When Frances Dinkelspiel and two partners founded Berkeleyside.org in 2009, they had eight employees. Today, they have 26.
In 2019, the partners expanded their reach through a new local outlet called The Oaklandside, which now boasts having the largest newsroom in Oakland.
How did they do it, during an era when the big news from newsrooms across the country was downsizing and closing? Since 2004, 2,000 newspapers have closed and 30,000 reporters have lost their jobs, some due to those closures and others resulting from the pandemic.
At the October 20 virtual meeting of the San Francisco Public Relations Round Table, Frances Dinkelspiel discussed how both platforms serve the never-ending need for local journalism. She was interviewed by Sarah Segal, SFPRRT board member.
First, some background.
What is Berkeleyside … and The Oaklandside?
Berkeleyside is a nonprofit, digital hyper-local news platform with headquarters in Berkeley. Frances Dinkelspiel, Tracey Taylor and Lance Knobel cofounded the site and in 2020, they created Cityside, a nonprofit, civic journalism organization that publishes both Berkeleyside and newly created The Oaklandside. Cityside is now considered one of the most successful local nonprofit newsrooms in the country; its budget next year will be $4 million. Studies show that only 5% of local newsrooms have a budget over $2 million.
In 2020, Berkeleyside averaged more than 1.5 million page views and 485,000 unique visitors a month.
Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside cover local news only, reporting on school board issues, businesses, government, restaurants, and anything else that has an impact on the people who live in that city or sector. According to Dinkelspiel, “We have succeeded because we fill huge information gaps in local communities.”
How to sustain and grow
The two sites operate as nonprofits, with revenue generated through individual memberships (currently at 7,000), grants and sponsorships. “Small donations are our bread and butter,” says Dinkelspiel.
The partners took a unique step in 2016 when they made a direct public offering and sold shares of Berkeleyside to readers. “We raised $1 million with the offering,” recalls Dinkelspiel, “but it wasn’t sustainable.”
The founders soon realized that even with grant funding from the likes of the Google News Initiative and the American Journalism Project, they would have to go bigger to survive. By then they had enough experience running a local news site that they felt confident they could expand by setting up local news sites in other areas. That approach spawned The Oaklandside, and others are definitely to come.
“The path forward for local news is not entirely clear,” Dinkelspiel says. “But we believe that Cityside can be an organization that paves the way to solve the crisis in local news coverage.”
Trust drives success
Dinkelspiel is passionate about the need for local journalism. “When local news isn’t covered, voter registration drops and partisanship increases,” she notes. “Having outlets for local news helps maintain the health of our democracy.”
“Fostering trust among readers has everything to do with the news we offer and our relationships in the local community,” notes Dinkelspiel. “We establish close connections with our readers through our “comments” channels (which receive 4,000 comments per year); through Twitter, where readers often request coverage on a topic; and, with our “tips” page,” which editors review to see if they should be reporting on something they weren’t aware of going on in the community.
The Oaklandside set up its own texting service to disseminate information about the COVID-19 vaccines. More than 3,000 people signed up to receive the texts. It also has partnerships with other news organizations such as El Tímpano and Oakland Voices to share stories of those often undercovered by traditional media.
Trust is also established when the organization reflects the diversity of its readers. The editors of both sites are people of color, and both outlets partner with sites whose readerships reflect that diversity (such as the COVID-19 texting campaign).
Pitching Stories to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside
The two Cityside outlets look for news about people, organizations and businesses who live or operate in the city. They do very little localization of national news. Send pitches to email@example.com or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Story by Phyllis Goodman
Enjoy this recording of the meeting: