A new nonprofit hopes to fill a void in coverage of California

Photo: WikiCommons

It’s one of the favorite tics of the California politician, as common during a statewide campaign as “turn the lawn sprinklers off” is these days: reminding us that the state has the world’s seventh largest economy (or eight, or ninth, depending on the health of the tech industry at the moment and the relative fortunes of Brazil or Italy).

California also happens to be home to one in every eight Americans. And yet, when it comes to political coverage, California is no Iowa, Ohio, or Florida.

It’s not a swing state, and it’s not an early primary state, so there’s limited national coverage. Within the state, a few newspapers maintain major capitol bureaus, the Sacramento Bee chief among them. But many others have closed their bureaus, and almost every outlet devotes less attention to the capitol than it used to.

In 2010, California journalists interviewed by CJR estimated that the number of full-time editors and reporters covering the capitol had dropped as much as 65 percent over the previous decade. The cutbacks appear to have slowed a bit since then, but there’s been no major reversal. A Pew census in 2014 counted 43 statehouse reporters in California: still more than any other state except Texas, but less than you might think, given the Golden State’s size and significance.

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As newspapers and television and radio stations pull back in Sacramento, though, Web-based outlets are picking up some of the slack. The newest one, a nonprofit called CALmatters, is planning a July launch and has already made some hires with strong credentials: editor Gregory Favre, a former Sacramento Bee executive editor and McClatchy Newspapers vice president; and well-regarded reporters including Laurel Rosenhall, a Bee veteran: Kate Galbraith, formerly of The New York Times and Texas Tribune; and Pauline Bartolone, of Capitol Public Radio.

“Our goal is to do long-form explanatory pieces and deeply reported narratives on state policies and political topics, many of which are essentially unknown and have major consequences for citizens in the state of California,” Favre said. “We want to narrow the void between ordinary citizens and what exists in Sacramento.”

CALmatters’ founder and chief fundraiser is Simone Coxe, a retired tech industry public relations executive in Palo Alto. Coxe chairs the US board of directors of the local journalism nonprofit Internews and is a director at KQED, Northern California’s biggest public radio station.

The Sacramento-based CALmatters will report exclusively on California state policy and politics and plans to both publish its stories on its own site and distribute them to other publications. The site “has had conversations with all of the major newspapers and radio stations in California,” as well as many smaller outlets, said Kaizar Campwala, CALmatters’ president and co-founder, who did not disclose any specific distribution agreements.*

“Everything we do we will give to them free of charge,” Favre said. “Our goal is to get our stories out there and be seen by as many Californians as possible.”

That gives it a slightly different focus than similar online reporting operations in California: narrower in scope than the Center for Investigative Reporting, which is based in the Bay Area and Sacramento but does nationwide reporting in addition to its California coverage; broader in its intended reach than The California Project, a subscriber-only political tipsheet and newsletter. Another new arrival, Politico’s California Playbook, is set to launch sometime this year, though CALmatters will likely differ from Politico in its approach.

“We’re not doing daily journalism,” Favre said. “I don’t know how many stories we will have every year, but it won’t be an abundance. I think the stories that we do will all matter.”

CALmatters’ staff is working on its first feature and will publish it as a “soft launch” sometime this summer, said Campwala. A former executive with the podcast startup Stitcher, he is running the business and distribution end of CALmatters.

Coxe has given her staff a well-financed operation, as far as nonprofit startups go. She set an initial fundraising goal of $5 million and has gotten about halfway there via donations from 24 individuals and family foundations, all of which have given in five- or six-figure amounts, Campwala said. CALmatters plans to post a donor list on its website next week, and donors sign an agreement that their money does not give them any say in editorial operations, he said. Coxe, the founder, has pledged to give enough to get the site to its $5 million target if the fundraising falls short.

That bankroll will be enough to expand the staff to between 12 and 15 by the end of the first year, and to completely fund the site’s operations for three years, Campwala said.

Campwala will also explore opportunities for “earned revenue” to supplement donations. That could include events, sponsorships, or paid subscriptions to some products like advanced data sets. (CALmatters’ advisory board includes representatives from the nonprofits Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and the startup The California Sunday Magazine, each of which has experimented with revenue and distribution ideas.) It probably will not include traditional advertising.

“You either have a very large and shallow audience from whom you earn ad revenue, or you have a small and deep audience you monetize in a variety of ways,” Campwala said. “Our thesis is that we’re not trying to go after a mass audience right now.”

Shortly after the soft launch, CALmatters is planning to roll out some advanced data projects, and is hiring now for a data columnist to write about the research. The site is building its data sets from public information on legislative information, lobbying, elections and campaign finance, and with partners like the campaign finance site MapLight. The data will be made available for free to other journalists, Campwala said, and could be used to generate specialized reports to sell to other customers.

In its data ambitions, CALmatters overlaps a bit with Digital Democracy, a project still in its beta phase. Digital Democracy was built by students at the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, a program founded and run by former Republican lawmaker Sam Blakeslee.

At its core, Digital Democracy does what the California Legislature should have been doing already: It makes legislative information truly searchable and interactive. Enter a keyword into the site and it returns not only bills on the subject and a committee voting history, but video clips of legislative hearings. The clips are accompanied by transcripts, and the user can skip around in the video by clicking on different parts of the transcript.

Campwala said he doesn’t worry about CALmatters finding a completely unoccupied niche. “I don’t think we need to be innovative for the sake of being innovative or anything like that,” he said. “We think there isn’t enough good information about the political and policy process that reaches Californians.”

Robert Salladay, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, said focus will be the key to whether CALmatters succeeds.

“California is a nation-state with a huge agenda, and the political system here needs deep scrutiny,” he said in an email interview. “There’s some great reporting done in Sacramento, but we need more. … The best advice would be to take it one story at a time, one issue at a time. Go long, and find the connections and context.”

* Correction: This sentence originally misspelled the first name of Kaizar Campwala.

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.