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Newspapers are dead. Long live journalism!
By Nina Martin, Photograph by David Berson | May 18, 2009
Big-city dailies fail, hyperlocal bloggers soar, newsosaurs panic, young people urge calm.
ALBANY, CA—In case you haven’t heard, these are desperate times in the news business. But if you live in Albany, the past 18 months have been a golden age of civic journalism, and the woman to thank is Chinese-born grad student Linjun Fan.
Fan hearts Albany. The city council meetings (“Things like this don’t exist in my country,” she enthuses). The school-board president who’s resigning because she’s getting married and moving out of town (“She worked very hard for the community; I appreciate what she’s done”). Fan’s hyperlocal site, AlbanyToday.org, is the only news source devoted exclusively to the day-to-day issues affecting her 15,974 neighbors: teacher layoffs, emergency parcel taxes, the memorial service for the baseball coach who died of a heart attack, the citywide garage sale. Even lonely birds and ladybugs have their own section, “Moments of Beauty,” sandwiched between “Meet Election Candidates” and “News on Albany Schools.”
Fan’s unembarrassed affection for her East Bay town is refreshing in a profession trained to keep its distance. “Reporters are supposed to be passionate about everything until they write about it; then they’re dispassionate,” says Paul Grabowicz, one of her professors at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It’s a weird, alienating trap: How can you get to know a community if you’re aloof from it? Who wants to read something if the writer doesn’t seem to care? “If you’re passionate about your work,” Fan insists, “it makes you more responsible for what you produce.”
But then, not many young journalists aspire to produce local news, and fewer and fewer papers can afford to do it well. With all the San Francisco Chronicle cutbacks, even a juicy Albany story about a popular female science teacher accused of molesting her middle-school student gets a measly four paragraphs on B-3. “Many of my classmates have fancy ideas about being foreign correspondents,” Fan says. “But your reader is so far away—how can you know what they care about? I always have my reader in mind when I write. I think that’s the importance of journalism.”
You have to be a special kind of crazy to sign on for two years of journalism school (and $60,000–90,000 in tuition and living expenses) during the most disruptive period in publishing since the invention of the printing press, half a millennium ago. Yet the 27-year-old Fan strikes me as exceptionally levelheaded and smart. A native of Hunan Province, she graduated from Beijing University with a degree in international studies, then worked for a while as a TV reporter and news researcher. She was also an avid blogger—“personal stuff I would share with family and friends.”
When Fan arrived in Berkeley, in fall 2007, the J-school was pushing its faculty and students to experiment with multimedia. Starting an Albany site seemed like an ideal project for her beginners’ reporting class—and a great crash course in small-town American democracy. “I wanted to know how the system worked from the inside. I wanted to examine it from the tiniest cell,” Fan says. Her first city council meeting left her so excited, she practically danced home.
Fan kept the site going even after her course ended that December, and by February 2008, it was getting 6,800 hits a month (the town has 7,000 households). So impressed was the J-school’s dean, Neil Henry, that last fall the school revamped its curriculum to create a handful of similar sites, funded by a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. At a time when journalism is struggling for relevance, Henry tells me, “the connection Linjun made with this community was extraordinary.”
As Henry and I chat in the J-school’s tranquil courtyard, our conversation drifts to mutual friends recently forced from the news business (years ago, we both worked at the Washington Post, he on the hot-shit investigative team, I on the lowly business desk). There are lots of them: Newspapers have cut 27,000 employees in the past couple of years—nearly 9,000 in just the first four months of 2009. “It’s profoundly shocking to go back to the Post and realize that some of the best reporters and editors in the world are worried for their jobs,” Henry says. If anything, he thinks the situation in the Bay Area is worse: “We feel the industry’s retrenchment here more than in other places.” At the once proud San Jose Mercury News, help-wanted ads are down 90 percent from their dot-com peak (according to the New York Times), and the newsroom is barely a third of its former size. The Merc’s owner, MediaNews Group, whose 29 Northern California properties include almost every daily in the region outside San Francisco, is flirting with default. The Chronicle, losing $1 million a week and down 16 percent of its circulation in just six months, threatened to close up shop if employees didn’t agree to even more job cuts and concessions.
The news industry’s transition from print to Internet, ad-based to who-knows-what, was already excruciating, but the recession has made it incalculably worse. (Special thanks to those reckless publishers who bought up papers they couldn’t afford, then stripped them down while loading them with debt—don’t you feel proud?) For those trapped inside the death spiral, the collapse of the media industry is symbolic of a whole world on the brink of cataclysm. “Newspapers are like the zooplankton in the ocean—they sustain all life forms,” reporter turned union rep Carl Hall tells me over sodas at the Tempest, aka Hanno’s, a sometimes hangout for Chronicle nervous wrecks, where ashtrays sit on every table and the air is thick with doom. (A couple of months later, Hall is on the buyout list.) Ex–Chronicle editorial writer Louis Freedberg likens the demise of newspapers and the potential effect on our nation to the extermination of the buffalo and the decline of the Great Plains Indians. “It’s a kind of cultural death we’re experiencing,” he says. “That’s why it’s so traumatic.”
It was another trauma—Watergate—that hooked my generation of journalists on newspapers in the first place. Our role models were Woodward and Bernstein and All the President’s Men. Newspapers are where I learned to explore the world and to think for myself, where I fell in love and met my closest friends. After a decade, I moved on to other ways of telling stories; my mate, Alex Barnum (four years at the Merc, 14 at the Chron), got out in the nick of time, in 2005.
Many of our ex-colleagues, not so lucky, wear the same sad, scared looks I see in photos of Chrysler and GM workers. Given the scale of the looming disaster—even the New York Times is in grave danger—it’s hard to believe something as modest and, let’s face it, as old-fashioned as Albany Today could make much of a lasting difference. And maybe it won’t: As I write this, the site’s future is unclear. Fan graduated this May and will soon head back to China to teach online journalism and start a local news site.
Yet when I consider what she has accomplished—part-time, for practically no money, with minimal institutional support—I feel something unexpected and unsettling: I think it’s called optimism. Maybe there’s another way of viewing the decimation around us. “You need to let the old dead trees burn down before the new ones can take root,” says media analyst and blogger David Weir, an old friend who has reinvented his journalism career many times in the 20 years I’ve known him. “What’s happening now is the equivalent of a massive mudslide or earthquake. But what grows up afterward is richness.”
That’s what I see, too. After all the years of wanting something more from our newspapers, or something different, Bay Area readers are finally getting our wish. This may be the media moment we’ve been waiting for—if we can survive it.
NOT A TYPICAL NEWS TOWN, ANYWAY
I’ve been pondering the strange world of Bay Area newspapers since I walked into the old Examiner as the new legal-affairs reporter one spring morning in 1988. The newsroom had just been redecorated, and it was very Bonfire of the Vanities: fancy Italian furniture in the conference rooms, hand-painted faux-marble columns from which tacks and tape were banned, a red-, white-, and black-tiled ladies’ room with the gleam of a glitzed-out Ferrari. But the equipment wasn’t ergonomic, leading to an epidemic of severe repetitive-strain injuries. And the paper didn’t invest in an emergency-power generator, even after the old phone system was replaced with a shiny new electronic one. This oversight proved disastrous when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989: The Mercury News won a Pulitzer for its coverage; at the Examiner, we spent the first night listening to transistor radios by flashlight.
Hearst Corp.’s failure to prepare for something as inevitable as a major quake might be seen as a metaphor for its inability to respond when the Really, Really, Really Big One—the Internet—struck the media industry a few years later. Certainly, its failure to turn around the ailing afternoon Examiner should have made it wary of another Bay Area gamble. But in 2000—before Craigslist destroyed much of the economic foundation on which the industry was built—morning papers still seemed like a sure thing. Hearst Corp. might as well have put the $660 million it paid for the Chron through a shredder.
Contrary to popular myth, newspapers did see the Internet coming. By the mid-’90s, the Mercury News had completely reoriented itself around the new technology and Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the Chronicle (where I worked part-time for a couple of years after I quit the Examiner to freelance) started SFGate.com, which eventually became the fifth-most-visited daily-newspaper site on the web.
But, like many other papers, the Chron “failed to see how big the change would be and how fast it would come,” admits Jerry Roberts, its managing editor in the late ’90s. The other issue: “We were a regional paper in a place that didn’t have a regional sensibility.” And if there’s one thing that doesn’t work in the Internet era, it’s a regional paper, says Paul Grabowicz: “The connection with the audience is too tenuous.”
“The geography of this place is very divided,” David Weir points out. “New York and its boroughs form a giant city with a metropolitan area. San Francisco is a tiny city with a giant extended metropolitan reach. How would you ever cover that?” The Bay Area is also fragmented ethnically, politically, and culturally, and every community wants its own information in its own way. When I first came here, I was struck by the number of news outlets: daily papers, alternative weeklies, neighborhood broadsheets, ethnic papers, gay publications, lifestyle magazines, business- and law-oriented papers, books, zines—and that was just print, and just San Francisco. Weir waxes nostalgic about the ’70s, when journalism startups—Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), among many others—were as ubiquitous as pot. He was a key player in many of them. “The newspapers didn’t want us. We didn’t want them. We started our own.”
That same brash entrepreneurial energy is what fueled the growth of Silicon Valley and San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s. But by then, the Chronicle had come to resemble an aging industrial factory or a lumbering government bureaucracy. “I constantly heard things like: I don’t do that, we don’t do that, we don’t know how to do that—things I’d never heard at a newspaper anywhere,” says Robert Rosenthal, the Chron’s managing editor from 2002 to 2007 and a 22-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It didn’t help that the Chron was filled with people who had never worked outside the Bay Area or experienced journalism at its kick-ass best. Believe it or not, getting a job at Northern California’s largest daily used to be almost as hard as getting one at the New York Times, because the Chronicle was a place you never left. Why would you? Even if the atmosphere was complacent, the work was creative and decently paid. You got to live in the Bay Area. Sometimes it even felt like you were making a difference. It was fun while it lasted. Now, though, to be a “newsosaur” (media blogger Alan Mutter’s perfect description) in the Bay Area isn’t just depressing—it’s humiliating. This is a pitiless place if you’re not enterprising, or at least nimble and cool. There’s a strong sense of “I told you so” (plus “You suck” and “If you can’t evolve and adapt, then you deserve to crawl into a corner and rot”). That’s a harsh message for people whose only real sins are loving words on paper too much and not having jumped ship five years ago, while there were still PR jobs to move to. It also fails to acknowledge the obvious: Even the papers with the smartest Internet strategies are in deep trouble now. (So, by the way, are magazines, book publishers, and ad agencies.)
Meanwhile, as the old media gasps for life, the same visionaries who made the Internet possible have been busy inventing more cheap ways of communicating and connecting that don’t involve dead trees or trucks or master’s degrees in journalism: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and blogging apps like WordPress. “Journalism is no longer a passive act,” says David Cohn, the 27-year-old wunderkind behind Spot.Us, a new San Francisco–based site that helps freelancers raise money for stories. “It demands engagement” and experimentation: “What we need now is 10,000 journalism startups, of which 8,000 may fail,” he adds.
To a newsosaur, those odds look terrifying. But that’s how innovation works, especially in tumultuous times, and the Bay Area understands innovation better than anyplace else. “This has always been a center of creativity,” says media entrepreneur Tom Murphy, a founding editor of MarketWatch.com and the brains behind several new journalism startups. “Now it has the true potential to be the center of the universe in redefining how we use social media to make journalism more relevant.”
“YOU DON'T NEED MULTIPLE REPORTERS ANYMORE”
So much attention has been directed to the Chronicle’s woes that it’s easy to overlook all the rich new life forms that have already emerged here in the meteor’s wake: Google News, Yahoo! News, Salon, Wired, CNET, MarketWatch, the highly partisan (and deeply appreciated) Daily Kos. There’s New America Media in San Francisco (maybe the best one-stop shop in the country for news about ethnic communities, run by the brilliant Sandy Close), the website for Berkeley-based Frontline/World (delivering international investigative pieces online), and the fledgling AllVoices.com, which uses algorithms and other high-tech tools to vet citizen journalism from around the globe and aggregate it with information from established news sites.
Like the Bay Area itself, many of these ventures are wildly ambitious and focused on the big picture. But the ones I find most inspiring are the small local sites popping up all over. For example: NJudahChronicles.com, which concentrates on the Muni rail line that links the Sunset district to downtown San Francisco. Its creator, Greg Dewar, covers Ninth and Irving like beat reporters used to cover city hall. If there’s a Muni accident, he and his Twitter finger are on it. If Gavin Newsom does something hinky with the transit budget, Dewar tries to get to the bottom of it, with links to whatever sources (including the Chron) he can find.
Across the city, MissionLocal.org has a different set of obsessions: taco-truck controversies and health insurance, illegal immigrants and American Apparel. The eight-month-old site, which operates out of a minuscule office on 20th Street that also serves as a storage space for a landscape architect with a penchant for large stone elephants, is part of the UC Berkeley–Ford Foundation hyperlocal experiment. But unlike its close relative, the largely DIY Albany Today, Mission Local has a sizeable staff of student-entrepreneurs and is chock-full of multimedia surprises, like a webcast with live reports from Mexico, Venezuela, and China. One map on the site gives a bird’s-eye view of crimes committed during the past week; another tracks every business vacancy along Valencia Street. Click a button, and practically the whole site turns into Spanish. How cool is that?
Some very smart people have begun throwing money at the hyperlocal concept. The Knight Foundation recently put up $1.1 million to fund EveryBlock.com, a Chicago-based project that offers neighborhood-by-neighborhood news feeds in 11 cities, including San Francisco and San Jose, plus another $25,000 or so in seed money for an upcoming stand-alone site for Oakland. Meanwhile, Tim Armstrong (ex–Google ad exec, now CEO at AOL) has a side venture, Patch.com, that plans microsites with paid staff in dozens of small towns and cities. The economic appeal is obvious: low, low costs plus a potential business model built on very targeted local advertising.
But what intrigues me most is the way these sites address many of the newsgathering problems that loom in the post-print age. A good example is ABetterOakland.com, the creation of 29-year-old library assistant–activist–grad student Echa Schneider (in a previous life, she was a part-time pastry cook at Fifth Floor in San Francisco). Schneider first started blogging about Oakland during the 2006 mayoral election. Worried that the front-runner, Ron Dellums, wasn’t up to the job, she and a friend, Jonathan Bair, started a site called FutureOakland.wordpress.com to build support for their candidate, Ignacio De La Fuente. After Dellums won, she and Bair continued to blog occasionally but felt frustrated by their low profile. So, in 2007, Schneider (V Smoothe to her readers) split off to start A Better Oakland. “We figured if we each had our own space and linked to each other, we would have a better Google ranking,” she shrugs. “It’s all about the links.”
The result is a model of how even one solitary citizen journalist can leverage the web to cover an immensely complicated city in an amazingly sophisticated way. For example, all those meetings that newspaper reporters (theoretically) used to attend: “I watch meetings on streaming video at home,” Schneider says. “It’s easier than covering them live. I can listen over and over, quote long sections, make sure I get the context right.”
Or all those hard-to-find facts that used to require a whole newsroom to dig up: “There’s never been more information available on Oakland, and it’s never been more accessible,” Schneider says. “You don’t need multiple reporters anymore.” A blogger can focus on doing one thing well and let links do the rest. “As long as you have good sources for other content, you can aggregate the rest.”
Schneider’s original reporting concentrates on policy issues, supplemented with links to staff reports and public documents that never make it into a newspaper. Her readers—more than 2,500 regulars a week, she says—are a knowledgeable, engaged bunch: “The Oakland Tribune and the Chronicle speak to such a wide audience that their stories have to be pretty general. Someone who follows an issue closely isn’t going to get very much out of that.”
Most important, her readers’ constant stream of comments keeps her honest. “Online, you have to earn your credibility, whereas newspapers have it automatically,” she says. “Yet I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent correcting their mistakes. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
WHAT'S YOUR BUSINESS MODEL?
To a newsosaur, what doesn’t make sense about a newspaper-free future is the hyperlocal model itself. All you get from any site is what’s going on in your own backyard. In theory, metro papers have a grander mission: to provide context and create a sense of the common purpose. In a place this balkanized, will people bother to seek out news that doesn’t affect them directly? Will they learn things they didn’t know they needed to know?
It’s a legitimate concern. For all the information at my fingertips, I often feel disconnected from the larger Bay Area community. I need someone or something to filter out the garbage and steer me to the news that matters. But I have a solution: Let the Chronicle, or whatever it’s called if the paper version disappears, be the regional aggregator—and the incubator.
Why doesn’t Hearst Corp. take a tiny fraction of its Chronicle budget and invest in teams of energetic grad students to trawl the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, wandering into classrooms, and getting to know their readers in the most basic way? Why doesn’t it pay people like Greg Dewar or Echa Schneider to create mini-sites for their own communities that can live under the Chronicle brand? Then the core staff, or what’s left of it, can concentrate on what they do best. For all the Chron’s problems, the brand—like the allure of the city itself—remains strong, says Owen Rogers, a partner at IDEO, a design think-tank that has worked with many major media clients to rethink their businesses. “Even though it hasn’t been a great paper, people know it internationally and they want it to succeed.” But, Rogers adds, “the Chronicle shouldn’t try to own or buy the sites, because that would just change them and kill them.” By letting the innovators innovate, the paper could morph from Dead Chron Walking into cutting-edge venture capitalist–media superhero. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Solving Hearst Corp.’s Chronicle problem, though, is nothing compared with the broader issue of who’s going to pay for the news over the long haul. The question “What’s your business model?”is a rusty nail that pricks the enthusiasm out of any conversation on the topic. Without money, the argument goes, stories that require time, skill, guts, and sound editorial judgment will surely go away. Without investigative reporters and government watchdogs, what will become of our towns, our state, our nation?
I’m terrified, too; the possibility that corrupt business types and politicians will run roughshod over our economy and democracy makes my skin crawl. But wait—hasn’t that already happened?
Here, again, newspaper mourners need a nostalgia check. Money isn’t what drives good journalism. I don’t know a single person who went into this business for the big money, though I can think of plenty who stayed past their time because the money was OK. Judith Miller was a highly paid New York Times star when she was writing all those dead-wrong stories about WMDs in Iraq; meanwhile, it was lean-and-mean TalkingPointsMemo.com that uncovered the Bush administration’s subversion of the Justice Department (a bigger crime than Watergate, if you ask me).
What is true is that journalism will become even more of a labor of love. It will be rare that a journalism salary can support a mortgage in Berkeley and a kid in private school. In the new news era, most of us will have to eke out a living by juggling multiple gigs, just like consultants, novelists, and artists do (or we’ll marry doctors and lawyers, instead of each other). William Drummond, a UC Berkeley professor who’s overseeing a new J-school site for Richmond in the fall, already sees a difference in his students. “What is happening now is, the dilettantes don’t show up. We get the ones resigned to lives of poverty and chastity. They’ll do journalism because they really believe in it.”
On a more macro level, what we need now isn’t a definitive long-term business strategy—the geek geniuses didn’t know where the profits would come from when they created Facebook and YouTube and Twitter, and besides, how is it even possible to come up with a long-term plan when the whole world’s economic model is unraveling? No, what we need first is seed money to launch those 10,000 experiments. Fortunately, backers have started to come out of the woodwork, mainly foundations and civic-minded gazillionaires like financier Warren Hellman, who’s been helping raise money for the CIR and has formed a task force to try and develop a new, sustainable model for San Francisco journalism that goes beyond just keeping the Chron alive.
Philanthropists especially seem to understand the value of investigative journalism: Oakland’s Herb and Marion Sandler have promised $10 million a year for the new investigative site ProPublica.org, while retired VC Buzz Woolley started the much admired VoiceofSanDiego.org after local papers paid zero attention as politicians nearly bankrupted the city’s pension system. State and regional coverage “is where the real evisceration is happening,” says Louis Freedberg, who oversees the CIR’s new California project. “That kind of reporting is being virtually wiped out.”
David Cohn’s Spot.Us provides another revenue stream: the public. Freelancers and news organizations pitch stories to prospective readers, who kick in $10 or $20 for the ideas they like. What makes the project radically new is the way it forces journalists to think about what readers actually want (as opposed to what Cohn calls “eat-your-spinach journalism”) and to be more transparent about their process. Readers have a bigger stake in what journalists produce, and journalism benefits, too: “You can do a lot more when information is freely shared,” Cohn says.
That’s something Robert Rosenthal, the ultimate big-city, scoop-the-competition editor, has learned to embrace. Both at the CIR, where he’s now the executive director, and at the Chauncey Bailey Project, where he oversees the collective efforts of dozens of news organizations and reporters investigating the 2007 slaying of the muckraking Oakland Post editor, he has discovered that with resources so scarce, working well with others is vital to having an impact. “Collaboration,” he says, “is the key to the future.”
So is the intellectual capital of veterans like him and Jerry Roberts—who, before his five-year stint as the Chronicle’s managing editor, was one of the top political reporters in the state. After leaving San Francisco, Roberts ran the Santa Barbara News-Press for four years, only to quit that job after a dispute with the owner. At age 60, he has a new day job with UC Santa Barbara’s school paper. He also has a new politics blog, Calbuzz.com, which he writes with his longtime archrival, ex-Merc political editor Phil Trounstine. Barely three months old, it’s already the liveliest, most astute political-analysis site in California, with a national following that will only get larger as the 2010 election approaches. So far, there’s no money in it—only a chance to do real journalism again and have a blast in the process. “We saw a hole, and we decided to fill it,” Roberts says. “We’re just two geezers trying to figure this out.”
MOURNING A FALLING COMRADE
I used to love newspapers; now I hardly ever look at one, except to move it from the driveway to the recycling bin. Like everybody else I know, I get most of my news from NPR or a handful of news sites and blogs. With every new cutback or redesign aimed at salvaging the Chronicle, the paper and its site seem less necessary. Some days, I forget to check them at all. Will I miss the Chron if it disappears? It feels like it already has.
What’s also disappearing is the kind of stories my old friend Dan Reed used to write. When I first came across him, around 1994, he was a Chronicle freelancer, covering Contra Costa and Solano Counties, and I was a part-time editor/grunt. I still remember how good his copy was: deeply reported and beautifully written, even when the subject was a city council meeting or a grisly murder. Dan eventually ended up at the Merc, where he was the guy you sent to investigate a finger in a vat of Wendy’s chili or to bully an interview out of a notorious sex offender who’d cut off a victim’s arms and left her for dead. He was a newsroom legend, and next to his wife, Sue, the paper was the center of his life. After 20 years in the business, he was laid off in 2007. This past January, at the age of 50, unemployed and miserable, he died.
As a reader, I know the post-newspaper world will be richer and more nuanced than anything I ever experienced in the smudgy confines of print. As a journalist, though, I know what we are losing: passionate, talented people like Dan who do more than dig up facts—they weave the narratives that help us understand where we live and who we are. A couple of months ago, I went to the library in search of one of his most startling Chron pieces: about an Air Force plane that crashed near Vacaville during the Korean War and was later found to have been carrying an unarmed atom bomb.
I had to scroll through reels of scratchy microfilm to find what I was looking for. The surprise was how good the rest of the paper used to be, too. There were pages and pages of stories from the suburbs, staff-written dispatches from Sacramento, Washington, even Mexico City and Paris. Eventually, I found Dan’s piece on A-1, next to the obit for the great Randy Shilts, whose coverage of AIDS and gay-rights issues made him one of the most influential reporters of the 20th century. That was the Chronicle we forget about now. “It was always a better paper than people gave it credit for,” says my partner, Alex. He’s right.
Dan’s memorial service took place on a bright April afternoon under a billowing tent on the edge of Lake Merritt. In one corner stood a life-size cutout of the gigantic man—6 feet, 4 inches and 330 pounds—we all adored. His friends (many recently bought out or laid off) were decked out in Raiders jerseys and Hawaiian shirts, pretty much all Dan wore. One after another, they got up to reminisce about his practical jokes (once, he broadcast a message to the whole newsroom using an editor’s email: “Hi, I’m writing my autobiography and I need everyone’s help because I can’t remember how to spell ‘dumbass’”), his appalling personal hygiene, his reverence for his craft.
The most tender moment was when Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan sang a ballad he had written—one of the loveliest songs I’d heard in a long, long time. I couldn’t stop crying. It felt like a wake for us all, for the real community of the newsroom and for the implied community that comes when many people read the same story at the same time and simultaneously feel the same surge of hope or amusement or outrage, the same call to action. All you have to do is wander into a coffee shop and see everyone sitting at laptops, headphones on, updating their own obscure blogs, to understand that this community is going, going, gone. My greater fear is that the narratives that help bind us will go away as well.
But then I went back and looked at the digital guestbook linked to Dan’s death notice in the Merc—10 pages of anecdotes and tributes, many of them hilarious. While it wasn’t a narrative in any traditional sense, it was something richer: like a hyperlocal site for Dan’s heartbroken fans. I took it as another sign of hope.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN ALBANY...
As I put the finishing touches on this story, two things happen to make me even more optimistic. The first is word that SFGate is doing exactly what I’ve suggested—partnering with existing hyperlocal blogs and news sites, including A Better Oakland, to cover their communities. What’s more, Kevin Skaggs and Bobby Hankinson, the two guys overseeing the rollout, say that SFGate took the initiative and reached out. “There are exceptionally smart people out there doing incredible work,” Skaggs tells me. “SFGate can give them visibility.” That’s fantastic news.
The second sign: a conversation with Barbara Grady, a former Oakland Tribune reporter who lives in Albany and now works with Linjun Fan on Albany Today. “I really like to tell stories,” she says, and she’s good at it: Her Trib series (with two other writers) on Oakland’s teen-prostitution epidemic just won a big award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
When she was laid off last July in a round of cuts that claimed 29 jobs, Grady was “really depressed,” juggling three freelance gigs and thinking about how to retool her 20-year career. Then inspiration struck last fall in the form of Albany’s centennial triathlon, which Fan covered for Albany Today. “I had never heard of the site, but I was intrigued,” Grady says. “It was inviting and had a sincere quality that was very nice.” A couple of months later, she ran into Fan at a mock election sponsored by the school district. “I really liked Linjun, and I offered her my assistance.”
These days, when she’s not freelancing for the Trib and writing for the social-justice group Green for All, Grady has Albany Today’s education beat. Together, she and Fan have been strategizing about how to keep the site going after Fan returns to China. They’ve applied for a couple of grants and are talking to Neil Henry about partner-ing with the J-school. Fingers crossed.
Some days, Grady thinks about the arc of her career and can’t quite believe where she’s landed. For six years, she covered the high-tech industry for Reuters. “My stories would appear around the world,” she says. “I could watch the stock market move based on something I wrote.” Albany Today, she acknowledges, is “a little small-towny.” But it’s also the future—and therefore exciting. “If this is a revolution in news, I don’t want to miss it."
Nina Martin is San Francisco's articles editor.