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Local Non-Profit News Site to Launch in San Francisco

‘Bay Area News Project’ backed by $5 million from Warren Hellman.

With newspapers in seemingly irreversible decline – and their decimated newsrooms cutting back on local coverage — non-profit, online-only local news startups are popping up around the country.


The latest is in San Francisco, where Warren Hellman – a local businessman — is funding a startup dubbed “The Bay Area News Project” with $5 million in seed money.


The project — a collaboration between Hellman, KQED Public Media and the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism — will cover “civic and community news” in the Bay Area and will seek tax-exempt status as a non-profit, supported mainly by public donations.


The official name, web address and initial staff have yet to be announced.


San Francisco is just the latest community to get a non-profit news venture. In Orange County, California, a group of former state lawmakers and newspaper reporters announced plans last week to launch a nonprofit online news organization to “provide watchdog and investigative journalism,” according to the Los Angeles Times.


The initial cost of launching “The Voice of OC” is $140,000 according to chairman Joe Dunn, a former Democratic state senator. (Dunn told the paper he plans to operate it with a budget of about $600,000 a year.) The site is expected to launch by the end of the year.


In July, Evan Smith, the award-winning editor of Texas Monthly, announced he was leaving the magazine after 17 years to become CEO of the Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non- partisan public media organization set to launch later this year. The Texas Tribune is backed by John Thorton, a venture capitalist and general partner at Austin Ventures who poured $1 million of his own money into the project and has raised at least $1.2 million more already.


In announcing the launch, Thornton said he planned to raise at least $6 million by the end of the year, giving the Tribune enough “resources to cover, at a minimum, the 2010 election cycle, the 2011 legislative session, the next round of redistricting, and the 2012 election cycle, including the presidential election.”

Smith and Thorton also plan to host conferences and public, on-the-record thought-leader events akin to the Aspen Institute.


Hellman says his site will cover “government and public policy, education, the arts and cultural affairs, the environment, as well as food and wine and neighborhood news.”


The difference between the Bay Area project and other non-profit startups, its founders say, is the “quality of its collaborations,” the healthy head start it has in funding, the sophisticated, Web-savvy market it aims to serve – and a multi-channel distribution model.


Content will be used in radio and television through its KQED partnership, and Hellman says the group is already in talks with the New York Times to distribute the new outlet’s content in a Bay Area section of the paper.


Hellman, who earlier this year had tried lobbying executives at Hearst to take the San Francisco Chronicle non-profit, told a blogger at the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the project “will focus on local news events, including politics and the arts, the kind of thing that is just dying at the Chronicle.”


The response from the Chronicle was swift. "Since we began our efforts earlier this year to secure a strong future for The San Francisco Chronicle, we have made substantial progress," publisher Frank Vega said in a statement. "We’ve introduced vibrant new color to the newspaper’s pages through a new state-of-the-art printing plant. Our innovations on SFGate, including new neighborhood sections and our City Brights bloggers, have resulted in record online traffic.”