BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Frances Dinkelspiel had worked as a journalist for two decades–reporting for the Syracuse Newspapers and the San Jose Mercury News–before she and two other colleagues started Berkeleyside.com. In Dinkelspiel’s opinion, Berkeley is too interesting a city not to have its own hyperlocal news site. “The University of California’s here, it has this really long liberal radical political tradition, it’s the Mecca for foodies, it has all this interesting stuff going on and there’s not a lot of coverage,” she says.
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Dinkelspiel and two other Berkeley-area journalists, Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor, launched the site in October 2009. In the beginning, Dinkelspiel and the others viewed the site as a sideline–but, as Dinkelspiel explained, the reaction to the new publication was very positive. “By around May 2010, the reaction to the site had been so positive that we realized we had touched a nerve and that we had something here that we could make into a really viable business,” she remembers. So the founders drew up a business plan, and, with initial financial help from a Berkeley millionaire, began to expand the publication’s coverage of the town’s issues.
Perhaps reflecting Berkeley’s diverse character, the site covers an assortment of local issues, from politics to food, from poverty to drug policy. Dinkelspiel also says that interacting with the community is vital to the site’s success. Part of what Berkeleyside’s coverage of events facilitates, then, is not only understanding the events themselves, but also the community’s reaction to those events. The site is a good source of information for Bay Area politicians, Dinkelspiel says, because it gives them a sense of how the community is feeling. Berkeleyside articles often get more than fifty comments each.
Today, Berkeleyside typically puts up four or five new posts daily. Some posts are small news items, with headlines like “Man shot in Berkeley home robbery, suspect at large” or “Rabid bat found in Berkeley: Caution advised,” but the site also publishes larger trend pieces, or profiles of interesting people living in the Berkeley area.
A typical Berkeleyside story involves a small piece that, through the web, becomes a large project. Back in August, Tracey Taylor wrote a story and took photographs for a piece about an incident where the tires of seventy cars were slashed in Berkeley. Then, when a Berkeley woman was subsequently arrested for the tie slashing, that follow-up story attracted a lot of comments. Those comments, in turn, brought an additional scoop: “It turns out this woman comes from this notorious family in Berkeley, where they were involved in all sorts of bad things, and they were now living in this place and they had this fence that they’d covered with all very radical graffiti,” says Dinkelspiel. “We didn’t know about that; that came to light on our comments section.” She added that that’s not uncommon; comments are often really important to understanding and even driving a Berkeleyside story. “A lot of people probably prefer the comments over the stories,” she says.
As for financial matters, as Dinkelspiel puts it, “we’ve taken our ad sales seriously. And we’ve tried to think of different revenue streams to keep our sales going.” Traffic remains high; as of this writing, in the past month Berkeleyside had 89,389 unique visitors and 273,545 page views.
Berkeleyside also earns money through partnerships with other journalism providers. In fact, Berkeleyside is now contributing stories, for a fee, to more-established news outlets KQED and The Bay Citizen. Another partnership with the San Francisco Chronicle‘s website, SFGate, pays money based on the page views their stories yield.
Berkeleyside still has no physical offices. The two other editors besides Dinkelspiel–Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor–are married, and so their living room essentially serves as the meeting place for the Berkeleyside team.
The site does pay contributors, though not all of them. “We do pay many of our contributors, and we’d like to pay more,” Dinkelspiel says. “Since we’re reporters ourselves, we really want to try to pay people for their work.” They’d like to be at the point where they could afford to pay themselves. They do get paid occasionally, but only a few thousand dollars here and there.
The three founders like to think of their venture financially as similar to any of the startups that abound in the Bay Area. It’s going to take a while before Berkeleyside is a viable business, but they’ve set milestones for success, and they’ve met them. Already, after only a year, the operations of the website and the equipment the team needs to do their jobs are paid for by the revenue the site brings in.
“We’re never going to get rich off this,” Dinkelspiel says. “But it’ll be nice to get a little bit, and then we could bump up the amount we pay contributors.”
Given the publication’s growth record so far, they anticipate that Berkeleyside will be fully sustainable, including full-time salaries for Dinkelspiel, Knobel, and Taylor, within two years.