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CalMatters: Old Blues Deliver the Scoop in Sacramento

October 10, 2016
by Glen Martin

It was about 10 years ago that the old news model was declared dead, skewered fatally through the heart by the Internet and social media. People began getting the information they wanted when they wanted, in gobs and snippets from a vast menu of choices ranging from their Facebook friends to the Gray Lady to that impeachable source for celebrity train-wreck updates, PopSugar News. Local newspapers folded or imploded. And with the manifold options available online, television news seemed more weary, stale and unprofitable than ever; viewership declined.

Those reporters and editors who weren’t pushed jumped ship like terrified, ink-stained rats. Some found berths—usually at reduced salaries—at surviving newspapers and TV and radio stations. Many went into corporate PR, or became communicators for government agencies, NGOs, or universities.

It was bad—and not just for embittered ex-journos facing looming impoverishment. It was bad for the public. With fewer eyes on the machinations of government and business and more on pop culture clickbait, vast mischief was done. There was a great hollowing out of coverage, particularly government coverage, and even more particularly coverage of local, regional, and state government.

But things have changed somewhat, and for the better. The Fourth Estate hasn’t exactly risen to its full puissance of the early- to mid-2000s, but online journalism has matured, moving beyond aggregation of snarky blogs culled from the reporting of others. There now are plenty of investigative reports and explanatory projects percolating across the Web. Sites like Politico, ProPublica, and Reveal (formerly the Center for Investigative Reporting) are breaking news and covering complex and important issues that would’ve gone unreported five years ago, bolstering private and public media outlets.

Few of these new ventures are as emblematic of both the direction and challenges facing the new model as CALmatters, a Sacramento-based site founded by UC Berkeley alumni Simone Coxe and Chris Boskin. Both women have impressive bona fides in the communications field. Coxe is a director at KQED and the board chair of Internews, a nonprofit dedicated to the support of local media sources. She also is a co-founder of Blanc & Otus, a seminal tech PR firm. Boskin worked as an executive at The New Yorker, the Hearst Corporation, Knapp Communications, and Worth Media. She was a prime mover in the founding of Bon Appétit Magazine, and she serves on the boards of NPR, Internews, Higher Ground, and the Gladstone Institutes.

Their interest in developing a new media site came from a shared sense of bewilderment over the news coming out of Sacramento. Or rather, the news not coming out of Sacramento. They saw that with the collapse of traditional media, the state capitol had turned into something of a black hole, with a lot of stuff going in, mainly money and influence, but little information coming out.

“A perennial concern on the KQED board is the confluence between the lack of accountability in California government and the poor coverage of state policies and legislation,” says Coxe. “Just as an experiment, I asked my friends if they knew who their state representatives were. None did, and these are highly intelligent, extremely accomplished people. They didn’t know because in large part there was no place for them to go to learn about state politics.”

That’s not surprising, says Boskin, considering most Sacramento news bureaus have been shuttered.

“And the bureaus that remain are working with minimal staff,” she says. “The Los Angeles Times bureau has fallen from 16 reporters to 4. The San Francisco Chronicle has 1 reporter. You can’t possibly cover the news with so few people, no matter how good they are and how hard they work.” [Update 10/11/16: The Times disputes those figures. According to communications director Hillary Manning, the paper has nine Sacramento bureau reporters. “We also have, for the first time in our history, a masthead editor responsible for coverage of state government and politics. Plus, there are two reporters in Los Angeles covering California politics.” But the fact remains, papers have fewer state reporters than they once had.]

Coxe decided to do something substantial about this lamentable information deficit: kicking in a million dollars of her own money to start an online news service dedicated exclusively to state government. Boskin quickly got on board, and Dave Lesher, a long-time staffer at the Los Angeles Times and the former director of government affairs for the Public Policy Institute of California, signed on as CEO and editor.

“We tried to evaluate the greatest need,” says Coxe, “and it became clear that the investigative model that anchors organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting wasn’t going to work for us. We wouldn’t have the resources to devote a year on a story just to put somebody in jail. Besides, putting somebody in jail isn’t necessarily our goal. Our mission is to explain what goes on in Sacramento, in all its complexity. If we find wrongdoing in reporting out a story, we’ll pursue that. But we want to tell balanced stories, stories that detail what state government is doing. We’re doing explanatory journalism more than investigative journalism.”

Further, Coxe and Boskin agreed that CALmatters had to remain well above Sacramento’s unseemly political affrays.

“I’m a Democrat and Chris is a Republican,” says Coxe, “so we’re not bringing any agenda to this venture. CALmatters is rigorously nonpartisan. We just want to present the facts.”

The site has been up for more than a year, and is now California’s largest media organization for capitol news, with 11 reporters and editors providing free content to more than 70 newspapers, radio and television stations, and websites, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento, Fresno, and Modesto Bees, KQED, the Contra Costa Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and the San Diego Union Tribune. But this being 2016, CALmatters’s reach extends well beyond traditional news venues. Pamela Behrsin, the site’s senior editor for audience and engagement, sees to that. The audiences that Behrsin specifically seeks to engage are the multitudes who rely on social media platforms for their news. But she just doesn’t blast out CALmatters content willy-nilly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When it comes to armaments, she prefers the digital equivalent of the rifle over the shotgun.

“Social media is so large and there are so many platforms that unless you hit certain verticals you won’t get much traction,” says Behrsin, who took her undergraduate degree in global environmental politics at Cal and previously worked as the vice president of communications for MapLight, the Berkeley-based campaign contribution research organization. “So we segment our outreach in terms of specific interests. For example, when we run a story on a piece of legislation or ballot measure, I’ll alert people and groups that I know are deeply invested in that issue. Our audiences tend to have a lot of followers of their own, and they retweet or repost our information, pushing it into networks of their own. Once you get into the feeds of people who care deeply about something, who influence other people, your audiences can build tremendously.”

That strategy clearly is paying off. In the last quarter, the number of people CALmatters reached on Facebook grew by 49 percent, while Facebook engagements (i.e., shares, comments, and likes) jumped by 27 percent. Twitter impressions hit 1.3 million, while Twitter retweets, likes, and link clicks reached almost 5,000. That’s on top of the 477 CALmatters articles picked up by newspapers, online media, and public radio for the same period.

Such new media expertise is not limited to Behrsin. It’s pretty much shared to some degree by everyone at CALmatters, says managing editor Vicki Haddock. “All of our reporters come from a print background, and they are all extremely competent at long-form writing,” says Haddock. (Full disclosure: Haddock ran California magazine’s website and was a frequent editor of this writer before heading to CALmatters.) “But the Web can do things that paper can’t, so our reporters are adept at dealing with multiple platforms. For example, our data reporter looked at Proposition 56, the proposed cigarette tax initiative, and created six interactive graphics that help explain the ways this measure will affect California and smokers.”

Indeed, CALmatters’s treatment of the 17 state initiatives that will be on the November ballot is an example of the expository journalism that Coxe and Boskin envisioned. Spearheaded by reporter Laurel Rosenhall, the site’s proposition guide has become something of a vade mecum for other news organizations attempting to penetrate California’s convoluted and confusing initiative process, including The New York Times.

“It was right in the sweet spot of our mission,” says Rosenhall, who earned her master’s at Cal’s Graduate School of Journalism and worked at the Sacramento Bee for more than ten years. “In California, ballot initiatives can be sponsored by either citizens or legislators, and here is a great deal of interplay between what happens in the state capitol and what propositions end up on the ballot. That’s often lost on state residents, but because we keep a close eye on the state house, we can explain how these things happen, who has skin in the game, and why.”

An example: Proposition 58, a legislature-sponsored measure that would overturn Proposition 227, a 1998 initiative that banned bilingual education.

“Proposition 58 reflects the changing demographics of the state legislature,” says Rosenhall. “Proposition 227 was deeply unpopular with Latino communities, but they didn’t have the political clout to stop it. But today, there’s a powerful cohort of Latino legislators in Sacramento, and they came of age during the anti-immigration movement of the 1990s. They’re now in a position to change things.”

Rosenhall also cites Proposition 60, which strengthens existing laws requiring male adult film actors to wear condoms.

“What isn’t widely known is that over the past three years the legislature twice considered legislation that would’ve done the same thing,” says Rosenhall. “But those bills never passed, so Proposition 60 was sponsored by a Los Angeles-based anti-AIDS group. They see their effort as a response to legislative inaction.”

Of course, reporting and editing must be funded, even for nonprofit news services like CALmatters. Coxe’s initial donation got things rolling, and she and Boskin have raised enough money to pay salaries and keep the heat and air conditioning on for the foreseeable future. But long-term support is by no means assured. “Sustainability is tricky,” Coxe acknowledges, “but I’ve talked to people at ProPublica and Mother Jones, and I think the key for us is revenue diversity. Right now we’re still relying on major gifts, but we’re also actively pursuing corporate and foundation sponsorship and individual donations. We’re hiring a COO and publisher, and the primary responsibility of that person will be raising money. We don’t need a rainmaker—Chris and I are good at getting big gifts. We just need somebody who’s a competent and responsible fundraiser. We’ve demonstrated there’s a real need for our work, and people love what we do. I’m confident we’ll get the support we need.”

But even if CALmatters prospers, is it good for journalism? Is it really a satisfactory substitute for well-staffed bureaus? The site is now the main state capitol news source, directly or through its partners, for millions of people, and it could be argued that the commonweal would be better served if other players were in the game. Further, while CALmatters pays its reporters and editors well, it constitutes a disincentive for newspapers and electronic media outlets to revitalize their bureaus. Why should they, when they get all the policy and legislative news they want for free?

“It’s a mixed picture,” says Carl Hall, an executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a lecturer at Cal’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a veteran science and business reporter who has worked for several newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle.

“If journalism is a pillar of democracy as most of us believe, then you have to be concerned about its diminishment,” says Hall. “The situation really is dismal—and not just for Capitol news. All the specialty beats—the arts, science, religion—are essentially extinct. There is relatively little investigative or long-form explanatory reporting going on. So when good-hearted people with the financial means want to step in, you have to applaud that.”

But nonprofit journalism invariably exerts pressures on commercial journalism, Hall allows, citing as an example a philanthropic venture he participated in as both a union organizer and a journalist several years ago: The Bay Citizen, funded by the late equity investor, philanthropist, and Cal alumnus Warren Hellman. Hall participated in early advisory foundational meetings for the news site, which was launched in 2010 and had a pretty good run before merging with the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013. It supported a website and partnered with The New York Times for a Bay Area section that ran in a zoned edition of the paper.

“But when I was involved with that, I got quite a bit of push-back from colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle who felt that we were indirectly contributing to newsroom downsizing,” Hall says. “And they had a good point. But it’s also true that media as it once existed is no longer a salable commodity. It has become very difficult to monetize, because it’s no longer supported by things such as display advertising, and because everyone now expects to get their information for free. It’s a classic case of market failure, and you can’t just sit on your high horse and pretend you don’t need a business plan that works. It’s silly to think, for example, that the Chronicle will ever go back to its former staffing levels. Newspapers must shrink to levels that are profitable if they’re going to exist at all.”

And the bottom line, Hall concludes, “is that serious journalism is going to require public or private support—or both—to survive. So in this new world, philanthropists probably have to be part of the mix, and I say bring ’em on.”

CALmatters’s partners—the news outlets that use the site’s stories—largely seem happy with the relationship.

“We’ve collaborated with CALmatters on a number of stories, and just last month, [we co-sponsored] a public forum in Long Beach,” Frank Pine, the executive editor of the Southern California News Group, emailed in response to a query from California. “We’re enthusiastic supporters of innovative nonprofit journalism organizations that seek to provide meaningful reporting on important topics, such as state government. We’ve found CalMatters to be an excellent partner, and we’re happy that we’ve been able to help them reach a broader audience.”

This story was updated on October 11, 2016.

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