Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nonprofit news ventures flourish in California

Over the past year or so, a number of new, nonprofit news ventures have been announced, serving both a national and California audience. Largely funded by foundations, these ventures are designed to help plug the news reporting hole resulting from severe staff cutbacks at news organizations across the country in recent years. The four ventures are ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch, the Voice of OC (Orange County) and the Bay Area News Project.

Recognizing that the for-profit business media business model is not so profitable these days, a nonprofit model is now being pioneered. First the San Francisco-based Sandler Foundation stepped up in early 2008 with a $10 million, three-year minimum investment to launch and fund ProPublica which is producing hard-hitting investigative pieces and collaborating with commercial news organizations to produce and distribute its stories.

This year, the Hewlett, Knight and Irvine foundations announced their multi-million, multi-year investment to support California Watch, whose staff and editors include many of the finest journalists I have known in California, such as former San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Bob Salladay. The mission of this project, according to its web site, is to "emphasize story telling that holds powerful interests accountable and shines a light on key areas of interest – education, health care, criminal justice, the environment and government oversight. The goal of our reporting is to expose hidden truths, prompt debate and spark change."

More recently, on September 15, down in Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County, The Voice of OC was announced, which is yet another non-profit news venture, but focused specifically on Orange County issues and featuring exclusively online reporting. According to the LA Times' story about this project, the seed funding was obtained from the Orange County Employees Association. The key backers include former state senator Joe Dunn and former veteran LA Times reporter Dan Morain who is serving on the Voice's board.

And just last week, it was reported that San Francisco investor (and host of the beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park) Warren Hellman's family foundation is donating $5 million to start up the Bay Area News Project, in collaboration with KQED and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

It's exciting to see all these new ventures get underway, and to see so many public-spirited journalists finding new, innovative avenues for sharing their talent. In the past few years the number of reporters covering Sacramento has dropped significantly. Fortunately now there is a growing number of reporters who will keep tabs on what's happening in Sacramento, Santa Ana, San Francisco and beyond.

I believe a significant precursor to all this public-interest journalism was the civic journalism movement, which was supported back in the 1990s by the Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. I participated in a number of the Pew Center's projects and conferences, and recall how skeptical and even hostile journalists from commercial news organizations were to the notion of civic journalism, and the Pew Center's mission to "create and refine better ways of reporting the news to re-engage people in public life".

Technology and necessity have changed the reporting equation. Of course, nonprofit news is not quite the same as civic journalism, but it stems from a similar sentiment, which is the idea that news coverage is something that should be designed to benefit the public interest and hold politicians accountable. By taking the profit requirement out of the equation the public will hopefully benefit enormously from all these ventures letting loose dozens of public-spirited reporters to watchdog politicians, and will succeed in establishing a new model for journalism.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Comments on draft redistricting reform regulations

On Monday I attended a public hearing at the Crest Theater in Sacramento where the Bureau of State Audits' staff and attorneys (and State Auditor Elaine Howle herself) listened to comments made by a number of people on the regulations the Bureau drafted to facilitate implementation of Proposition 11, the redistricting reform initiative passed by California voters last November.

I was one of about a dozen people who testified; most of the other people who spoke participated in a working group that CVF was also involved with to develop joint recommendations for changes to the regulations. (The organizations that signed on to the joint letter and accompanying appendix include California Common Cause, CA NAACP, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Center for Governmental Studies, the League of Women Voters, the Rose Institute, California Forward and the California Voter Foundation).

While the working group members were successful in reaching consensus on 25 issues and recommendations, there was one issue where we could not agree, and that is the question of how "state office" and "appointed to state office" should be defined in the regulations. Because Proposition 11 was not clear on this issue, these definitions are open to interpretation.

The basic difference of opinion is that some think the definition should be left as the Bureau has drafted it, which would prohibit anyone appointed to a state board or commission in the past ten years, or anyone in their immediate family, from serving on the commission, with the belief that someone who has received an appointment is beholden to their appointer for it and may be perceived as a political insider. Others, including CVF, argue that this broad definition will unnecessarily limit the applicant pool and do a disservice to the initiative by prohibiting too many people and their family members from applying. As is stated in CVF's letter to the State Auditor:

The philosophical question that the State Auditor needs to consider is whether to create a narrow funnel on the front end of the application process that dramatically restricts applicants in such a fashion in order to effectively preclude any possibility of a political insider or crony from applying and serving on the commission, or whether to have a wide funnel on the front end and rely on other provisions of the initiative to weed out any applicants who have a potential partisan or political agenda?

It is the view of the California Voter Foundation (CVF) that there are many other opportunities in the applicant selection process to review applicants for their ability to be impartial; indeed, it is one of just three qualities that determine whether an applicant is qualified to serve on the commission or not. CVF believes it is better to allow a wide funnel at the beginning of the application process and rely on the work of the Applicant Review Panel, the public comment process, and the legislative strikes process to weed out any applicants with a partisan or political agenda. To place such a narrow funnel on the front end of the application process will do a disservice to the initiative, in that it will wipe out large numbers of potential applicants who otherwise may be highly qualified to serve on the commission, and would be inclined to do so.

There were strong views expressed on this issue on both sides during Monday's hearing, and it will be interesting to see how the State Auditor decides on this matter. One issue that the working group did arrive at consensus on is that people appointed to boards or commissions that are advisory only should not be prohibited from applying to serve on the commission. The Auditor's staff plans to have revised regulations published on their site on September 28, followed by an additional 15-day public comment period. More information about California's Redistricting Reform is available from the CVF web site.