A news project: reinvent journalism

Q & A | ROSE ROLL

R ose Roll, a local resident and occasional contributor to the New Fillmore, is involved in creating the Bay Area News Project — a new nonprofit venture funded by neighborhood philanthropist Warren Hellman that is being heralded by some as a reinvention of journalism.

With The New York Times signing on as a partner, momentum seems to be building for the Bay Area News Project. Can you describe what it is in a nutshell?

The Bay Area News Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan publicly supported news organization. Our mission is to stimulate innovation in journalism, foster civic engagement and fill the gaps in reporting Bay Area civic news at a time when newspapers have had to make severe cuts in their coverage for economic reasons. We’re just getting started, but in time our professional newsroom will generate original, in-depth coverage of Bay Area topics including government and public policy, the arts and cultural affairs, education and the environment, as well as neighborhood news and events. Our primary channel will be online and mobile, but we expect also distribute our news through print (via The New York Times), radio and television. Our goal is to launch in late spring of this year.

You got involved in the project right around the time you started writing articles for the New Fillmore. Any connection?

I’ve lived in San Francisco, within five blocks of Fillmore Street, for almost four years now. I love this neighborhood. I wanted to get more involved, and last March I started writing articles for the New Fillmore. I wrote about the opening of Bruno’s Pizzeria in the jazz district, and about the 30th anniversary of La Mediterranee — a restaurant where I have dinner nearly every week. At the time I was working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and became involved in a pro bono team to help Warren Hellman figure out a sustainable model for local professional journalism in
the Bay Area. The work done by that team eventually turned into the Bay Area News Project.

So what’s your role now?

Last month I left McKinsey to take a full-time role at the News Project as director of membership and marketing. Our business model is similar to public radio and television, which means that we rely on individual support, or memberships, from members of the community.

What can the Bay Area News Project do that the newspapers and the broadcasters can’t — or don’t?

When we first started, we did a lot of research into the state of the news in the Bay Area. We found that over the last five years, the number of journalists employed by newspapers in the Bay Area has been cut almost in half — now there are only 500 professional reporters covering an area of 7 million people. The number of original articles written about the Bay Area has dropped from 100 per day to only 40. And, what’s worse, the things people really need to know about — the stories about public policy, education, health, arts — have declined twice as rapidly as the celebrity gossip, sports and entertainment news. The sad thing is that we don’t know what we don’t know. What important stories are we missing?

The initial funding is coming from a neighbor, the investor and philanthropist Warren Hellman?

Yes, Warren is really the catalyst behind the News Project — he’s the one who brought us all together with the goal of creating a lasting institution to report on the Bay Area. Warren has deep ties to the area, and his family has lived here for many generations. His family’s foundation has given the project $5 million of seed funding to help us get off the ground.

So far the news project seems to be primarily focused on Bay Area regional news. Do you expect to cover the neighborhoods, too?

People really care about the neighborhoods where they live. I’m a good example. I may not subscribe to the Chronicle, but I religiously read the New Fillmore when it’s delivered to my doorstep every month. Covering neighborhood news and events — the Fillmore Jazz Festival, for instance, or the local restaurants and shops here — is definitely something we are looking into. We just need to figure out how to do it in a cost-effective manner because we can’t afford to have a journalist every few blocks. One of the unique aspects of our collaboration with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is the students’ hyperlocal news sites — Mission Local, Oakland North and Richmond Confidential. We’ll be working with them to see how that model can expand to other neighborhoods.

How will The New York Times be involved?

Our agreement with The Times is that our journalists will eventually write the articles in its new Bay Area Report, which is part of the main news section in the Friday and Sunday editions. Right now stories on those pages are written by The Times’ San Francisco bureau and freelancers. So this new partnership works out well for both parties: The Times wants local Bay Area reporters with deep roots in their communities, and it’s a great way for the News Project to expand our reach via print distribution. The Bay Area actually has The Times’ largest circulation outside of New York, with around 57,000 Sunday subscribers — and it’s picked up another 1,100 since launching the Bay Area Report last October.

So now you’re looking for supporters and contributors?

Yes. Between now and when we launch in late spring, we invite people to become founders of the Bay Area News Project. Everyone who donates $50 or more before our official launch will be recognized on a special section of our website. You can donate online at bayareanewsproject.org, or send a check payable to the Bay Area New Project at 354 Pine Street, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104.

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