Building a Better News Landscape

Fake news, junk news, viral headlines, scandals and newsroom layoffs. What’s happening in—and to—the news can make your head hurt. But there is a way to build a better, more just and democratic model for journalism than the corporate media of the past. In this panel, we hear from the courageous people doing it. Hosted by Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein. With: Lila LaHood, Publisher, San Francisco Public Press; Nikhil Swaminathan, Executive Editor of Grist; Marcia Parker, publisher of CalMatters.

Monika Bauerlein

MONIKA: I’m Monika Bauerlein, the CEO of Mother Jones. At my talk earlier today, I talked about what has happened to news as an industry in this country, and make the case for why news really cannot be an industry, and instead it has to be a participatory, democratic project. All of these organizations whose leaders are here today are engaged in that kind of endeavor. In fact these amazing journalists have had trajectories that really speak to what’s happened to the news and the media, how we can rebuild it in a better and more vigorous fashion. 

NIKHIL: Hi. I’m Nikhil Swaminathan. I am the executive editor of Grist, which is about a 20-year old online environmental news site. We are primarily based in Seattle, although as a national publication we have people all over the place. I actually live in Atlanta, Georgia, though I used to live in the Bay Area. That’s where my story kind of starts, and how I ended up at Grist.

Nikhil Swaminathan

I was working at Al Jazeera America, which prided itself on being the voice of the voiceless. We did a lot of coverage of indigenous issues, community-level issues all around the country, early work on the Flint water crisis, and the opioid epidemic, just to name a few. Some of this comes down to how difficult it is to launch a cable news site or cable news network in 2013, but really relying on the traditional advertising model just wasn’t sustainable. Five days before my first child was born, they announced that we were going under. And luckily my wife worked for Monika, so we had good health insurance. [laughter]

But I had really caught that accountability bug, and being able to tell stories that weren’t necessarily splashy, entertainment that moves units and sells fashion ads. So I was looking for a place where I could continue to apply that kind of work. I took some fellowships afterwards and eventually landed at Grist, leading its environmental justice coverage. It is really, really important work, talking about communities that are on the frontlines of climate change, communities that are experiencing environmental burdens from power plants, from garbage incinerators, obviously Dakota Access Pipeline. Standing Rock is one of the biggest environmental justice stories of the last decade, as is Flint. 

The nonprofit news model allows us to do that work, to find readers who will support us in digging into community-level stories, finding the right journalists to tell those stories, and not parachute in some place where they have no idea what the social dynamics are on the ground. And to really tell these difficult stories about how communities that are dealing with public health emergencies are also often the economic engines that sustain their communities. 

Working in nonprofit news, relying on readers for funding, relying on like-minded foundations and major donors for money to allow us to do our work has really, really given Grist the opportunity –  as I moved to the executive editor position – to grow our environmental justice work, and to continue to lead the conversation on climate change. Because at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do atGrist is give people the fuel to have conversations about this crisis at the dinner table at bars and restaurants, at Bioneers, at the lunch table, and hopefully in the halls of Congress.

Lila LaHood

LILA: Hi. I’m Lila LaHood. I’m the publisher of the San Francisco Public Press. We are based in San Francisco. We do local public interest journalism online and publish. We also have a low power FM station, KSFP 102.5 FM in San Francisco. We share it with another nonprofit organization, KXSF. They have 12 hours a day. We have 12 hours a day. They’re mostly music, we’re mostly talk. It’s a nice balance. Our marquee show there is called Civic, which is focused on local news and public affairs, airing at 8 AM and 6 PM Monday through Friday.

The San Francisco Public Press is 10 years old. I helped start it with Michael Stoll, our executive director. He and I vaguely knew each other in grad school and reconnected in San Francisco. Michael had been thinking about this idea of starting a publication. Ideally he wanted it to be a newspaper, but when we got started we thought, well, it’s going to be an online publication very much inspired by public radio – the idea being let’s create the news and put it out there, and if people like it, they’ll support us. And it has worked out that way for us.

Typically public radio stations around the country get support from about 10% of their regular listeners, and that’s something we have found to hold true for us as well. We think of our regular listeners as people who are signed up for our email newsletter, even though many more people see what we’re putting out there and seeing our stories on social media. So then perhaps they see them when they pick up our newspaper in retail locations, or when we’re out at events and handing them out.

We don’t do daily news or breaking news, we don’t have the staff for that. We have six people full time, and a bunch of freelancers. We’ve found that the best way for us to add to the conversation is by focusing on more in-depth reporting and analysis. We often do a lot of document requests. The kinds of stories that are being done by larger organizations like Mother Jones, which have the resources for that on the national level, is not something that’s being done at the local level .

When we got started, it was around the time that there had been a lot of layoffs and downsizing and contraction in the news industry, even here in San Francisco. In fact, we received our first grant and were just getting started. We had no full time employees and were about to hire an editor to manage a whole bunch of volunteers. Then Hearst made a big announcement that they wanted the union to help them get rid of 75 positions at the San Francisco Chronicle, and if they couldn’t get buyouts and early retirements, they might consider selling the paper. If they couldn’t sell the paper, they might shut it down. There was a lot of concern about this. People were asking us, “Are you going to replace the Chronicle?” We looked at each other and said, “No way. That’s not what we’re here for, that’s not what we want to do.” We think it’s important to have a diversity of news sources. We’re fortunate, we have a lot of great local coverage in print, online, from broadcasters, radio, and television doing a lot of the breaking news coverage that we’re not doing. So what we add is more in-depth analysis. 

Some of the topics we spend a lot of time looking at are things like homelessness and affordable housing, education, and sea level rise. People had been talking about climate change and sea level rise, but very early on we looked at how it was going to affect the Bay Area. We did an analysis of new waterfront development that was being constructed or had been approved in 2014. At that time, no municipalities around the Bay Area had any regulations about what developers might have to do in light of consensus projections for future sea level rise. After we did this reporting, municipalities started bringing in regulations, and the conversations started shifting. 

Then a couple of years later, we noticed a new trend. It was because our reporters spent a lot of time doing document requests, looking at lawsuits, reading the footnotes. They noticed that developers were using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as an excuse for why they shouldn’t have to do anything to prepare for future sea level rise. CEQA says we can’t have negative effects on the environment; it doesn’t say anything about what negative effects the environment might have on this development in the future. It was a very interesting project. That’s just one example.

We’re covering a geographic area where people can come together, so we do our reporting, then we host events like panels or interactive workshops to have conversations. We do a lot of nonpartisan election events.

MONIKA: This is all just so incredibly inspiring, and I hope you recognize that even though these folks are very nice and polite, this is actually a revolution in journalism. [APPLAUSE]

These are leaders of three of more than 200 nonprofit news organizations around the country. There’s one where you live, focused on the issues you care about. There’s one representing the community you feel a part of, and if there isn’t, maybe it’s time for somebody to start one. Part of what all of this is about is to build an ecosystem of news to replace the atrophied and withering ecosystem that we’ve had. So with that, Marcia. 

Marcia Parker

MARCIA: Thank you. So glad to be here. That applause almost made me cry. I’m the publisher at CalMatters, a four-year-old nonprofit, non-partisan news organization covering state government news. We focus on environmental issues, on education, on health and welfare, and politics. We don’t cover daily or breaking news. Like my colleagues here, we pride ourselves on deep, insightful, explanatory news. That’s our goal. 

We were created to fill the void in state government coverage, and that’s because we used to have big bureaus. The LA Times had 15 people in Sacramento, I think they have three now. Sacramento Bee had a huge team. Now they have two or three. These are our partners, we have 180 news partners in the state. We give all our news away for free, pretty much everyone uses our content. We don’t have TV partnerships, but we do have public radio.

One of the other things that makes me happy is the number of individual people who have become members of our organization. So even though we give our work away for free, they’re supporting us in some way, whether it’s $5 a month or $25 a year. We have institutional members too, so nonprofits are engaged and supporting us, we give them space on the site, things like that. We created an election guide, and we had sponsors for that. People are supporting their local, regional, topical, national news organizations. So this is a revenue model that might not have worked even two years ago. It’s growing in a really big way across our country, and that’s really exciting.

I’m also on the board of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which we’re all members of. We’re approving about five new organizations a month now, and lots of those are tiny and hyper-local.

We were at one of our meetings and somebody said there’s a reporter in Flint, Michigan who really wants to start a nonprofit. The whole paper had shut down, and in three months we had her up and running. She got support and toolkit things that she needed, and as a result that community has some news again.

So if you are in a community without coverage, INN can help you get there, even if you just have the idea and don’t really know how to get started. You don’t even have to be a journalist. You can get people who care about making sure your community’s informed, and we can help you get there. [APPLAUSE] 

MONIKA: Let’s do a little bit of storytelling, since that’s what we do, and talk about some examples of the kind of work that can come out of this revolutionary model. Part of the goal is to open the box a little bit and tell you some of the crazy stuff that we go through. I have a story that I’ll maybe save for the end, but Nikhil, do you want to start?

NIKHIL: Sure. We had a reporter who was working at Grist who spent a year on and off visiting San Bernadino, California. She grew up about 20 miles away from it, so she had a familiarity with the rhythms of the community. It’s always been a sort of distribution center region. There was a large rail yard and for decades truck and train traffic was coming in and out of this area. There had been reports of childhood asthma, birth defects, cancer. A local group of women banded together after watching what was happening to their children, and started to fight back against this rail yard. 

In the midst of all of that, San Bernardino became the first or second biggest hub for the delivery economy in the country. So every year, two or three warehouses were getting dropped in this region, and warehouses are pollution magnets. They bring in trucks, the trucks come in, they leave goods, they come out, they’re bringing out goods. This was an area of the country that desperately needed this industry. Its poverty rate was double what the national average was. 

So we were able to give this reporter time to do a full panorama of what was going on, to spend time with a new generation of environmental activists who were fighting this totally new industry that anybody who’s ever ordered anything from Amazon is helping to feed. At the same time, the people that she was talking to – their brothers, their sisters, their mothers and fathers, sometimes their kids – were working for the industry because it was the biggest employer.

This was the type of story where once it was 75% completed, we looked at it and said, we can do this bigger and better. We went to our donor and members and asked for additional funding to make a 2,000 word story into a 4,500 word story. An illustrator created bespoke art and we put some money behind a public relations campaign to help us get our story onto local radio, into LA Times, newsletters, etc.

I want to leave it off there, because I know that Marcia wanted to talk about collaborations and partnerships, which is one of the things I love most about this model of journalism, rather than competition for ad dollars, impressions, clicks, and all this stuff that you need to keep the engine humming. The fuel to run these organizations is totally different, and it allows us to talk to each other and share knowledge, to go to INN and get a leg up, and to work with one another. I’ve done multiple collaborations already with Mother Jones. That’s particularly easy for me to do because it takes place in my household. 

There’s a real power to this. You can have these things for regions, cities, neighborhoods. And for topics that Grist address, it allows you to plug in and know that you all have different audiences, funding streams, different members. And we can take our audience and marry it with Mother Jones’ audience and San Francisco Public Press’ audience and make a bigger audience. I’m not a religious person, but this is the closest I’ve gotten to religion in my life. [LAUGHTER]

MONIKA: Well, it is back to the ecosystem metaphor, that’s what we’re talking about. There is an element of living systems, and in living systems parts collaborate to make something larger.

MARCIA: I feel the best thing that has happened is the walls have come down in journalism in the nonprofit sector, and people only care about one thing: informing their communities. So they’re really finding a way to enlarge and expand the audience by working together.

The project I thought I would talk about is called “The California Divide”. At CalMatters, we were asking how can it be true that in a state as wealthy as California we have 20% of our 40 million residents living in poverty, and another 20% at the edge – one healthcare catastrophe away from being there. So we were thinking there’s some reporting that has been done, and we do some, but we thought, you know what, we have to break up the model and rethink this.

So we raised about 700,000, mostly from the Irvine Foundation, and some other donors for this two-year effort to look at and frame the issues of economic inequity in our state, and disparity over these next two years. And we do it with our media partners. We’re raising more to hire reporters to embed in our local communities, especially in underserved communities where poverty’s a huge issue and nobody’s really writing about it.

This is an amazing thing. Right? It takes our media partners being willing to work with us, we’re not competing. It also includes a big series of public events, which we already do now, and also small, town-based events so that we can talk about these issues in these communities. 

This is just one level of collaboration. We’re working on raising additional funds for that so that we have ethnic media partners, Asian and black-owned media in the state, and we want to embed them in some of those communities as well so that we can do better. CalMatters will then take all that work and distribute it to all 180 media partners in the state. We have a lot of support right now. This is the model. The walls are down, this is an exciting time. 

At this point, more than 13,000 CalMatters stories have been picked up by our 180 news partners in four years, and it’s growing all the time. I just say that because you can see the need is there and there’s an interest, and that’s why they’re running it. Yes, it’s free, so that’s a bigger incentive. I think it’s also because people are hungry for knowledge. All of us.

MONIKA: So if you keep going with the ecosystem metaphor, you’ve seen the specialized organism that Nikhil represents, you have this kind of network effect that Marcia is working on, and Lila, what you’re doing is really sort of at the very grassroots level. You’re like the soil organism almost.

LILA: Yes, and in fact we’ve worked with everyone at this table on some level. So in the print edition, we pick up partner stories, so we’ve had stories from Grist, from CalMatters. We really appreciate that, because especially many of our issues will devote half of the pages to one big topic, which can be very interesting. But we also want to offer our community a range of news stories about issues and topics that we think they would be interested in.

Perhaps there are some authors out there, or people who we’d like to interview for Civic, our radio show, which has opened up our ability to cover more topics in really exciting ways. In-depth reporting takes so long, and even though we’re really proud of the work that comes out of that, we’re not able to put those stories out in front of people more than a couple of times a year. Whereas the interviews we’re doing for the radio show and then podcasting allow us to have these ongoing conversations about important topics in the same way that we would approach these in-depth stories.

I would like to talk a little bit about some of the big projects that we’ve done and what distinguishes the kind of work that we do. We did a series of three big education reporting projects. One looked at the increase in segregation in San Francisco public schools, and we had to do a lot of data analysis to come to that conclusion. It was because of the school’s choice system, which is supposed to help families have more control over where they send their kids, and it was inadvertently causing schools to become more segregated. 

Out of that reporting, our lead reporter on that, Jeremy Adam Smith, came across some other interesting information that sent him on another direction for the second story, which was looking at fundraising at PTAs in the schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. What he found that it had to do with the economics of the families in those schools, which was related to the increased segregation that some schools were raising $400,000 a year and some schools weren’t raising anything at all, or negligible amounts. The school district didn’t even know this at the time. 

The way we got this information was by gathering the 990s for all of the PTAs that were 501(c)3s, and pulling this together. We live and breathe tax documents, and it was one of those things that nobody would have known had we not pulled that together. It was a lot of work. In fact, Jeremy spoke recently about how for him and the others who gathered that data, there were some arguments and tears through the process, but by the time they got to the end of it, it was really powerful what we were able to reveal.

Some of the other reporting that we’ve done on homelessness and housing crisis, we often take a solutions approach. So solutions journalism is a term you might hear more often. When we’re looking at a solutions approach, we look at a problem that we have in San Francisco and say, well, what’s being done in other places that might work here? Either it’s being done in Portland, or Seattle, or New York, or it’s been done at a different point in time, or they’re doing it in Vancouver. What would it take to apply it here and what benefit might arise out of that? 

Or sometimes it’s looking at something like, wow, we have all of these residential hotels, these single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, and one of our reporters figured out that the city had data on the vacancy rates there. We also have data about the number of homeless people in San Francisco and the number of unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco. So our big analysis showed that at the point in time when we did the reporting, there were about 4,000 unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco. There were also about 1800 vacant SRO hotel rooms, and they were vacant for various reasons. Some of them were in disrepair, some were being kept off the market perhaps because the building owners wanted to do something else with the building, to prepare it for sale or convert it to something else. We weren’t making any sort of recommendation about that, but we said, here’s some interesting information for the community to discuss. We really like doing those kinds of stories.

So, that tells you a little bit more about how we do the work that we do. [APPLAUSE] 

MONIKA: Well that’s a great story. This information is not ending up in a vacuum. Right? These are ways that policymakers or citizens find out what they can work on. It took me a long time to understand that congressional investigators, for instance, don’t just pick up the phone one morning and say, okay, where might I find a scandal. [LAUGHTER] They read the news and then they dial in on what they might want to know more about, and they basically do the work of reporters over again, but with subpoena power.

That’s actually a world in which we live at Mother Jones. What Lila was saying about compiling all these tax documents, that’s so much of what goes on behind the scenes. They pull every single one of these documents from many, many years, collate all of them, look for patterns, and package it all up and tell a story that somebody who’s not going to put themselves through this misery can understand and can do something with. 

Likewise, at Mother Jones, we have a large team of people. We have 20 people in Washington, DC going after scandals and abuses of power, and one of the—this ecosystem metaphor’s going to go totally sideways—like the prey in these nature films where the cheetah just kind of runs after the prey for miles and miles, and hours and hours, and keeps taking a swipe at the prey, and finally they get it. I cry at these nature films. But some stories are like that, they go on over years and years. 

One of our reporters was intrigued by a line that was on the president’s financial disclosure that he has to file every year. This is not a president who discloses everything about his finances, as we know, but on this pro forma disclosure, he disclosed a $50 million loan that he owes to Donald Trump. Why, you might say? And that’s what our reporter said. So he spent three years just coming at this story again, and trying to figure out where this money was coming from and where it was going and what it represented.

He would call tax law experts, and building finance experts, and he got it down to where it’s a building related to Trump’s project in Chicago. That would take months to piece together, and then he would go do something else, and he would come back at it, and he would discover that there is a financial tool called Loan Parking that has to do with when you – how do I say this diplomatically? – when you basically don’t want the IRS to know about a transaction that you’ve done. Long story short, it took him three years to piece together a story that makes it pretty much apparent that this particular loan looks a lot like what many tax experts would consider tax fraud. You can read this story in the October 2019 issue of Mother Jones, but it’s the kind of thing that can be incredibly unglamorous, and that also puts you through these ridiculous fact-checking hoops, because we have a big fact-checking team. 

We will have fact checkers call people up and say: Is it true that you are completely bald? [LAUGHTER] Or Is the door to your house actually painted purple or magenta? And so when it comes to a financial story like this, they really go down rabbit holes. But the outcome is something that has kind of rippling impacts out there, because it gives people like you, in the case of a school story, like what Lila was talking about, or people in Southern California who want to engage with what the logistics industry is doing down there, the wherewithal to get involved and do something about it.

Do any of you work with youth organizations, youth media organizations in particular? Because there’s a lot of movement there.

NIKHIL: One of my first hires at Grist was an editor who previously worked for youth radio, the NPR Youth Vertical. And one of her charges in coming into Grist was to develop a pipeline of youth journalists around the country, in part because when I was talking about our environmental justice stories, the importance is being able to do community level reporting by people who are familiar with those communities. And one of the ways we thought would be most effective was not to go necessarily to the beat reporter from the daily that shut down, but to find a young person in that community who’s grown up in it, who’s excited, who wants to become a journalist, help them develop skills, allow them to write a few stories about their community.

This is like super fledgling, I’m just telling you what our plan is. But that was the idea behind bringing somebody with that background into Grist, because one of the realities on the ground is that it takes an extremely patient editor to work with a green journalist, and you have to hire for that.

We essentially have a staffer at Grist who is helping to pioneer these sort of talent and identification kind of efforts. So one of the other things we’ve done is convene this group called the Environmental Journalists of Color Network. The idea wasn’t for it to be Grist’s Environmental Journalists of Color Network, it was to just get together people who are already working in the space and saying to them, How did you get here? What did you do? Did you go to J school? Other people had gone to historically black colleges and universities, and then gotten into local media and 10 years went by and now they’re Pro Publica. And so we asked how do we reverse engineer this? How do we start to build that pipeline? How do we get more people writing about this issue or the suite of issues that we think is really, really important? We’re at the beginning of this process, but this thing took off at Society of Environmental Journalists.

LILA: We’ve worked with a lot of young journalists. We used to have a more informal internship program.We don’t have that now because we decided we would rather work with young journalists as freelancers. We’d have an internship program and they’d come to our office and they’d be in the office for many hours a week, and we often felt like it wasn’t a good match on either side, especially because they were often running off to another part-time job, and we thought, let’s work with people as freelancers so that they can work on a schedule that works for them and we’re going to pay them for their work. 

We are eager to work with young people who show us they can be dedicated to the process. Sometimes it actually works out well, because we’re not trying to do these quick-turn around stories. So you’ve got young people who have other jobs but want to get more experience in the kind of journalism that we do, and we’re eager to work with them in that capacity and make sure they get paid for their work.

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