internet access at home.
Five years ago, who’d have thought that you could view CNN in 3-D through your sunglasses or live video-chat from your wristwatch? But such technologies are still more expensive than a newspaper and can’t be operated in the bathtub. And many of us who now rely on these gizmos have nonetheless sought to carve out some time offline. Like books, printed newspapers still have their place. Not only are most Baby Boomers still alive, but millions of them, newly retired, have more time to read.
Of course, we have a Web site that runs a twenty-four-hour HDTV Surround Sound City Council channel, and the standard Intelligent Agent, Suzy, who speaks plain English and guides archive searches. But it’s our sober, in-depth, public-media-style approach to the journalism that distinguishes us on the screen and in the paper.
Our hope is to form a network—like the hundreds of local NPR affiliates—with other noncommercial news Web sites around the country that are planning to start print editions. But our main goal is to build a local media infrastructure that treats readers as citizens instead of merely consumers.
In 2009, when so many had given local journalism up for dead, it was difficult to stay dedicated to an idealistic vision of the media. Yet a handful of professionals who had come to see themselves as mission-driven public servants refused to let the bean counters tell them how to do their jobs. In the process, they reinvented the newspaper business.