Oakland Local

Susan Mernit & co. cover their corner of the Bay

oaklandlocal.pngOAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Born from the community outrage that followed a local police-on-civilian killing caught on cell phone and spread across the Internet, one-year-old Oakland Local hopes to grow its professional reporting in 2011, while keeping its street-level perspective on the sometimes dangerous California port city it covers. Founder Susan Mernit edits and publishes the Local with an editorial staff of eight–none of whom are paid as full-time employees–serving the gritty city of 447,000.

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    • A former arts activist turned Yahoo! bigwig, Mernit left Yahoo! in 2008 to help run the Knight Foundation News Challenge. She then moved to Oakland and worked on a commercial startup, but quickly decided she wanted to put her news, business, and technology skills to work for her new community.

      In October 2009, Mernit co-founded Oakland Local with journalist Amy Gahran and new friend Kwan Booth–a local blogger, artist, and culture writer. When police shot and killed a young, unarmed black man named Oscar Grant on a subway platform on New Year’s Eve 2008, in front of packed trainloads of witnesses, “we felt like the media coverage was very, very unbalanced,” says Mernit. The media gave police the usual benefit of the doubt, despite clear evidence of wrongdoing. On the streets of Oakland, the Grant killing symbolized a culture of police brutality that appeared to be passed over by the media.

      “It catalyzed this desire to provide something that would be a platform for multiple voices,” says Mernit. “We could have quality reporting, but also combine it with community perspectives, and really present both of them.”

      Oakland Local’s biggest initial challenge was getting reporters on to stories. The startup’s 2010 budget was $60,000, comprised of grants, ads, merchandise sales, and user-generated story funding through Spot.us, a site that allows citizens to directly fund stories they want to see covered. Oakland Local focuses on civic news that’s fallen off the desks of downsized daily metro newsrooms: bike commuting, rapid transit, gang-related stories, and education, for example. Backed by a steady flow of community content from citizen journalists, and opinion and arts coverage, Oakland Local reports in a tone that is frank, educated, down-to-earth, and responsible, says Mernit. A Monday afternoon morning news meeting sets the budget for the week, with assignments stemming from reporters, and tips from community partners.

      Partnered with public radio station KALW-FM, and nonprofit New York Times contributor The Bay Citizen, the site claims 70,000 unique users every month and has drawn an impressive 1.2 million page views in its first year. The Local’s budget will grow to $160,000 in 2011 thanks to a blend of grants and advertising efforts, says Mernit. She intends to use the money to pay writers and hire a part-time development director to get more funding (especially for media training courses in the community), and ultimately plans to build up the base of citizen contributors. The Local also hired two business staffers in December to go after advertisers in 2011. “Year two is all about revenue,” says Mernit. “We want to grow everything.”

      In February 2011, the Local will become a leading partner in BAPP, a new advertising network, which hopes to pool dozens of new media outlets into a local readerbase of one million uniques, and pitch itself to national advertisers. Spot.us funding is also playing a big role. About $8,000 in the Local’s 2010 funding came from the story-funding site, including $4,000 to send a Local reporter to the trial of the police officer who shot Oscar Grant. Reporter Thandisizwe Chimurenga filed forty stories from the Johannes Mehserle trial in Los Angeles and prodded the dailies to allocate more resources to compete, said Mernit. Oakland Local’s contacts in the streets of Oakland, all the way through to the courthouse, ensured minority voices were represented. Its coverage was picked up by The New York Times, via the Bay Citizen.

      “I think there was a huge community response to what we published that helped change the perspective,” says Mernit. “We got the street-level view from East Oakland and exclusive interviews with Oscar Grant’s family.”

      Smartphones were a powerful witness in the Oscar Grant case, but eighty-five percent of Oaklanders don’t have them, Mernit notes. So Oakland Local continues to focus its technical development on making sure their content can appear on cheaper, so-called “feature phones.” The Local–which runs on Drupal–is also working on a mobile-based mapping project for 2011. But the site can only envy better-resourced startups like The Bay Citizen in San Francisco.

      “They have a $5 million budget; we have no full-time paid staff,” says Mernit. “I think we’re really trying to combine quality journalism with serving underserved communities and bringing out community voices in a way that makes us very unique. Yet we have a very ambitious desire to be the news source of the East Bay.”

Oakland Local Data

Name: Oakland Local

URL: oaklandlocal.com

City: Oakland, Calif.

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David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.