Should Sugar Daddies Save Journalism? Bay Area News Project Editor Weighs In -- Again

Categories: Media
As journalist Jim Barnett pointed out earlier today, Bay Area News Project's new editor-in-chief, Jonathan Weber, wasn't always a fan of nonprofit news-gathering. In fact, just last year, Weber said that the idea that nonprofits were the future of journalism was a "cop-out."

Weber, then helming the for-profit site New West, wrote an essay  last January in which he raised troubling questions about non-profit journalism.

"What happens when saving journalism is no longer a cause of the moment?" he wrote. "How can a news organization properly go about its business when it's constantly on bended knee looking for funders?" And then there's the kicker: "New business approaches will, ultimately, be a better guarantor of quality journalism -- and democracy -- than sugar daddies," Weber concluded. Now, of course, he's heading an organization funded by "hillbilly millionaire" Warren Hellman.

When we called Weber to ask how his perspective has evolved since last year, he told SF Weekly that, in a lot of ways, it hasn't.

"If you took out some of the rhetorical lines, you could read that piece as, 'What are some of the challenges of doing non-profit journalism?'" he said. "I haven't exactly changed my mind about some of those things."

The one major shift in his outlook is that he has seen how few investors are willing to put their money into developing journalistic content. That makes the non-profit model look a lot more attractive.

In last year's essay, "The Trouble with Non-Profit Journalism," Weber argued that it's healthy for news organizations to be held to the "brutal discipline of the market," and wondered about the real readership for a news publication dedicated to "sober, non-partisan" coverage.

"How many copies of the Warren Buffet Times"--or, in his case, the Warren Hellman Times -- "would need to be sold to make that $200 million-a-year newsroom worth the investment?" Weber asked. If the non-profits couldn't really get readership numbers, he wondered, would they, too, turn to covering Britney?

When we asked Weber to respond to his own question, he had a short answer: No Britney.

"I do think there are ways you can engage a broad-based audience without chasing clicks for your own sake and without getting into a lot of redundant coverage of, you know, Tiger Woods or whatever would be the click-friendly story of the week. We're definitely not going to go down that road," he said.  

At the same time, Weber told us, "We expect to have a broad-based readership. This is not a narrow public policy wonk publication."

So, where will the Bay Area News Project fall in the spectrum between that old-school catechism, "the reporter is objective," and straight-up opinion journalism?  

"There are sort of subtle questions of style and voice, and I think that one of the things I'll be working very hard on is developing that style and voice," Weber said.

"It will not necessarily adhere to the very traditional AP style, he said/she said kind of reporting, but at the same time, I think it will very much adhere to the classical standards of fairness and accuracy and real reportage."

The New York Times is only one of the project's partners, and Times tone won't define the News Project's voice, Weber said. Contrary to what some people may still be assuming,  he said, "The New York Times is not going to be the sole or even the primary outlet for our journalism."

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