Dear Warren Hellman

Dear Warren

You already know the setup: Today the Bay Area media scene just gained an 800lb gorilla. The news broke last night by the Bay Guardian was known by some a little earlier and had been expected for months. Details from The New York Times and Paid Content. Steve Katz and Alan Mutter chime in as well.

ba-hardly05_ph_h_0499243317Let me be the first blogger to tip my hat to you. Major kudos. There are a lot of folks with as much money as you – but they don’t give it back to their community the way you have. Nobody can argue that giving 5 million to start a nonprofit news organization is anything but classy. You rock!

A few months ago some of your consultants contacted me for advice. They reached out to many of my new media friends as well. Since my advice was solicited for two afternoons in that stage, I thought I’d continue and discuss the potentials that are ahead of you and the pitfalls that surround your path.

  • Build something new: You could very easily duplicate the SF Chronicle. We’d be a “two-paper” town again. But that would not accomplish anything in the long run. You’d have a failing business model. You’d be better off just donating 5 million to NPR, KQED or some other existing nonprofit and get it over with. I don’t think that’s what you want. You are bold. Imagine the SF Chronicle with an earnest citizen journalism effort to enhance their reporting. You can build that from the ground up. ProPublica had the wisdom to hire my friend and colleague Amanda Michel to tackle distributed reporting efforts. I suggest you do the same here on the West coast. Don’t be a flat news organization – by dynamic.
  • Hire new blood: The advice of old white men is great, but not as relevant as you might think. You want to make sure to be as diverse as the Bay Area itself in race, gender and age. Also: Hire people that think web first. Don’t just scoop up laid off newspaper reporters looking for a life line. So far, I think you are hiring a good and diverse core – keep it up!
  • If you do Fundraising: From what I understand you are going to do community fundraising. Hey, I know all about that space. If you ever want to do community funded reporting for projects – consider Spot.Us an ally (we will do it for you). If you are a closed organization, (which would be a pity – see advice below), you can go ahead and steal our code. You’ll get more kudos for thinking out of the box. The idea is that you should give transparency and control to the community about where their money goes. Not everyone has a spare 5 million. I have friends that might spare $5-$50 depending on what mood you catch them in – but they expect some control and transparency about that money.
  • Ignore the haters: There will be some. We aren’t all perfect, so keep an open ear and let them guide you – but don’t take it personal. The news consumer is always right, but you have to develop a thick skin.
  • Don’t be predatory: These are murky waters so I’ll be blunt and say what I think is on other people’s minds. A lot of smaller news organizations that have been doing good work feel a bit overlooked or stepped on. Many were contacted by your consultants and we shared our thoughts/ideas/ time receiving little or no reciprocity. I hope that is merely because there are no action items yet. In brief conversation with folks inside your now growing organization they spoke my language of “collaboration.” After all, the project is called “Bay Area News Project” and that sounds very welcoming and collaborative, almost like a coop. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt, so the only thing going against the consultants running the show is that they are outsiders to a tight knit media community. But we have open arms to anyone that reciprocates. I’m looking forward to giving the Bay Area News Project a big hug. I have detailed thoughts on news collaborations and more to share. I say this definitively: It is the future of journalism.
  • Bring folks together: There is a growing grassroots media movement here in the Bay Area. Your organization could be the spark that brings us all together or the police siren that sends everyone scattering. Being the first would be a boon to your organization and the entire Bay. You have some reaching out to do.

Finally, Warren – If you are feeling generous to the media scene – why not donate $20 to a Bay Area investigation of your choice? We will even match your donation to this pitch.