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Berkeleyside: The Nimble Hyperlocal News Site is Winning Awards and Attracting Eyeballs

December 15, 2015
by Katherine Seligman

Protesters gathered near the gates of Sproul Plaza on the Cal campus, carrying signs and chanting a phrase reverberating around the country: “Black lives matter.” The crowd swelled as it headed away from campus to downtown, where, by 6:30, demonstrators lay down and blocked the street.

Ten minutes later, someone smashed windows at Trader Joe’s. Others in the throng yelled “Peaceful protest!” but a fringe group broke more glass and hurled objects at police. Tensions grew as the night wore on. Officers using batons and tear gas surrounded protesters. There were arrests and injuries.

If you weren’t there that December night, you could practically watch all this happen live on Berkeleyside, part of a new generation of websites emerging in the wake of the troubled newspaper industry, including two sites produced by UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism: Richmond Confidential and Oakland North.

In the last 10 years, newspapers have seen circulation and advertising decimated and have shed more than 16,000 jobs in one year alone. Meanwhile, Berkleyside, the nimble site with a small staff, is gaining recognition, winning awards, and—the gold standard for anything digital—attracting eyeballs to its hyperlocal coverage of Berkeley. In a city of 120,000, Berkeleyside gets an average of 200,000 unique visits per month—though the number has spiked to 400,000. The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has given it an award for excellence two years in a row.

Plenty of other media showed up to cover the protest. Television trucks were there, and so were newspaper reporters from San Francisco and other parts of the East Bay. But no one provided more immediate coverage than the homegrown site that documented, practically minute by minute, what was happening as Berkeley, a protest veteran of a town, added to the outrage over the deaths of two black men (Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York).

The site’s reporters managed their own updates from 6:30 p.m. on December 6 to 2:45 the next morning, when the four of them had to rest, at least briefly, before the protests continued on and off for most of the week. No one got much sleep.

“It was really thrilling,” says Frances Dinkelspiel, one of the site’s three founders, sitting in the lounge of a coworking space near the Cal campus, where the six-year-old website has a small office. “It was not just Berkeleyside reporting. The community was reporting on itself, and we were live-blogging. We can be spontaneous and react to a situation.”

Berkeleyside founders (l to r) Lance Knobel, Tracey Talor and Frances Dinkelspiel.

In fact, it’s what many consumers now expect—news that appears almost instantaneously, as events unfold at home or across the world. Most now read news on computers or mobile devices, a trend that, if you’re not part of, you’ve noticed whenever you ride a bus or wait in line. Who carries a folded-up newspaper anymore? If they did, would it even have local news?

“The really big guys and the tiny guys who have a circulation of 50,000 and below are doing well, but that leaves out most of the metro dailies, who are not doing well,” says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, a research center at American University that studies and funds new approaches to journalism. “They have lost their portfolio. They are not covering hyperlocal news or international news.”

In this new climate, digital sites are scrambling to fill the gaps. Some pick niche topics—the environment, public health, or education—and others, like Berkeleyside, are hyperlocal, focusing on the ever present appetite for community news.

There are hyperlocal nonprofits and for-profits, although this category is confusing because the for-profits, such as Berkeleyside and San Francisco’s well-regarded Mission Local, don’t make much profit, while some nonprofits are generously funded. What they have in common—and this they share with old-fashioned print journalism—is the search for a sustainable business model. Digital local news occupies a fragile ecosystem where many sites—both non- and for-profit—have virtually disappeared. The Bay Citizen, envisioned as a source of breaking news and cultural coverage, gave up its independent status and merged with the larger Center for Investigative Reporting in 2012. Two years later AOL sold its hyperlocal experiment Patch and the new owners shut down a significant portion of sites and laid off more than half the staff.

“Berkeley is a special place. It has a passionate populace. When they changed the color of the recycling bins and required more sorting, people were up in arms. We were all over it.”

Two other local sites mentioned earlier, Oakland North and Richmond Confidential, are sponsored and staffed by Cal’s J-School, which severed its ties with Mission Local in 2014, mostly for financial reasons. The sites were initially funded by a 2008 Ford Foundation grant. Dean Edward Wasserman says the sites, where up to 15 students per term zero in on local politics, education, and social and environmental issues, are useful instructional tools but too expensive to run year-round. When he had to choose between serving outside communities or students, he chose students, Wasserman says.

But he cautions that the value of quality in-depth local reporting should never be underestimated, that it is “important not to have local entities go without scrutiny.” The J-School sites provide coverage that residents are not getting elsewhere, says Kara Platoni, a lecturer who graduated from the program, worked for the East Bay Express, and now teaches the hyperlocal classes.

“Richmond doesn’t have a newspaper that covers just the city of Richmond,” she explains. “For a lot of people, Richmond Confidential is the major news outlet. Students are respected and trusted.”

If they make mistakes, they hear about it, she says. And if they get it right, readers thank them. Richmond Confidential was first to write about Chevron’s $3 million in public relations expenditures aimed at influencing local elections. Student reporters in Oakland have traced the ingredients of student lunches from source to table, and were so far out front on their coverage of the local Occupy demonstrations that they got calls from national TV networks.

But the sites don’t have to figure out the real-world problem of sustainability. Supported by the school, they have valuable resources—talented, motivated reporters (the students) in numbers a stand-alone site could only dream about—and they go on hiatus during the summer.

Berkeleyside team (l to r) Kate Williams, Tracey Taylor, Frances Dinkelspiel, Lance Knobel, Wendy Cohen and Emilie Raguso.

The three Berkeleyside founders had no idea how fast their site would catch on when they fell into writing about local events. They also did not have a business plan, nor had they talked about media disruption, pivot strategies, or search engine optimization.

What they did have, collectively, was extensive experience writing for major outlets. Tracey Taylor and her husband, Lance Knobel, had moved to Berkeley in 2005 from London, where they’d worked in business journalism. Taylor had written and edited for Financial Times; Knobel had worked in venture capital, started a blog, and been editor at the magazine of the World Economic Forum.

They soon noticed the lack of news coverage in their adopted hometown. Papers in the area—including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Area News Group—had all pared down. It seemed surprising that in Berkeley, with its iconic history; trend-setting social, environmental, and political movements; and world-class public university, much went uncovered.

“If you wanted to know what was happening, there was nowhere to look,” says Knobel.

The couple met Dinkelspiel because their kids were friends and attended the same small private school in Oakland. Dinkelspiel had worked at the San Jose Mercury News and had written her first book, Towers of Gold. She and Taylor both contributed Bay Area pieces to The New York Times, but talked about the local stories that went untold.

So they began to write and post the stories on a simple site Knobel designed. At first, there was no real schedule or office. The three talked on the phone and met once a week in each other’s living rooms.

They hear from their readers, who often tweet out when they hear sirens or helicopters overhead. “@Berkeleyside, what is going on?”

“Six years ago, we wrote when we felt like it,” recalls Knobel. “We didn’t think it would take over our lives and be a big thing. It was the reaction to the low-key casual approach that convinced us there was something more there. People would find us, and say, ‘It’s so great. It’s so needed.’”

Slowly they ramped up coverage. They went to city council, school board, police and planning board meetings, often finding themselves the only journalists in the room. The depth and seriousness of their stories increased, as did their technical and business skills.

Three years ago they sponsored their first Local Business Forum for business owners, residents, and policymakers to discuss community issues. More than 300 people, including Mayor Tom Bates, showed up. After one particularly vehement Telegraph Avenue business owner complained about the blight on the street, specifically “millions of rats” in one long-vacant lot, Taylor decided to check it out.

The resulting video—shot with her phone—featured rodents scurrying just feet from the busy thoroughfare leading to Cal. The “rat cam” was a small viral hit, getting more than 12,000 views on YouTube.

“It exploded,” says Taylor. “That was a trigger for us to cover the improvement of Telegraph Avenue. No one else was covering the day-to-day meetings.”

Berkeleyside has since carried numerous stories about challenges to businesses on the street, city plans for improvements, and Cal’s moves to upgrade buildings at the main campus entrance. The site’s range is wide, including follow-ups on the December protests; an investigation into fraudulent enrollment at city schools; a look at why Berkeley was slow to take advantage of social media; and how a local Tibetan organization used its religious status to skirt laws.

On big stories, everyone jumps in, editing, writing, tweeting, and reading emails and comments. At times, such as when the balcony of a downtown Berkeley building collapsed in June, killing six students (five of them from Ireland), it has been hard to compete with big newspapers and TV networks. Given its limitations, Berkeleyside has to make quick decisions about what to pursue. In the case of the balcony collapse, the staff wrote profiles of the young people who died. They connected with the Irish press, which needed local contacts. But they couldn’t afford to pay for building forensics experts, for example.

If there is a “secret sauce” for their success, says Knobel, it is the combination of experience and the unique qualities of Berkeley—a city where people are politically engaged, out front on new trends, and like to discuss amongst themselves. Constantly.

“Berkeley is a special place,” says Knobel. “It has a passionate populace. When they changed the color of the recycling bins and required more sorting, people were up in arms. We were all over it.”

And they hear from their readers, who often tweet out when they hear sirens or helicopters overhead. “@Berkeleyside, what is going on?”

Comments on the site are robust, occasionally running into the hundreds and not always positive. Readers like to argue. (“So many comments here are so bizarre and out of touch, they belong in a museum so future societies can learn how not to have a housing crisis,” says one, responding to a raft of comments about development on Telegraph.) Like every site, Berkeleyside has its haters—mostly, says Taylor, those who think it sides with developers. These folks make themselves known online, often on Berkeleysnide, a Reddit site that, in keeping with its name, asserts that it’s OK to be snide about Berkeley. But at least people are reading.

“Berkeleyside is not notable because they are hyperlocal, but because they cover news,” says Matthai Chakko, city spokesperson for Berkeley. “They go to design committee meetings. They write about the city council in a lot of detail. You will not find many hyperlocal sites that cover local news as well as Berkeleyside. That doesn’t mean I agree with them or like everything they say. But in terms of their ambition and execution, they do a lot.”

Berkeleyside team members Frances Dinkelspiel and Emilie Raguso.

While the founders wondered in the early days whether they’d make it, they are now optimistic that they will. They have a real office in a sleek space on University Avenue shared with other small businesses. Unlike traditional newsrooms, which often resemble a hoarders’ convention, the office is small and uncluttered. There are letters of praise tacked to one wall, a whiteboard on another. Other than that, it looks like everyone is too busy for décor. Just outside are perks of start-ups: ice water with fresh grapefruit and cucumber, free coffee, and beer on tap.

The site, which posts about 30 to 40 stories a week, has grown its own personality and regular features—a photo asking “Where in Berkeley?”, a food section called Nosh, a crime round-up, and editorials. It shares content with the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED, and links to other media stories about Berkeley.

With revenue of $350,000 last year, it also has grown a budget. It’s paid for tech help to spruce up the site. They hired a senior reporter, Emilie Raguso, a 2006 graduate of the J-School, former Modesto Bee reporter, and editor of Albany Patch. Online was not on her radar after graduate school, Raguso says, but she feels lucky to be at a site that is so committed to the community. There are also an advertising director, a part-time food writer, and paid freelancers. Unpaid guest writers, including the founder of Quirky Berkeley, a blog detailing the city’s peculiarities, have stepped in.

The founders still take virtually no salary, although they are hoping that will change as membership (now at 1,000), ad sales, and attendance at sponsored events rise. Last year, the site’s TED-like event, Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas (“Don’t call it a conference; that’s boring,” says Knobel) drew 400 people. This year’s Uncharted, held in mid-October and costing $345 for two days, featured a range of speakers, including bioethicist Alice Dreger, authors Masha Gessen and Robin Sloan, federal court of appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Challenges lie ahead, but Knobel says some sites have spent too much time agonizing over the process and not enough—as one large sneaker company would say—just doing it. “There has never been a more fertile time to commit journalism,” he insists.

Will they get rich? Probably not.

Knobel still does other work, as does Dinkelspiel, whose second book, Tangled Vines, about murder and greed in California vineyards, came out this fall.

“But it’s fun,” says Dinkelspiel, who usually gets up at 6 a.m. to check wire stories and writes from four to five posts a week. “I’m still working as a reporter, and we get to make a difference.”

Katherine Selligman is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Sacramento Bee, Redbook, Money, and Life.

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