Everyone knows that newspapers are reeling from the double whammy of the Great Recession and a broader shift of advertising dollars over to the Internet, where consumers now expect to get their news for free. But the part of the newsroom that has taken the biggest hit are the specialty beats. Those are the reporters who cover science, religion, the arts, environmental affairs and other subjects where a little bit of experience and background knowledge goes a long way in providing solid pieces of explanatory journalism – the stuff that makes your newspaper “smart.” If you’ve noticed a dumbing down of your local newspaper, now you know the reason why.
Hundreds of veteran beat reporters across the country have been laid off or accepted early retirement packages, while younger science writers and religion reporters have been taken off those beats and put on general assignment.
That’s one of the reasons I find good news in the announcement of the Bay Area News Project, which puts forth some new ideas about how to raise the money to pay the journalism that used to make your newspaper worth reading. The project -- which begins as a partnership between KQED, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Warren Hellman Family Foundation -- would employ a staff of journalists who’d write and produce multi-media stories that could be posted on the Internet, broadcast over radio and television, or distributed the old-fashioned way by pouring ink on dead trees.
For a print dinosaur like me, one of the most intriguing possibilities is the News Project’s potential partnership with an upcoming Bay Area edition of the New York Times. Under one model being considered , local stories produced by the project would run in a meaty section inserted into local editions of the Sunday Times. There are many turf battles to fight before this actually happens, but such a partnership would give the Bay Area News Project instant credibility.
Some examples of how specialty beats could be funded:
Stories now going uncovered about the widespread stem cell research in California could be funded by a state agency that distributes those funds. Religion projects could be paid for by foundations that already support work in that area – such as the Pew or Templeton foundations. Or there could be a partnership with the seminaries that comprise the Graduate Theological Union. Care would have to be taken to build a firewall between the journalists and the funders, but that could be provided by such institutions as the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Through its News21 Project, the Cal J-school has already proven itself to be a leader in multi-media journalism.
For examples of that work, go to www.news21.com.
Steve Jones of the Bay Guardian and Chris Rauber of the San Francisco Business Times broke today's story on the Bay Area News Project. Check out Rauber's piece at http://sanfrancisco.bizjournals.com.
You can find Jones' article at http://www.sfbg.com/blogs/politics/2009/09/hellman_and_partners_to_launch.html.
The SF Chronicle and the New York Times published the following pieces the next day:
(Sorry those last three links don't link. Like I say, I'm a print dinosaur. You'll have to copy, cut and paste to call them up.)