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Interview: In Brutal Media Environment, SF Public Press Tries to Establish New Model

| September 2, 2011
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Since March, 2009, SF Public Press has been trying to establish a non-advertiser-based model of survival in what has been a more than challenging business environment for traditional media, and especially for local newspapers.

The site has since expanded offline; you can buy the paper, a really nice-looking publication chock full of serious-minded local news on public policy and government, at various locations throughout the Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed SF Public Press Executive Director Michael Stoll about the publication, and how — and why — it survives without selling advertising.

Listen to the audio below; an edited transcript follows each audio segment.

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What would you consider our mission to be?
Officially, it’s to ‘enrich the civic life of San Francisco by delivering public interest journalism through print and interactive media not supported by advertising.’

Basically what we want to do is show that independent quality news can be done on a local level with a little bit of philanthropic interest, but also to create a new business model that would earn some income and keep it going in the long term. If we can do that in San Francisco, which is already a somewhat media-saturated town, we can do it anywhere else in the country. And that would help solve some of the problems with the contraction of the infrastructure for journalism.

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Where’s your income coming from?

We have a number of income streams. We have philanthropic contributions from foundations, we have some large individual donors, we have a lot of small donors. We have hundreds of donors who have given us a small amount of money through our membership program.
It’s membership kind of like in public broadcasting. You give $35 a year and get access to some of our best events. You get a tee-shirt, you get some memorabilia. And free delivery of the newspaper when it comes out quarterly.

How’s membership been developing?

We started out with a very small pilot project and we have about 200 dues paying members over the past two years. Some of those members have lapsed, so we’re going back this fall to have a membership campaign to have everyone renew, tell them why its important to support independent public media that may not be the traditional form that you find on radio and television.

Your offline publication, that would seem to be pretty expensive to produce…

It’s actually not as expensive as it might look. We have a small print run, 8000 copies, and we sell about half of them, most of the rest get distributed to senior and community centers for free. So it’s kind of a mixed paid and charity model. But our main goal is to get it out to a broad cross section of the population, people who can afford it and people who can’t.

It also helps tremendously that we don’t have advertising, because our printing bill is about half of what it would be if we had ads. So we see this as part of a model to do noncommercial print, and shift the focus from selling eyeballs to advertisers to selling news to consumers. really stressing the value of independent journalism itself and not have this third party subsidize the news.

Advertising is going away for many media. Advertising across the board has really collapsed in newspapers and magazines and to a lesser extent broadcast. There needs to be new model, and we’re a smaller example of what can be done in that regard.

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Do you think advertising has affected the content of traditional media?

I do. Advertising has been really the best friend of the news media for over a hundred years, since newspapers became mass media themselves.

We see this as…shifting the focus from selling eyeballs to advertisers to selling news to consumers.

But in the last couple of years the market for advertising has collapsed as more and more advertising goes to digital technologies that really target audiences much better than a broad general interest newspaper. And as a result it’s very clear that the whole industry was based on something that was really a temporary artifact of the economy during the 20th century.

Now that the economy has changed, a lot of people are re-examining the role of advertising in the first place, saying, it may have been the best friend of newspapers for a century or more, but there were always problems in terms of advertising setting the news agenda. There are a lot of very specific cases of conflicts of interests and advertisers sticking their noses in particular stories.

Or more generally, the idea that you would have a home sales section every week instead of a home rental section; most San Franciscans rent, but that balance isn’t reflected in most of the local newspapers. Until very recently they printed stock tables; stock tables weren’t read by the majority of the people, they were read by the upper class who could afford to invest their capital. A lot of the business coverage is focused on people with money and with decision-making power over lots of big-business questions.

Newspapers haven’t traditionally been focused on the lives of average people. I think doing away with advertising and focusing on a reader-supported model instead, really frees journalists from the assumption that whatever they produce has to favor the business community.

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Who are you staff?

A lot of the people who write and photograph and produce the news for us are volunteers but they have a background working as professional journalists.

One of the problems that has arisen the past couple of years is that a lot of journalists have been laid off, as the industry has contracted pretty rapidly, so a lot of our volunteers are professional journalists.

Our news editor spent 22 years as an editor at the Chronicle and has a wealth of experience doing local news, but was part of a recent round of layoffs and downsizing, and wants to give back to the community and do something inventive and new. And wants to contribute to the idea that news ought to be a competitive landscape and not just a monoculture by the dominant players.

So we have a couple of people with experience going back decades; we also have people on the other end of the spectrum, who are interns in college or straight out of college looking to bolster their skills, haven’t found paying jobs in the industry but are dedicated to the idea of doing really hard-hitting public policy stories that make a difference in the community.

Then we have everything in between. I myself spent 7 years in newspapers, went off into academic research and education but I’ve come back because I think there’s an opportunity now as the whole industry transitions into something new to invent new models and take a fresh approach, but in a professional context.

We are absolutely sure to check all our facts, to be fair, we don’t’ do advocacy reporting, we’re straight down the middle professional news reporters.

We do pay some reporters some of the time. Most of our reports who started out as volunteers have made something through a combination of specific grants and fellowships from foundations, through micro-funding using web sites that aggregate small donations from a lot of people who want to support independent journalism but don’t’ have a lot of money to do it.

So we are able to pay most of our journalists something, but it’s very intermittent, it’s not something you do to get rich. The people who are writing for us are doing it because they’re passionate about local news, and because they believe this project will eventually gain enough legs to become a mostly paid professional gig. But it’s not there yet, it’s still in startup mode and we’re still working as a very scrappy organization.

You can read SF Public Press on the KQED News site.

For more in our series of conversations with local news sites and blogs, see:

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