UC Berkeley drops hyperlocal news website Mission Local

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A memo released today revealed a striking split that could affect media coverage in the Mission district: hyperlocal news site Mission Local is being dropped by its main fiscal sponsor, the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

“It’s now time for Mission Local to take the next step and re-launch itself as an independent, stand-alone media operation,” J-School Dean Edward Wasserman wrote in a department-wide memo. “That means ending its role in the J-School’s curriculum.”

The website is one of a trio of hyperlocal news websites run by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, including Oakland North and Richmond Confidential. It is still unclear if the other websites will be affected as well, though the memo says they will be the center of future discussion among faculty. 

Mission Local is a journalism lab for the UC Berkeley graduate students, covering everything in the Mission District from the Tamale Lady to the eye-rolling of Google public relations employees. They’re popular in the neighborhood, and even present the website in a Spanish-language format. 

The UC Berkeley graduate students serve as the site’s reporters and a little bit of everything else, from advertising and sales to audience-building. That was a problem, Wasserman wrote.

“That’s not really what we do,” he wrote. “Those are specialized areas, and the J-School doesn’t have the instructional capacity to teach them to a Berkeley standard of excellence.”

But the main issue seems to be cost. “It’s an expensive undertaking,” he wrote. The sites were initially funded with grants from the Ford Foundation, but UC Berkeley started picking up the tab when they ran out, among other fundraising avenues. Wasserman was also concerned that working for a hyperlocal newspaper away from campus pulls students away from campus activities. 

The PDF above is the memo sent to students and faculty of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism department concerning Mission Local.

Lydia Chavez, a professor at the J-School and the head of Mission Local told the Guardian she disagreed with Wasserman’s decision. 

“To be clear, I would have preferred to have Mission Local and the other hyper locals at the core of the school’s curriculum,” she said. 

But tales of Mission Local’s demise would be exaggerated.  

Chavez, a reporter who’s written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, op-ed pieces in the San Francisco Examiner and more, isn’t willing to walk away from Mission Local despite the challenges. 

The journalism bug, it seems, bit her hard.

“The Mission is now ground zero for so much that is happening in the city and the country that if I walked away from it now, it would be like walking away from a terrific story,” she wrote to the Guardian in an email.

“Mission Local will remain alive and innovative,” she wrote.

We’ll follow up with this story as it develops, and are planning a look into the state of hyperlocal journalism in San Francisco. Look for it in next week’s print edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

The memo in full: 

J-School Community:

The Mission Local hyperlocal site has been a vibrant and valuable part of the School of Journalism since it was created five years years ago. It has developed well beyond its initial scope as an incubator for J200 students, and under Prof. Lydia Chavez’s imaginative, impeccably professional and tireless leadership has become the premier place for the community it serves to learn about itself and talk about its future.

It’s now time for Mission Local to take the next step and re-launch itself as an independent, stand-alone media operation. That means ending its role in the J-School’s curriculum. While Prof Chavez would have liked to see the school keep the site, she is ready to assume responsibility for the site, and we expect that it will continue under her ownership. 

My reasons for spinning off ML are several.

First, it’s an expensive undertaking, which obliges us to operate a remote site on a year-round basis, even when the curricular value to our students is limited or even, at times, non-existent (as when we pay non-students to keep the site from going dark.)

Second, it draws students away far from North Gate at the very moment we’re bulking up and enriching the curricular and co-curricular offerings here—new required courses, more speakers, town hall meetings, reinvigorated career services, generally pumped-up intellectual life. From the perspective of Mission Local’s needs, renewed activity in North Gate is a distraction, and I think that unintentionally does our students a disservice.

Third, the natural evolution of the site itself is toward being an integrated media operation, and that requires sustained attention to marketing, audience-building, ad sales, miscellaneous revenue-generation, community outreach, special events, partnerships, and 1,001 other publishing activities that are essential to any site’s commercial success.

That’s not really what we do. Those are specialized areas, and the J-School doesn’t have the instructional capacity to teach them to a Berkeley standard of excellence. What’s more, our students wouldn’t have the curricular bandwidth to learn them—not unless we pared back other areas, and redefined our core mission as something other than journalism education.

(Let me add that as part of our larger curricular rethinking, I’m hopeful we will be introducing, and requiring, more business-side instruction than we currently offer, but ML’s needs are still of a different order of magnitude.) 

Whether other changes are in the works for J200 is up in the air at the moment. The curriculum committee is in the process of considering alternative approaches to J200, and the roles of Oakland North and Richmond Confidential as teaching labs are among the matters the faculty will discuss. 

Mission Local has produced dozens of loyal alums, many of them strong enthusiasts who recall their experience there with affection and gratitude. Let me assure them—and you—that as we weigh the future of J200 it’s with the intention of improving on what we’ve done in the past, and making sure the future offers opportunities here at least as rewarding and memorable as theirs have been. 

Let me conclude with a word of profound thanks to Prof. Chavez. While I respect and admire her loyalty to the Mission, I very much look forward to her getting more deeply involved in the exciting work that’s going on in North Gate. 

Regards,
Edward Wasserman, Dean 

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