What are they thinking? CALmatters wants to shake up California statehouse

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California State Assembly. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Ken Doctor

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Simone Coxe is frustrated. Like many well-informed, civic-minded citizens, she finds her local news sources shrinking by the month. Unlike others, she’s put a million dollars where her worries have led her. With that million and an additional million and half, CALmatters launches this summer, I’ve learned this week.

It’s an ambitious, statewide-reaching explanatory journalism start-up, with an initial staff of seven to eight journalists, all based in the political heart of the U.S.’s largest state, its capital, Sacramento.

Coxe, a long-time civic leader who lives in the midst of Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, pinpoints the two-year-old inspiration for the nonprofit initiative.

“There is so much complaining about how bad government is. I got fed up. Responsibility is a big thing. What is it that we could do about it? My background is information. I got into public relations with this crazy idea that citizens are responsible for themselves, but they need information from the media, when I got into this 40 years ago [at the University of California at] Berkeley,” Coxe told me. “If the federal government is too big and too far away, then there’s got to be something we can do in California.”

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She told me she talked to a number of like-minded journalism sites—KQED and Center for Investigative Reporting included—but couldn’t find the right fit for the kind of newsy, explanatory, but not investigative, product she wants to create.

Coxe will serve as chair of the CALmatters board, and act as its chief fund-raiser. Joining her on the board will be Dave Lesher, director government affairs for the Public Policy Institute of California, and Chris Boskin, who is as connected in the Republican sphere as Cox is among Democrats. Boskin currently serves on the NPR national board, and formerly served on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board.

With a three-year budget of $5 million, Coxe has raised half that, and expects to be at the $3 million mark by launch. She’s recruited a small but heavy-hitting advisory group, including John Thornton, a co-founder of Texas Tribune; Dick Tofel, ProPublica’s president, Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications; and Doug McGray, the editor of California Sunday, a weekly newspaper-inserted new-wave magazine that débuted last year.

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a new weekly column for Capital by Ken Doctor, called “What are they thinking?” that will focus every Tuesday on a strategic challenge in the media business, and the thinking of the people who are trying to solve it.

CALmatters points to a so-far small trend of state-focused news startups. While Vice, Buzzfeed, Vox and their cousins have ignited a small national renaissance in digital-only news, hiring 6,000 journalists along the way, coverage of state policy and politics has ebbed away, as 20,000 daily newspaper journalists got pink slips over the last eight years.

Texas Standard,” a new one-hour, five-day-a-week public radio program debuts March 2 across the vast expanse of Texas. The Texas initiative marks the further harnessing of radio, broadcast, streamed or podcast, as a news medium of the future. “Texas Standard” joins “Reveal,” the to-be weekly public-radio investigative-news program (“Meet ‘Reveal,’ the show that could be ’60 Minutes’ for our century”), as well as the growing news programming coming out of big metro stations from Boston to San Diego.

At the same time POLITICO (Capital’s parent company) is replicating its model, first in Florida and then other states (Newsonomics: “Politico Expands into Global and Local”). Finally, The Associated Press is redoubling its statehouse coverage. It has hired 13 statehouse reporters over the past year; some are jobs that had been vacant, some are new positions. And it plans to add more than three dozen “contract reporters to cover legislative sessions” in 2015.

Why the push? Why now?

Statehouse and statewide political coverage has diminished, drip by drip, over the last decade. Papers that had a half-dozen Capitol correspondents may have one or two; in some cases, they’re knowledgeable veterans, in others, they are too fresh-faced to know where the bodies are sequestered. The civic I.Q. has fallen with that loss in a way that’s impossible to measure.

If the vacuum isn’t a new one, we’re seeing a palpable new sense of optimism, whether on the part of philanthropists or venture capitalists, in funding new enterprises. The up economy helps drive that.

As I’ve talked to those news media who are doing a better job of watching what their prime readers—usually All-Access or digital subscribers—believe they’re missing, several note that old-fashioned policy and civic information, news and commentary is that thing. When the pubic is provided with more of it, as a few newspapers have done, the readers read it. That tells us something important not just about the needs of the struggling democracy, but of the market positions of the various members of the news media.

Simone Coxe relates a Survey Monkey poll she conducted to test some of CALmatters’ aims. Of 400 affluent 40-to-70-year-olds, many with graduate degrees, only 5 percent knew which state legislators represented them—but they expressed high interest in California politics and economy.

Coxe has got a good resume of civic and political involvement, having recently served as chair of the public-media KQED board in San Francisco. She cashed out of the P.R. company she built, selling it to Hill and Knowlton.

She believes that philanthropy will only carry CALmatters so far, and aims to build “earned revenue—in the form of an events business, selling data or possibly membership—after the site establishes its value in the public square.

Gregory Favre will head up the site’s editorial staff, as the “first-year editor.” Favre, retired in 2001 as V.P. of news for McClatchy Newspapers, following a stint as top editor of McClatchy’s Sacramento Bee from 1984 to 1998, and then taught at the Poynter Institute for a number of years. Favre’s career dates back to Bay St. Louis, Miss., not far from New Orleans. “As a 10-year-old, I folded the papers for my daddy’s newspaper.”

He brings both a well-thought-of California editorial name and status to CALmatters out of gate, and will also help as it establishes essential collaborative relationships.

Favre says “what-does-it-mean long-form journalism” will propel CALmatters forward. Journalists will be given several weeks to a month to complete single pieces.

The site will focus on “expository” reporting, Coxe told me, with a large emphasis on data harvesting, transparency and access. Among the early products: a Legislator Tracking Database, drawing together two dozen publicly available databases, which no one has yet connected. Coxe hopes for the kind of impact Evan Smith’s Texas Tribune has had in Texas, as people in the state talk about “the Trib effect” setting political agendas in the state.

Of the editorial staff, of seven or eight, several senior people will be hired at lower six-figure ranges, as CALmatters tries to make a mark quickly on the landscape.

Kaizar Campwala heads, and mans, the business side. He is president of the CALmatters; his No. 1 goal is audience development. He’ll draw from recent business development experience, last applied at Deezer and Stitcher Radio, as well as three years at NewsTrust, an interesting social news notion that never got lift-off and was taken over by the Poynter Institute in 2012. The BD here is partnership-oriented. Like models ProPublica, Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Reporting, CALmatters depends on the eyeballs of others to find readers. CALmatters’ own website is secondary. It will be partners like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times and KQED who make, or break, CALmatters’ ability to break through the noise of the web.

CALmatters offers a pointed, if restrained, manifesto:

“Many of the issues settled in the statehouse—education, environment, criminal justice, healthcare delivery, immigration—play out on the national stage, with a ripple effect that goes far beyond our state borders. And yet, a shockingly small percentage of even the most engaged Californians have any real understanding of how Sacramento works or who the key players are. State politics receives little attention from Californians and consequently, elected officials answer to special interests and campaign donors rather than the voters they represent.”

Can CALmatters succeed? Its challenges parallel those of Bill Keller’s Marshall Project (“Newsonomics: Bill Keller’s Marshall Project Finds Its Legs”) in some ways. Can it find a significant audience quickly enough to satisfy its largely benevolent funders, depending like The Marshall Project on other sites for branding and notice? Marshall has been able to hire well, and that challenge—and the finding of staff cohesion—is ahead for CALmatters. Editor Gregory Favre has been largely out of the news trade for 14 quite formative years and President Kaizar Campwala’s mettle will be tested as he deals with a new set of publisher partners.

What CALmatters has going for it: an authentic sense that California democracy badly needs smarter journalism to feed it. That’s a good start, and the task ahead is to translate those laudable goo-goo instincts into change-making reporting.

More generally, in this burgeoning field of single-topic sites, we have to ask the question: When is it better to bolster an existing news operation with new, dedicated resources, and when better to do one-offs? We know both the positive power of scale, and its twin, size-creating inertia. Collaboration and partnership is all the rage as a model, but we’ll see how sustainable it may be.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the editor of California Sunday. He is Doug McGray, not Doug McCray. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact. Capital regrets the error.