Exclusive Interview: Berkeleyside Co-Founder Tracey Taylor on the state and future of local online news
If there’s anyone I model The E’ville Eye after in the local online news space, It’s Berkeleyside.com. Berkeleyside is an independently owned, online news website founded in 2009 by veteran journalists Lance Knobel, Tracey Taylor and Frances Dinkelspiel. Berkeleyside has become an indispensable community asset in a relatively short period of time and probably the first source a Berkeley resident goes to when news breaks.
The small Berkeleyside staff’s coverage of their city of 119,000 and ten square miles is no short of amazing and their success is a model for others. I view Berkeleyside as a macrocosm of what we’re trying to achieve for Emeryville (albeit on a 10% scale and even smaller budget!). To build a communication hub that covers a gamut of topics and reflects the varying interests of their community.
Feature Image: Berkeleyside co-founders Tracey Taylor and her husband Lance Knobel at their WeWork co-working offices on University Ave.
Exclusive Interview: Berkeleyside Co-Founder Tracey Taylor
EE: The E’ville Eye here at the WeWork co-working space on University Avenue with Berkeleyside co-founder Tracey Taylor. Berkeleyside just celebrated its sixth anniversary and is, in my opinion, the blueprint for hyperlocal news in the region. I think the Berkeleyside success story is an important one to capture and I thank you for letting us tell it.
TT: I think it’s a good story to tell if only to show that it can be done and to be a sort of template or model for others. I think in many ways we’re on the frontline of what we’re doing. There are many people doing what we’re doing but I think to have not only survived for six years but also to a certain extent to be successful is a good story.
EE: So tell me about how you guys all came together and what inspired you to found Berkeleyside. You all have backgrounds in journalism I believe.
TT: We are all journalists by profession. The beginning of the story is that me and my husband Lance moved to California ten years ago and about six years ago we were lamenting the complete lack of local news coverage in the city that we now call home. Lance and his friend Dave Winer who was in technology said, “Let’s just start a blog and write things and observations.” To be honest, it wasn’t real reporting at that point. We didn’t have any plan or any sort of vision that we would do an online newspaper. It was really just, “Let’s just write little stories that cross our path or things that we were interested in.” It was a little bit of a whimsical thing.
Dave dropped out of the picture, and I became more involved. We then recruited Frances Dinkelspiel who is a Bay Area native. She’s lived in San Francisco and the East Bay all her life, so she had the context and she knew a lot more about the city of Berkeley than we did at that point. Then we started to write more and devote more time to it. We had a great response and people started engaging us. “Can you find out this? Can you go and do a little bit more reporting on this? What’s the story here? We’d love to know more …” .
Three years ago we hired Emilie Raguso as our full-time Senior Reporter and that was another significant turning point for Berkeleyside. Emilie has been instrumental in improving the scope and quality of our reporting. She is responsible for much of our regular city council, development, crime and schools coverage. Emilie also runs community engagement for us, overseeing our significant social media outreach.
There’s nothing like running a website about a city to really get deep into the weeds in terms of being knowledgeable about it. Not that I’ve ever been accused of this, but I sometimes think people might listen to me and say, “You’re a Brit. You’ve only lived here for ten years? What do you know about Berkeley? How can you report on our city?” Well, I’m a journalist and that’s what journalists do. You become an expert and you cover it every day at a micro level.
EE: I feel like sometimes being a bit of an “outsider” could be to your benefit and give you a bit more of an objective view. When you’ve been living here your entire life, I think you’re a little set in your ways and you have more personal baggage with the city.
TT: When you’ve lived here forever, you take things for granted and you make assumptions of what people know. I was coming into things fresh, I had to do research to figure out what the background was. I also was bringing a new set of questions. “Why has this always been done this way?” I think you’re right. I think that fresh perspective was helpful. That was the beginning and then I guess it didn’t take long for us to think this was something that we could actually take seriously and we should do this as a proper online newspaper. We did and we called it Berkeleyside and we started being more disciplined about doing regular stories, although if you look back to those original stories, it was nothing like what we’re doing now. Back then, we had much more of a personal voice. It was definitely more asking questions. We wonder why this is going on? Do you readers have any clues? We didn’t have many readers at that point compared to now. I think we did away with that gradually and became much more traditional. It grew, it blossomed, and it definitely became more of a formal, traditional reported type journalism. Within about six months, we started having a few inquiries about advertising.
EE: They came to you?
TT: They did. I think that was what made us think, “Somebody wants to advertise. How do we do this?” At first, we just said, “Sure, we can do that!” We were editors and publishers not ad sales people. We had to be everything because there was nobody else to do it. We weren’t particularly comfortable doing that at first. We come from those traditional “church & state” journalism background and we didn’t really like the idea that the same people who are writing the stories are also selling ads, so we started thinking we should get someone on board to handle the business advertising side.
That was our first real important recruitment. We hired Wendy Cohen, who is our ad director. She had a strong magazine background. She used to work at Condé Nast and a lot of the big magazine houses. Very experienced in print, but never had done any digital advertising. It was something she thought would be a great experience for her and she believed in what we were doing. We were also friends. That’s another whole angle on this. We’re all friends first, or in one case, married couple. Frances we met through our kids who were at the same school. We also met Wendy through our kids. It amazes me sometimes now when I look back that we’re still talking to each other. We still have a civil working relationship as well as we still socialize. I think that’s quite an achievement in itself. That was about six months in.
EE: This is about 2009 that you first started–
TT: Yeah, the very first post was in the spring of 2009. The very first iteration was called “In Berkeley“. In October 2009 we launched Berkeleyside.
EE: So when you started in 2009, what news coverage existed for the city of Berkeley?
TT: Mostly just The Berkeley Daily Planet, which was originally a daily print newspaper but by the time we popped up had scaled down to weekly and then very soon after we started really humming, the paper version folded. Now it has a few news articles online and many op-eds. And there’s the Daily Cal too, which is the student-produced paper at UC Berkeley. They cover city as well as campus news.
EE: So you might get a few Berkeley stories a week from the Chronicle, Tribune, The East Bay Express and the Daily Cal?
TT: It’s at most a few a week. What became apparent once we really hit our stride and we were doing regular high-standard reporting, we started getting approached by the Chronicle and KQED saying, “We haven’t got people on the ground anymore in Berkeley. We haven’t got the capacity to have a full-time Berkeley reporter, so can we partner? Can you basically help us with our Berkeley coverage?” We welcomed that partnership and that collaboration because it gave us an opportunity to put our content on their websites. If the Chronicle for example posts our story on its front page, it drives a lot of traffic to us. The KQED affiliation, we were an official “news associate,” has actually disbanded for lack of money. For a few years, we were on air. We did news debriefs with them and they’d also put our stories on their site. We are still informal partners with KQED, however.
EE: I in fact heard Lance [Knobel] the other day on KQED’s Forum! So, can you recall a moment when you figured out, “I think this is going to work?”
TT: I’m not even sure if we’ve figured that out yet. We definitely still consider ourselves a startup. I don’t know when technically people have to stop calling themselves a “startup”, but we’re six years in now. Although we are making decent money and we have two full-time and two part-time employee who we pay well and we give them health benefits and everything. We three founders, we’re still not taking a salary from the business. We are all still doing other things. Well, I’m not personally doing other things, but Lance pays the mortgage through another job. Frances also has another income source as a writer. She’s just published her second book “Tangled Vines.”
If the definition of “making it work” is everybody who works on Berkeleyside is taking home a living wage or better, then we’re definitely not there yet. But we’re running at nearly 300,000 unique visitors a month with spikes when there are big stories. And Berkeley’s population is only about 119,000.
Frances Dinkelspiel addresses the crowd at a recent journo gathering at WeWork
EE: Wow! So from a financial perspective, you’re not ready to claim victory yet, but from an online traffic perspective, it’s clear that the residents of Berkeley love your product. Was there a particular story that propelled you guys or maybe a political event that really helped cement your audience?
TT: : That’s a good question. I think it was more of a slow burn. I think every time we hit a big story, like the elections, or that mountain lion getting out into the Gourmet Ghetto and being shot by the police in somebody’s back yard. Suddenly everybody’s coming to Berkeleyside.com. Then they realize that we do much more news than this. “Well, I’m going to subscribe to their daily briefing email and see what they do every day!”
There was the demonstration last fall when Berkeley High walked out over a racist post on a school computer. We had so many people across the nation picking up that story and there are a lot of reasons for that. It’s Berkeley! It’s high school students leaving the campus! It’s Black Lives Matter … I’d like to think it’s ultimately just great journalism and high standards of everything, whether it’s aesthetics or how we report things. But we can’t deny the fact that the city we’re covering is a city with the political reputation of Berkeley, California. That has a reputation and resonance way beyond our city. But I don’t think I can look back and point to one story that really put us on the map.
EE: Berkeley is at the political forefront of many things.
TT: I’m sure conservative websites across the country set Google alerts for “Berkeley” so they can link to us and say, “Look at those nutty …” $19 minimum wage, soda tax, naked tree huggers … we literally did have a story earlier last year about people getting naked and hugging trees. You can’t make this up. It actually happened! Those sorts of things are of some interest to the locals, but draw traffic from the entire country as well. As you said, Berkeley is pioneering in so many different ways.
EE: Berkeleyside in my opinion is pretty objective and you guys have consciously taken that perspective. You do wield quite a bit of influence though and probably not everybody likes or appreciates this in a city with such a historically liberal reputation. Just covering business or development can paint you into a corner as being “pro-business” or “pro-development”.
TT: Exactly. We do cover the development issues. We do cover business. We do events where we have sponsors who are local developers. I think there are definitely some people out there, and I think it’s a small minority, who believe we are in the pockets of the people who want to “Manhattanify” Berkeley or the most recent expression which we’ve heard is the “Beijing-ization” of Berkeley, i.e. tall buildings, urban density.
We’ve had accusations of being in the pockets of the government, that we’re too chummy with Mayor Bates. On one hand, there are people who say we’re part of the establishment, but we’ve also had people say, “You’re just far too liberal-progressive.” We feel this means we must be doing something right. There’s an element out there that is dissatisfied with us on all different fronts, and that means we’re probably doing OK.
EE: I have to remind myself all the time that you cannot please everybody. So going down the list, Patch has been gutted, The Bold Italic went under before getting acquired. Oakland Local, I think their funding ran out and they’re looking to transition. There are just so many examples of local news sites that have either failed or are really struggling. Even you mentioned that Berkeleyside is not there yet and you are not taking a salary. I’m not convinced The E’ville Eye is sustainable for me personally. Why are you guys succeeding where others have not? How long can passion and a sense of duty keep you guys going?
TT: That’s a good question. I think part of it is that we realized early on that we had to diversify. We currently have three revenue streams. The membership, which is asking our readers to give us money and to become part of a club. Membership is actually something we are very enthusiastic about. We think there’s a lot more to be done there and have recently taken on a part-time administrator to oversee and grow our membership program.
EE: You guys don’t really nag it seems. I don’t get popups every time I load your site. Every once in a while, you’ll throw out a “Please support us” email …
TT: The experts would probably tell us we should nag more because we tend to get a good response. We tried popups once for one of our events and we got a negative reaction immediately. We panicked and stopped doing it. I think everything we try, we’re going to get some pushback on. We might try it again. I think that’s a good mantra for everything we do. We might “try”. We want to try a lot of different things. Membership is a key thing because we have an incredibly loyal readership base. Most people really, really appreciate and love Berkeleyside. When we remind them, “Would you mind helping us a bit with this,” they invariably say “Yes.” We get really good responses. Give us five bucks, give us ten bucks a month. People’s response is invariably, “Why didn’t you just ask?”
EE: [laughter] “We assumed you had deep-pocketed investors?”
TT: Then we’re doing events. Lance is a journalist but he also has very extensive experience putting together programs for big international conferences and events. We thought this is an expertise that would be a natural fit. We’re not the first to think about this of course. The Texas Tribune, the Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York Times … they all do events. You’ve got your community. You’ve got your megaphone to get the news out about the event you’re promoting and hopefully you have the ability to bring people together. We are a community website, so let’s get the community together in live venues where we can talk about things and hash things out.
EE: You’ve got to bring it off line sometimes.
TT: People here in Berkeley are always very willing to provide their opinions and the intellectual dialogue is very alive here in Berkeley.
EE: The dialogue on your site is incredible. So take us a little bit through the Berkeleyside process. How you collaborate, how you allocate assignments, advocate for your own ideas.
TT: It’s a very interesting process and it’s one that’s evolved and one we’ve honed over the years. We have our weekly story meeting where we review our incredibly long story list and try to prioritize. What do we do right now? What do we do this week? We’re always battling with things we would like to do but just haven’t got the capacity to do.
We all came from big newsrooms or in my case, magazine newsrooms. Here we’re just this tiny little team and we’re very democratic. We all feel we have strengths in different areas. We all feel our opinions are of the same value. There’s no hierarchy. Emilie, our full-time senior reporter for example, covers all our crime. She’s on top of our crime coverage. She does a lot of breaking news. I will bow to her opinion if there’s a crime story and we’re discussing if we should we do this as a big story, just put it into the weekly blotter, or should we follow-up with some more analysis type coverage? She’s going to be the person who ultimately makes that call.
We also use freelancers and over the years we’ve had some really good ones. They tend to come and go, which is a shame, but I guess that’s just the nature of the business.
I met with Tracey and Sr. Reporter Emilie Raguso on “neutral territory” at Spoon on Ashby.
EE: People want to get their name in Berkeleyside and then they move on?
TT: I was a freelance writer for many years but it’s a very difficult way to make a living.
We also have constant communication with each other throughout the day. We’re using this great system for internal communication called Slack based on a channel system. It’s really been transformative for us. We used to do email, text, G-chat, phone conversations, and what was really frustrating about that, although you really only realize it when you get an amazing magical thing like Slack, is that it’s all dispersed everywhere. There’s no archive of those communications. They’re all different threads happening on different platforms, sometimes between two people, sometimes between three. With Slack, everything’s on the same platform. It’s fabulously searchable. You can upload things, so we have all our big documents, photos, whatever can all be on there too. Everything is just there in one place. If we all sat in the same room, it might not be as valuable, but we don’t.
EE: Tools like Slack have enabled you to work remotely with mobile devices and still have a communication hub. It will never completely replace good old facetime though. It’s good to meet in person on occasion.
TT: Apart from our weekly story meetings, we’re very rarely in the same room. Some of us like working in this office, but Frances likes to be out and about, Emilie too. She’s more of a coffee shop worker. We do meet at least once a week on the editorial side, and then we have what we call our “partners” meeting. The four partners, Frances, Wendy, myself and Lance, do a weekly business meeting. That’s more about the whole business side of Berkeleyside. Publishing, advertising, revenue, events … everything is in this meeting. We ask how we move forward as a business.
EE: Membership, ads, events … do you see any other revenue streams coming forward? A lot of people are looking for the magic bullet that’s going to save journalism. I’m hearing a lot about online micropayments other than PayPal like blendle that will remove a convenience barrier so people can more easily compensate you for your hard work. Something that just takes a click. Once that unfolds, maybe you do actually take on the salary that you covet. Do you see anything in the pipeline?
TT: There’s always going to be an upper limit on advertising. There’s a whole lot of new things happening with online advertising like more people ad blocking.
On the event side, I think we have great potential for growth because the annual Uncharted Festival can only get bigger as far as we’re concerned. We are very much hoping to do more in the future in terms of events. I think local websites like yours or ours, or any in the nation, need to basically remind readers, “You always used to pay for news. This great informational resource is coming at you for free. That just isn’t sustainable.”
EE: Some sites are implementing a “meter” on how many articles you can read for free like the SF Business Times. The SF Chronicle & New York Times both have paywalls. I don’t know with what success.
TT: I don’t believe paywalls are the answer for us. I think in our case, we have a very defined community and if we decided to add a paywall, we would immediately at least decimate that. I would think we’d probably lose a huge number of readers. I think a site like ours needs to have a critical mass to make sense. If we are only reaching 20% of Berkeley, then we’re not doing what we need to do.
EE: You might alienate people of lower incomes and maybe students who might not get access to your information as a result. So most of you still have “day jobs”, and in your case, not even taking a salary. Two full-time employees and two part-time employees you said?
TT: Wendy Cohen our advertising director and Emilie Raguso our senior reporter are both full-time and Kate Williams is the part-time editor of NOSH, which is our East Bay food website. We launched NOSH a couple of years back when we decided we would do a vertical with a new revenue stream in mind. Speaking of expansion, people often ask us, “Why don’t you launch Oaklandside? Oakland is desperate for a news — why isn’t there a Berkeleyside in Oakland?”
EE: Just don’t launch “E’villeside”! [laughter]
TT: You’ve got that covered. The reason we don’t is because right now that would be such a big project in terms of capital and resources. Oakland is a huge city. It would be a much bigger endeavor than what we’re doing here. I personally think somebody has to do this. I’m very excited at the idea of doing it. This is Oakland’s moment. Everything is happening in Oakland right now.
EE: Berkeleyside only crosses over into Oakland for food stories.
TT: Yes, only for food. We could not cover food and not do Oakland. If you follow Berkeleyside, you see we never cross the border for our general reporting. One of the reasons I think–if you’re looking for “Why is Berkeleyside successful?”, I think it is partly because we are so laser focused on our city. We go deep, deep, deep.
If we tried to scale it, and I think this was one of the problems with Patch. You say “If we do it so well here, we can do the same thing everywhere.” That’s just not true. You need people who are totally embedded in that community, people who have incredible sources in all of the city and the police departments and have that sort of trust that you’ve built up over the years. To build that in a different city is definitely possible, but the idea that you can just roll it out, even if you had the money, it takes a long time to build that reputation.
EE: So how do you get your stories?
TT: We talk about being embedded in the community but the community is very much part of Berkeleyside. We are not just delivering news and then readers passively digest it. Up to half of the stories we write are because of our tips that come from residents. People bombard us through Twitter, through email, sometimes phone calls or even snail mail. We have a tips email and people are on it all the time. They tell us of what’s going on in the community. They’ll say, “Right now there’s a fire on my street!” or, “Right now there’s a huge scandal brewing in my kids’ school,” or, “Right now there’s …”
EE: The Twitter community is a great resource for news when you’re strapped for resources like we all are.
TT: Twitter’s great. We would not know of a lot of these things if it wasn’t for it. Our community is the resource. Not only do they give us information and tips and off and on the record, they also are sometimes very good at being citizen reporters. When we had the large Black Lives Matter protest in December, we did rely on people who were literally in the thick of it saying, “We are now surrounded by police. This is what I’m seeing right now” and providing pictures. It’s a sort of curating process because you don’t want to take anybody’s information and say, “I’m sure this is fine, reliable.” You have to use your professional judgement and you have to look at who they are. If it’s on Twitter, you say, “This is a Chronicle reporter who’s right there or this is an anonymous student …” It’s hard to explain how you do it, but we’re very cautious about what sources we use.
EE: So the challenges of modern-day journalism, online media. Now you’ve got to be a jack of all trades. I see you’re on Google Analytics. You’ve got to moderate comments and trolls. There’s security. There’s search-engine optimization. You’ve got various social media channels. You’ve got to know content management systems like WordPress … Do you miss the good old days where all you had to do was report, write and meet your deadlines?
TT: I much prefer this. I love the fact that I’m becoming knowledgeable about all these different tools. I love the fact that we’re running our own business and that it’s our story, it’s our game. We decide what we want to do. We try new things. Sometimes they fail, so we move on. It’s hard, but generally, being a journalism entrepreneur is so much more fun and challenging and fruitful and satisfying than being what I was before. I feel like it’s much more unpredictable and exciting. It’s definitely not a traditional journalism role. On any given day I’m doing so many different things. Today I may spend time marketing the Uncharted Ideas festival or working with partners and doing e-mail blasts and Facebook marketing. You just get started and figured it out. Then on the same day, I’m editing or reporting stories. I still see myself more on the editorial side, but the truth is I’m not anymore. I’m helping run this business. I’m just as much a publisher as an editor.
EE: We’re seeing a lot more of those so-called referral or “sponsored” posts. Those, “You may like …” with a clickbait headline. I guess everybody’s doing it because they want to make money, but it does cheapen the product a bit. How do you feel about sponsored posts?
TT: I guess some people would call it “native” advertising. I feel there are responsible ways of doing it. For example, we are doing one with a real estate agency who are doing a quarterly sponsored editorial. They have provided such interesting content. It’s partly because we talk to them and we say, “If you want to really make this successful, make it really interesting to our readers. These are questions our readers want to know about. They’ll do pieces like, “The average home price in Berkeley now is $1 million,” which is actually true by the way. We’ll ask “What does that mean?” “Are there neighborhoods where you can still get relative bargains?” “What does that mean for the future of the market?” They do these really data-driven stories.
EE: And they perform well?
TT: They perform really well. They get picked up by other media. It’s almost ironic. Nobody even notices. If they do notice, they don’t mind that it’s called a sponsored post–we definitely are very transparent. It says, “Sponsored editorial. Paid for by … ” We do not pretend it’s anything other than that. If it’s good quality content, people will live with it because it is in fact interesting to them. The real estate posts are a good example of how we would love everyone sponsored post to be. It’s working with clients on more sophisticated advertising packages than just a banner ads but with big, very clear walls between us. Not being honest is not going to benefit us or the advertiser.
WeWork provides shared workspace, community, and services for entrepreneurs, freelancers, startups and small businesses.
EE: This is a sensitive question but the bigger you get, the more that you’re going to be a target for being absorbed. Have there ever been any offers by media conglomerates to buy a stake or even purchase Berkeleyside?
TT: No. We have never had any offers. I think people are very wary of the news business. Even though I think that If you look at our numbers, every year, we’re making more money and we’re very much on the right track, and we have clear ways that we can really take it to the next level, we’ve barely started on the membership. We have started, but there’s a lot of room for growth. There’s a lot of room for growth in events as well.
EE: You’ve got at least 119,000 potential customer and of course the neighboring communities that are interested …
TT: We have the whole of the East Bay for our food coverage too. Part of me thinks it’s surprising we haven’t had offers, but actually nobody’s excited about making serious money with the news business. This is not the place. If you’re into making money, you’re not looking at the news business unfortunately [laughter]. We haven’t is the answer.
EE: That’s good to hear. It may come and there may be some temptation. You might say, “It’s been a nice ride …” [laughter] I hope not.
TT: Never say never. I don’t know. We might have internal disputes about how we’d do it.
EE: So give us your forecast, predictions. Five years from now, where do you hope to be with Berkeleyside and where will local online news be?
TT: I really hope local news will be in a better place in five years than it is now. I do think we’re pointing up and I hope other people do to. There are other sites that are doing well. One that we always look to and we know the guys there is Noozhawk. They’re in Santa Barbara. Bill Macfadyen who launched it maybe eight years ago–they’re about two years ahead of us I think. Really good product, really good news site, and they’re making good money. If there’s anybody we’re looking at as a model, it would be them.
EE: I’m looking at you and you’re looking at them.
TT: Exactly, so there is somebody ahead of us I think. They’re few and far between. It’s not like there’s this great cluster of amazing sites in the country. There are great sites, but they’re not necessarily making a lot of money. In five years, I would love to think that Berkeleyside was on a rock-solid revenue base, still maintaining its great reputation, was running more events, and that every single person in Berkeley was both reading Berkeleyside and was also a Berkeleyside member, i.e. they were supporting us financially. Maybe at that point we will also have launched Oaklandside, although my partners are not so keen on this media empire vision as I am! [laughter].
I think in five years’ time we’ll certainly be able to say either we’re not here anymore, which I hope is not the case, or everybody’s making decent wages out of this and we’re able to staff-up. We definitely need more staff. We’ll hopefully be the ones that show everybody how it can be done.
EE: Show us the way Berkeleyside! [laughter]. Well, thanks again Tracey for giving The E’ville Eye this exclusive interview and your time. As a neighbor of an adjacent community, I really appreciate your coverage and what you guys are doing for the space. You’re a role model for us.
TT: You’re very welcome and good luck. Now I’ve probably got a Berkeley protest to go cover. There’s always a Berkeley protest around the corner. [laughter]
The Berkeleyside team from L-R: Kate Williams, Tracey Taylor, Frances Dinkelspiel, Lance Knobel, Wendy Cohen and Emilie Raguso. (Photo: Pete Rosos)