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Will non-profit foundations save political journalism?

For California political journalism, bad news is everywhere. As newspapers wrestle with shifting financial realities, papers across California have scaled back or eliminated their Capitol bureaus.

But while for-profit papers are scaling back their coverage, a number of the state's largest non-profit foundations are coming together, searching for ways to fill the void left by the ever-shrinking Capitol press corps.

So, how do the simultaneous declines in traditional Capitol coverage mesh with this growing interest from the non-profit sector? Will non-profits be part of the new economic picture for journalism?

In short, will the foundations save political journalism?

While conversations have been ongoing with a number of other non-profit organizations about ways to fill the growing hole in California political coverage, there is no universal agreement on how to solve the problems in state Capitol coverage.

But there is wide agreement that as the press corps diminishes, there is an increasing lack of quality state political information.

"The importance of having an independent journalism that played a watchdog function is extremely important in keeping government honest and responsive," said Mark Paul, deputy director of the New America Foundation's California program.

"We're in a transitional period, to say the least," says Dave Lesher, senior manager of the Public Policy Institute of California, and a former editor of the California Journal and Los Angeles Times Capitol reporter. "One of the questions is, will media be commercially viable, or does it need some kind of non-profit component or model to survive?"

"People are starting to turn to see where the sugar daddies are," says A.G. Block, another former California Journal editor who is now director of the Public Affairs Journalism Program at the University of California Center Sacramento. "Foundations are sitting on huge pots of money and they exist to give them away, so it's a natural place to go."

There have been a number of proposals floating around the non-profit world looking for ways to supplement, and save, political journalism.

"There are a lot of people thinking about this," said Paul, "The question is, Can we get together and find a way to make it happen?"

New America has put together a proposal they call California Next – a proposed "online magazine" that would include original reporting, background information and commentaries from California policy experts and journalists.

Paul says California Next "would be a home for journalism in all sorts of media — print, audio and video — and also be a platform for discussion, commentary and blogs on California issues. The goal is to connect people and interested citizens and issue discussions — to be a tool for California citizens."

Block says he was approached by the James Irvine Foundation to help supply journalists with the tools and training needed to cover state government.

"We're a training work shop. We were approached by the foundation to develop a training program for working reporters and how to better cover public affairs. We are actually out there trying to improve that coverage."

But once those journalists are trained, says Block, it's just as important to ensure that these journalists will have a place to run or air their stories.

"It s the responsibility of people who run media organizations to provide the space or airtime to inform people," says Block. "It's one thing to train reporters, and another to get those decision makers to devote more space to the reporting that comes out of that process."

Block says part of the job he and former Chronicle Capitol Bureau Chief Rob Gunnison are undertaking involves lobbying newspaper editors and TV news directors to give more space to state political news.

"We're going to tackle that one face-to-face, one at a time," says Block.

There are other proposals floating around involving the possible creation of a new, non-profit political news bureau that would provide content to media outlets around the state, and another proposal to attract funding for more investigative reporting in California politics.

With the departure of the Mercury News' Kimberly Kindy to the Washington Post, there are no investigative reporters left among the Capitol press corps' surviving members.


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