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The Hellman News Project Should Study Fwix Before Launching

This just in!

The non-profit Bay Area News Project, well-funded by San Francisco billionaire Warren Hellman, has announced the names of its two senior executives, which -- as readers of this BNET Media column have known for the better part of a week -- are CEO Lisa Frazier and Editor Jonathan Weber.

Frazier has confirmed that her salary "offer" was $400,000; Weber says he will hire up to 15 local journalists by the end of this year.

In a carefully-worded press announcement, the project disclosed that "in conjunction with The New York Times, the media non-profit ... will supply news for the Bay Area sections of The Times."

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, was quoted as stating: "The agreement with the Bay Area News Project is another big step for The Times toward two goals: Helping meet the demand for the highest quality local reporting in places around the country where it is getting harder to come by, and finding ways to collaborate with trusted providers to get that job done."

So there you have it: A week's worth of PR about the latest entry into the local news market here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Let me be frank.

Although I welcome this development, and particularly the addition of a respected editor like Weber to the local scene, I harbor deep doubts about yet another attempt to throw money at what is not so much a void in local news coverage but a structural change in how news is going to be covered going forward.

The entire Hellman project was prompted by the pull-out by the Hearst Corp. from its traditional role as the dominant Bay Area news provider. While it is true that Hearst has utterly eviscerated the hoary old San Francisco Chronicle, as one who's lived and worked as an independent journalist here for the past 39 years, it's my opinion that the Chronicle never did a particularly good job of local news coverage anyway.

From time to time, especially near the end, the Chronicle devoted some resources to its "Bay Area" section and gave one a general idea about what was going on hereabouts, but it has long been the practice of any local newshound to check out the alternative weeklies in this area -- especially the East Bay Express, the S.F. Weekly, and the Bay Guardian, plus the ever-excellent KQED-FM, KCBS-AM and KALW-FM local radio news reports -- to get more in-depth and informed coverage of local issues and controversies.

Meanwhile, with the emergence of social media, headquartered right here in the Bay Area (Twitter's office is in downtown San Francisco), none of even these semi-traditional news sources are in the business so much of breaking news any longer as following the news with analysis and opinion.

That's because most news is broken by the crowd, not by journalists.

All of which brings me back to billionaire Hellman's decision to throw money at the purported problem that we are not getting enough local news. I'm afraid he is simply trying to re-invent a past that never was really all that useful. I don't share the collective mourning for what we've lost with the passing of the metro dailies -- as I've suggested, they were never as good as they thought they were, even in their heyday.

Anyway, there is already a better potential alternative in place.

Has Hellman heard about Fwix, by chance? Check out this morning's Bay Area news page from this aggregator's combination of professional and user-generated news sources. As I reported last year, this little company's algorithms identify potential high-quality bloggers in a community like San Francisco, then its team of human editors determine which ones to post.

Fwix is still young, but it already has aggregated 10,000 news sources, half of which it identifies as these high-quality journalist bloggers. It is also national in scope, but it is headquartered here in San Francisco, so its local coverage tends to be especially strong.

Here is what Darian Shirazi, the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Fwix, had to say about the new Hellman-funded venture in an email exchange with me late last night:

"We shouldn't be building organizations with millions of dollars to write local news because the margins aren't high enough to sustain the business when the readership is so small. I know I'm an advocate of this because it's our strategy, but with all of the local bloggers out there and articles being produced by locals for pleasure and at times for some monetary gain, shouldn't we be building systems that will identify that content and send users directly to those individual bloggers?

"It seems counter-intuitive to recreate the entire system and hire people write news that's already being covered in the bay area by bloggers. The alternative to the "build your own newsroom" approach is obviously an aggregation play which is something I would rather see KQED and NYT focus on rather than trying to re-invent the wheel."

Shirazi is actually being a bit too modest here. He has already built the technological platform (and human team) necessary for collecting and publishing a credible local news play at Fwix, using far less resources than will the Bay Area News Project, which says it will operate on an annual budget in the $12 million range.

Plus, one of the cardinal rules of journalism is to never "re-invent the wheel" when reporting... shouldn't that also be extended to the business side?

Related BNET links:
Jan. 18 As Hellman Project Details Emerge, KALW Launches A Local News Website "The San Francisco Bay Area may soon sport an embarrassment of riches, comparatively speaking, in the number and variety of local news organizations competing to fill the void created by waves of cutbacks..."

Jan. 16 Post-KQED, Hellman Non-Profit Venture Plans to Tap Frazier, Weber "BNET has learned the names of the key executives that the troubled Bay Area News Project plans to announce "later this month..."

Jan. 15 Non-Profit News Deal between Millionaire Hellman, KQED Falls Apart
Dec. 4 Fwix Aggregates Local News, Compensates Bloggers, Filling a Void "In the ongoing debate over the future of the media business, especially when it comes to news, the extremes tend to dominate, and not just ideologically..."