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April 18, 2014

3 Reasons to Watch California Watch

California Watch stands out as one of the most watchable new journalism models in the country. In a post, California Watch’s Robert Rosenthal – Rosey to many in the industry — lays out the site’s latest triumph, and how the project’s distribution strategy is working. California Watch’s latest story focuses on how California’s public universities are slow to fix buildings that pose significant seismic hazards. It got picked up far and wide across the Golden State.

I’ve noted California Watch’s fast out-of-the-box start before. There are at least three good reasons to consider the 13-person project a model as old business plans get torn up and new ones written:

  • The distributors of California Watch stories cut across all news sectors. I can’t think of another journalistic project that has placed stories with commercial broadcasters (KGO-TV, KABC-TV, public broadcasters (KQED), daily newspapers (the Chronicle, the Bee, the Mercury News, the L.A. Daily News and dozens of others), the ethnic press (La Opinion, One Viet), the college press (CSU Long Beach Daily 49er) and start-up, online-only news sites (Voice of San Diego). We can talk all we want about cross-platform, legacy-agnostic publishing – much better to demonstrate it with real placements of real journalism across the spectrum.
  • New brands achieve broad legitimacy quickly – if they have the right pedigrees. Who ever heard of California Watch nine months ago? (Not many, it launched in the summer of 2009). What built the legitimacy? Simply, it’s the broad acceptance by the big news brands, brands that we recognize and which have conferred legitimacy on the fledgling enterprise. Established media quickly came to trust the reporting, given the legitimacy that the California Watch staff brought with them. Editorial Director Mark Katches is a an alum of the Orange County Register and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The seismic hazard story was written by Erica Perez, also an alum of the Journal Sentinel.  Rosey himself is a graduate of the Philadelphia Inquirer (editor in the late Knight Ridder years) and the Chronicle (managing editor in the Phil Bronstein years), and the rest of the staff has a list of impressive branded experience.

This is a huge lesson. Yes, the old brands have great value, but new ones can gain value overnight. Bands of journalists, well-organized and with worthy experience and skills, can quickly establish new enterprises. California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, got its start-up money from foundations, but it’s proving out a new, budding business model — new age syndication.

  • News creation and news distribution can effectively separated from each other. Sure, you can get California Watch’s journalism at CaliforniaWatch.org, but the great majority get it through the distribution channels they already know. Of course, this lesson was learned early on by all the big winners in the 15 years of the web – it’s the aggregators that get the most traffic and the most revenue. For legacy publishers, the California Watch learning isn’t a small one, though it may be seem like one now. California Watch may be a small supplement to their own staff production today. Yet, the lesson – you can buy high-quality journalism your audience will accept as your own – is a big one.  For big daily newspapers, with large, costly staffs, the California Watch model is one that could be extended and expanded – more high-quality content at lower cost. For start-ups, broadcasters and others, it’s a way forward on how to get big faster, without investing in a big staff.

Of course we’re seeing all kinds of supply-side content creation, from the well-pedigreed Chicago News Cooperative and ProPublica to the outputs of Demand Media, Examiner and Associated Content, with lots betwixt and between. I’ll be watching the demand-side as well, as we see new brands and old  — especially regionally – adapting and adopting new habits on the fly.

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