At One Publishing Startup, the News Is Still Fit to Print in the Digital Age

by Francine Brevetti on August 31, 2011

Just when most people thought print journalism was going down the tubes, with newspapers consolidating and laying off reporters and readers turning to the internet, journalist Michael Stoll launched the San Francisco Public Press. The independent, nonprofit broadsheet, which sells for $1 a copy, follows what Stoll calls a “new model for local news.”

The quarterly paper, written largely by volunteers, focuses entirely on public policy issues. No entertainment or celebrities. No sports. No comics. A crossword puzzle is the only diversion. Rather than breaking news, the SF Public Press provides in-depth coverage. The fifth issue, due in November, is devoted to municipal concerns including the city’s budget process, city audits, the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s $20 million bill for overtime, and the like.

Launched a year ago, it’s an idea that Stoll had been incubating since 2007. “There are not a lot of folks doing original, well-written, and well-edited stories in the mainstream media,” Stoll observes. “Branding has been hard. To bring a new entity into a crowded landscape has been a big challenge. But we are going for [success over] the long haul.”

The upstart paper accepts no advertising and has no development budget. So, who pays the bills? Most of its marketing is done by word of mouth, and the current run of 8,000 issues is supported by a 50-percent base of readership which pays for the paper at retail outlets. But this hardly covers even half the operational costs.

Additional funding comes from several different streams, says Stoll, who earns a living as an adjunct journalism professor at the University of San Francisco. The San Francisco Foundation, a network of philanthropists who invest in community projects, contributes $35,000.

In September, SFPP will start contributing to the Investigative News Network, a consortium of 52 nonprofit newspapers. Through this connection, SF Public Press will be feeding its reportage to Reuters for additional income. The SF Public Press also relies on Spot.Us, an open-source project that supports journalists’ efforts. Through Spot.Us, the public can commission reporters to cover local topics.

Of course, the San Francisco Public Press can also be seen online. Stoll says he and his partners chose this “mixed media” approach because it was a “quick, easy, and cheap way to start up. Besides, you can’t ignore the online option.”

Of course, that begs the question: Given that news is now so accessible online, why did Stoll decide to launch an old-fashioned print publication, too? The pragmatic yet idealistic entrepreneur explains that the paper version helps to bridge the community’s digital divide. “As many as a third of San Francisco’s residents do not have broadband internet access at home,” he says, adding that because readers are willing to pay for the paper, a street presence with the broadsheet is useful. “The current mainstream media’s dependence on mass advertising has left the reader in the dust. News is mostly about passion and celebrities. We are targeting the mainstream public, and so does our coverage.”

Stoll and others on the paper’s board of directors have high hopes: They expect the October issue to sell 15,000 issues — and turn a profit. Stoll also aims to start publishing monthly in 2012. To this end, he’s working on 10 grant applications and planning fund-raising events. “Everybody [in journalism] is trying to define a model to be sustainable and accountable. We’ve created a popular medium that doesn’t talk down to people. We are idealists,” he says. “If we write it, they will come.”