December 29, 2020

Can a year-end giving campaign save independent news in San Francisco?


Of all the bad years for journalism, 2020 may have been the worst, with the usual woes — declining ad revenue, desperately competitive attention wars, not to mention profound trust issues — compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic’s complete disruption of anything resembling business as usual.

In San Francisco, neighborhood newspapers took it hard, as many local businesses that provided them with an ad-revenue lifeline — particularly restaurants — were shut down, some permanently.

In this gaping revenue void, local news publisher and journalism advocate Alexander Mullaney saw an opportunity for these neighborhood newspapers to work together.

In his formulation, local publications have much to gain from collaboration, and with good planning, competition doesn’t need to be an issue.

The ensuing fundraising campaign, Save SF News, has nonprofit fiscal sponsorship from Accíon Latina, a 501(c)3 arts and media organization based in San Francisco’s Mission District, and the parent of the pioneering Spanish-language newspaper El Tecolote, which is, in turn, one of more than a dozen newspapers participating in the fund drive.

As of this writing, Save SF News is more than $7,000 toward its year-end goal of $25,000. You can pile on by making a tax-deductible donation today, and learn more about the campaign below.

Watershed Media: It’s ironic that in the veritable birthplace of digital media — San Francisco and the Bay Area — local newspapers and news media serving local communities, what used to be called “hyperlocal,” are getting crushed by overwhelming competition for advertisers and attention from Google and Facebook. What inspired you and your peers to take a chance on banding together and collaborating on a group fundraising project?

Alexander Mullaney: The bottom-line-crushing pandemic and the success of Chicago Independent Media Alliance’s May 2020 campaign that raised $160,000 for more than 40 outlets made this a no-brainer idea and an easy pitch. Chicago Reader Publisher and CIMA leader Tracy Baim deserves so much credit for making the model. Now, the San Francisco Independent Press Association must figure out how best to implement it in San Francisco. Cross your fingers for us.

How is it that all the different news outlets in your coalition aren’t competing with each other, but rather collaborating? Wouldn’t they be stepping on each others’ toes, battling for subscriber revenue, etc.?

I’m sure there’s some competition for advertising and subscriber or membership revenue. I wouldn’t want it any other way! But no disputes have come up to date as far as I know. There’s only been a good amount of enthusiasm and camaraderie. All participants want more and better quality journalism — which is requisite for sustainability — and that simply costs money. 

How are things different for commercial vs. nonprofit news outlets in the greater community you’re working with?

This is a wildly expensive city. No matter the tax status, all publications are hurting, from what I know. 

How is the money being handled, and what will it be used for?

Donors can choose to support all publications, a selection, or just one. CIMA found that two-thirds of their donors supported all publications, which demonstrates the wider community’s support for all types of outlets. All proceeds go toward independent journalism.

What will people get in return for their donation to this campaign?

Independent journalism!

There are a variety of support programs for journalism, both from the nonprofit sector in terms of grants and service organizations such as News Revenue Hub, and also, in San Francisco, the Mayor’s Office for Economic & Workforce Development has offered small-business services. How are these programs working or not for small news outlets? What gaps are you trying to fill with Save SF News?

I can’t say how those programs are working citywide because I’m focused on the independent press rather than the entire media sector. I’d like the city government to take a cue from New York City and add media to its economic development program but I don’t know if it’s viable. 
With that said, I’m thankful for the neat work Renaissance Journalism out of San Francisco State University has done over the years.

Is this a one-off, or do you see any potential long term collaborative opportunities after this campaign winds up?

During our kickoff meeting, the participants said they want to make this an annual campaign. I’m planning to do it again next year. I’m sure there are other opportunities of course. It’s too soon to say.

Can you tell us a bit about your own background as a news publisher in San Francisco, and as an advocate for local journalism?

When I founded my publication as a monthly neighborhood newspaper in 2008, there were 17 other neighborhood newspapers. Now there are 8 neighborhood newspapers and two online neighborhood news outlets, including mine.

There really ought to be neighborhood-level coverage of Fillmore, South of Market, Haight-Ashbury, and so on. There really ought to be way more investigative reporting, especially in light of the widespread public corruption being exposed this year by the Trump DoJ. If this campaign helps a little, it’ll be worth it.

I must add a bright spot for me during this bleak year is that we now have a Chinese-English bilingual weekly operated by veteran reporter Portia Li.

Any final details you’d like to share?

I’d really like to thank Juan Gonzales, El Tecolote founder and chair of City College of San Francisco Journalism Department; Michael Yamashita, Bay Area Reporter publisher; and Mission Local founder Lydia Chavez for serving as a sounding board and providing encouragement to pursue this idea over the summer.

Also, we’re lining up several webinars to promote the campaign. Keen an eye out!


Check out the writeup on the Save SF News webinar with the Wind Newspaper and Comment SF.

Sign up for the Dec. 31 webinar “Why SF’s Independent Press is Essential.