Passion Project

Michael Stoll’s Mission to Save Local Media

By Jesse Hamlin

Clockwise, from left to right: Laura Wenus, Noah Arroyo, Mel Baker, Daphne Magnawa, Michael Stoll and Lila LaHood. (Spencer Brown)

Newspapers were already losing money and readers when the 2008 financial crash set off a wave of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs that inevitably resulted in the diminishment of coverage, particularly the kind of consequential in-depth reporting that takes time and resources.

“We were seeing the investigative desks at regional newspapers systematically dismantled by these corporations in order to save money,” recalls Michael Stoll, a former Philadelphia Inquirer and San Francisco Examiner reporter who in 2009 co-founded San Francisco Public Press, a civic-minded nonprofit news outlet that rigorously covers local issues without fear or favor.

It became clear to Stoll that “the corporate ad-driven business model” wasn’t going to sustain local journalism. He’d been working on a study at Stanford documenting the “hollowing out” of journalistic standards and came to embrace the socially responsible reportorial ethic he saw most fully realized in public broadcasting. “The idea behind the Public Press was the mashup of the noncommercial public interest, community-focused, trustworthy model of journalism with the in-depth, knowledgeable, accountability-focused investigative style from newspapers.”

That mashup gave rise to a solid journalistic enterprise that over the decade has published meaty, data-rich special reports and investigative series about the homelessness and housing crises, sea level rise, digital privacy and other pressing matters. Published on the Press’ website and in its quarterly broadsheet, they’ve informed public discourse and policy. In 2016, then-Mayor Ed Lee created the job of senior policy advisor on sea level rise after the issue was examined in alarming detail in Kevin Stark’s Public Press report about how rising seas could inundate Bay Area coastal land. Lee appointed City Engineer Fuad Sweiss, now director of Santa Ana’s Public Works Agency, who later told Stark (now at KQED) that the reporting had essentially outlined his job description.

In August, the nonprofit, which is funded by foundations and members, extended its range and reach by diving into the lively world of low-watt community radio, broadcasting 12 hours a day on KSFP, 102.5FM, from a transmitter atop Mount Sutro. It shares the FCC license and 100-watt signal — it covers most of the City but can get spotty behind certain hills— with San Francisco Community Radio’s KXSF, which broadcasts music and cultural shows the other 12 hours. As Stoll puts it, this is public radio created by a public newspaper inspired by public radio.

“We always wanted to be able to follow up on in-depth projects we have done, supplement them with additional voices, and bring attention to the long tail of content on our website and in print. This helps us do that,” explains the Press’ executive director, sitting in the bright little space he shares with publisher Lila LaHood in a three-room office the Press occupies in the nonprofit Kanbar Center on Page Street.

Joining Stoll and LaHood at the table is veteran radio reporter and producer Mel Baker, who worked at KGO for years as well as NPR and KQED. He produces Civic, the new hourlong local news program airing five days a week at 8 a.m. and repeated at 6 p.m. Featuring a new half-hour segment every day paired with a previous show, it’s reported and amiably hosted by reporter Laura Wenus, who produced a current affairs show on KALW.

The station, launched with a $150,000 grant from the Irvine Foundation as well as other grants, dedicated hours of programming to the November ballot races and propositions, and has aired evocative stories that Wenus reported from the field. Those include the tale of rent-crunched San Francisco school teachers opting to live in RVs, and a piece spotlighting the BART buskers targeted by a potential transit system ban.

“We do the journalism, then we figure out how to put it out on these different platforms and on social media,” says LaHood, who met Stoll in grad school at Columbia and joined the Press in 2010. “We’re forming better connections with the people we’re already connected with and reaching new audiences beyond that.” A minimum $35 annual membership gets you the publication, which depends on individual support for its sustainability.

For now, KSFP, which should be streaming soon, augments Civic with news and cultural programming from Public Radio Exchange.

“The next big step is to bring in local broadcasters who are doing great programs,” says Baker, a passionate guy jazzed about the possibilities of low-power community radio.

“Terrestrial broadcasting, especially commercial broadcasting, is dying,” he adds. “But audio is alive and well in this podcasting form. We’re creating programming for smaller communities and those communities connect, and you’ve got this little village. This is San Francisco village radio.”

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