By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF co-chair, Online Managing Editor-Business Aviation, Aviation Week Group
Jonathan Weber is the editor in chief of the Bay Citizen, a new San Francisco-based nonprofit public media organization. He has more than 20 years of journalism and print/online start-up experience. He was co-founder and editor in chief of The Industry Standard, the award-winning, San Francisco-based newsweekly, and spent eight years as writer and editor of the Los Angeles Times.
More recently, Weber was the founder and CEO of New West Publishing, a next-generation media company located in Missoula, Mont. The company’s flagship product, the award-winning NewWest.Net, is a local and regional online publication about the Rocky Mountain West. NABJDigital spoke to Weber on the Bay Citizen’s niche, its commitment to diversity and keeping the online venture financially viable as the May 26 launch date approaches.
NABJDigital: What will readers see when your website goes live next month?
Jonathan Weber: I have avoided being really specific about the launch, for competitive reasons and to preserve the surprise factor. But I can say that our overall goal is to have very good enterprise journalism on civic issues, arts and culture coverage and community coverage. We will also have a lineup of columnist and include multimedia features.
ND: What is the Citizen’s ideal type of stories?
JW: We want to do enterprise news stories that take different approaches to major issues of the day. On one hand, we’ll be covering core civic stories, including government, education, the courts and the environment. But our goal is to take a different approach and develop stories people don’t regularly see. I think there is a lot of room for creative approaches to enter news stories in the Bay Area. Sometimes those stories will be investigative or sometimes data driven, but all will have a different view and approach.
ND: Your team includes Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Steve Fainaru as a managing editor for news. Why is it important to get reporters like him?
JW: I think that in a crucial respect, our success will rise and fall on our ability to get the big stories and have exclusive, enterprise journalism. Steve has an incredible track record, with the prize he won for his Blackwater coverage, along with other stories. He’s at the top of the heap when it comes to blowing stories out of the water.
ND: What other types of editorial staff are you looking for?
JW: We’re looking for a mix of skills across our staff. It’s not necessary to have all skills, but I want a staff collectively that has writing talent, reporting talent, an ability to shoot video, take pictures, do advanced multimedia journalism and do visual storytelling. I also want people who are attuned to the community on a street level and have creativity when looking at the news. Most people we are interviewing have multiple types of experience. But it’s not like a single person needs to have eight different skills.
ND: The Bay Area is a very diverse community. How will you ensure that Bay Citizen staff reflects that diversity?
JW: In developing the editorial team, I’m very conscious of diversity, something that is important for many reasons. We are attuned to it in the hiring process. And we’re also attuned to it in relation to the partnerships we want to develop. For example, Sandy Close, of New American Media, a group that works with ethnic media organizations across the country, is based in Bay Area and has a news room here. She’s on our editorial advisory board and is talking about how we can collaborate with them and with other ethnic media organizations. One of the challenges with the diversity in the Bay Area is if you look at numerical measures of racial groups, it’s quite a diverse place, but unfortunately, the journalism here doesn’t reflect that.
ND: Back in January, you signed a deal with the New York Times to contribute branded articles for its San Francisco edition. Why is this deal so important for the Citizen?
JW: The New York Times is interested in building on its investment in regional coverage and they see the Bay Area as an important market. They want to enhance local coverage and have a special offering for San Francisco subscribers. We will contribute two pages on Fridays and Sundays. The Times felt that a good strategy was to work with a local partner and we were forming when they decided to do that. They felt we would be a high-quality operation. It gives us a print distribution that we otherwise would not have. On top of that, the affiliation with the Times brings us a tremendous amount of credibility right out of the gate.
ND: You’ve received funding from Hellman Family Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and donors. How long can this funding keep you going?
JW: The plan for the organization is very focused on reaching sustainability. Our business plan includes four revenue streams: large foundation gifts, memberships, sponsorships/underwriting and syndication. The composition of the revenue will evolve over time. The goal is to build a sustainable operation. We have $5 million in seed funding from Warren Hellman to get the operation off the ground.
ND: With your past experiences, what advice would you give to journalists looking at becoming entrepreneurs?
JW: I think there are tremendous opportunities out there. It’s a tough job market for journalists, but the industry’s transformation creates lots of opportunities. Be aggressive about jumping in the pool and taking the risk. Do something entrepreneurial that’s driven by passion. If go into these thinks driven by passion for the story and the type of journalism you want to do, you can’t really lose, even if your venture is difficult or unsuccessful.
When I look at my experience at New West, as a business it was a tremendous amount of work. It was also a great experience with not a ton of short-term financial rewards. But the experience I gained there was invaluable to my career going forward. I could not be in the chair at the Bay Citizen if I hadn’t done New West. Take the plunge even if water looks cold, because there’s lots of benefit in the long run. Lots of times entrepreneurial journalists are handicapped by lack of experience in business. I’m a better editor than CEO or sales manager, so I encourage journalists to partner with someone with business skill set unless you have that yourself.
ND: How do you think the Citizen will look 10 years from now?
JW: 10 year is a very long time in this business. I guess I would say we’ll have a killer website, robust distribution through many channels. We will be known for gritty journalism, high integrity and an aggressive, cutting-edge approach using technology to tell and deliver stories.