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J school dean discusses $5m Bay Area News Project

on October 7, 2009

The Bay Area News Project, a nonprofit media venture that will start with a $5 million grant from Bay Area financier Warren Hellman,  will bridge gaps in coverage of local news issues while guiding reporters through an era of shrinking job opportunities and technological change, a leader of the project said Tuesday.

Neil Henry, dean of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, made the remarks about the recently-announced endeavor at an afternoon meeting held on the UC Berkeley campus.  The plan, which will use resources both of the School of Journalism and of the National Public Radio affiliate KQED-FM, has been the subject of speculation both at the School  and among media observers around the country. Henry called the meeting in response to student requests for more information on the project, originally announced on Sept. 25. Students were given the opportunity to voice concerns, but Henry said the specifics of the initiative were still yet to be determined–which left some questions unanswered.

Henry called the coming news project a boon to students, practicing journalists and teachers. “This effort is highly synergistic,” Henry said. “It can be used to help teach in addition to providing new, original content.”  Henry could not provide specific details of the extent to which students would be involved, or provide a date when the venture would be launched.

Henry’s 45-minute briefing detailed the history and basic framework of the project, which is still in the planning stages.  Although it may seem like a sudden development, the project’s launch is part of a “natural progression” in a relationship with Hellman that began in the summer of 2007, Henry said.

Hellman, the great grandson of Isaias Hellman, the founder of Wells Fargo, will provide seed money for the project, which will publish Bay Area news via several different media.  Hellman first began working with the school when he sought a recent graduate’s help in creating a multimedia exhibit on financial fraud in the U.S.  He later completed the project, “Con Artist Hall of Infamy,” with the help of J-school graduate students, Henry said. “Warren Hellman had warm feelings about the school as a result of that connection,” Henry said.

Henry said Hellman’s interest in storytelling also inspired him to consider a purchase of the San Francisco Chronicle to convert the newspaper to a non-profit entity. After deciding against the purchase, he enlisted a consulting group to examine the declining state of local media services due to staff reductions and the closing of local bureaus, and what might be done to revive them, Henry said.

At the same time, the School of Journalism was in the process of developing several “hyper-local” news sites, including Oakland North and Mission Local. The sites were seen by Hellman as fitting prototypes for multimedia storytelling and community coverage, Henry said. “We put the school in his mind as a place to consider as he continued his work in looking at journalism,” Henry said.

The content for the Bay Area News Project will be disseminated through multiple channels, primarily online and through KQED’s television and radio broadcasts.  The New York Times is also looking at a potential relationship with the initiative as a means of supplementing the content of its forthcoming Bay Area pages, Henry said, but negotiations are still underway.  The Times’ Bay Area pages will begin appearing twice a week later this fall inside editions of the paper delivered to this region, where the Times has its largest concentration of readers outside New York.

The initiative has already generated some criticism, even though many details have not yet been released about how it will deliver news, how many journalists it will hire, and how exactly it will work in conjunction with KQED-FM and the staff and students at the School of Journalism.   An article appearing in the online magazine Slate, for example, raised questions about the new entity’s ability to provide non-biased news coverage if it is depends on endowments from wealthy financiers.  Slate contributer Jack Schafer points out, “No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.”  Meanwhile, a blog appearing in the East Bay Express homepage accuses the project of drawing on the “slave labor” of the students.

Henry said the project will be a nonprofit entity that will maintain its independence from outside influences, and that Hellman has characterized his $5 million grant as seed money intended to lay the base for additional fundraising.  “It will operate under those same structures that all [non-profit companies] do,” Henry said. “It’s going to be dedicated to the most valuable news content we can do.”

Henry also said a goal of the initiative is to create a “ladder” through which students will be enabled to grow as journalists. “Part of this is that we want students to come and learn, practice and later go into this and hopefully other entities,” Henry said. When students questioned whether or not they would be paid for their contributions, Henry could not speak with certainty on the subject, reminding the audience that many details had not yet been ironed out.

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