Despite being home to more than half a million people, Berkeley and Oakland, Calif. have often lacked local news that connected communities and lifted up diverse perspectives. That all changed in 2009 when three journalists – Frances Dinkelspiel, Tracey Taylor, and Lance Knobel – launched Berkeleyside, a hyper-local news platform. Relying on the tried-and-true local journalism model used in Berkeley, Cityside Journalism Initiative, a nonprofit news organization, launched with the addition of the fourth co-founder, Tasneem Raja, who also became the launch Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside, in June 2020.

Cityside Journalism Initiative
Courtesy of the American Journalism Project

Cityside Journalism Initiative, the parent organization for both outlets, is committed to building community connections through nonprofit, nonpartisan news. Jill Kunishima, VP of Development, Cityside Journalism Initiative, recently talked with the American Journalism Project about the value of nonprofit news and where individual donors fit into the landscape. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Q. What is Cityside’s mission in terms of the reporting? What are you trying to do for the communities that you cover and are accountable to? 

Building community through local journalism is our overall goal. Our mission is to “deliver high-quality journalism to underserved communities in order to foster civic engagement, enrich people’s lives, and contribute to a healthy democracy.”

It’s important to note that even though Berkeley and Oakland are neighboring cities, they are very unique. Each city has a different set of residents with different backgrounds and histories that live in them, and each of the newsrooms respond and report on what is specifically happening in their respective communities. We are not a cookie cutter operation.

For example, Oakland’s history with its police department is rife with turmoil, and Berkeley has an ongoing set of issues related to the university and what it decides to do (or not do). Both cities deal with development and burgeoning levels of gentrification differently.

Both newsrooms aspire to provide news that can be used. Our residents want to know what is happening at City Hall or with our schools, or with COVID response, but to do that we also need to amplify local voices, bring context, and nuance, as well as solid factual information into our reporting. We are fortunate to have reporters with close personal ties and history with the cities we report on; most of us have lived in Berkeley and Oakland for years, if not our entire lives, and I believe this helps.

For a hyper-local set of publications, accountability to our communities is everything. Without accountability to our communities, we cannot talk about fostering civic engagement, contributing to a healthy democracy, let alone enriching people’s lives. We exist to make good on our mission, and to help create more educated and equitable communities, and that means considering who we are accountable to everyday (and constantly measuring if we are actually doing it!).

Q. Why do individual donors give to these local news sites? 

We have an interesting mix of people who I consider pretty forward-thinking about the world and how they can contribute to it. What I hear more than anything is that journalism, at its core, is a way to amplify and uplift voices that need to be heard. The second part is uplifting factual information and/or fighting misinformation. Lastly, I hear a lot about how that contributes to giving people agency and the ability to make solid decisions about their lives. Local journalism is a powerful tool in that regard.

A couple of individuals have also shared with me that they think local journalism is part of how our region recovers from the pandemic. If we don't know information about what's happening around us, how are we to know how to act?

My fellow Oaklanders have specifically shared that they believe journalism is an important way to hold the powerful to account. I can specifically point to coverage in Oakland, especially around the police department and other large governmental/quasi-governmental bodies, and how our journalism led to tangible change. We had an onslaught of donations tied to these specific articles.

On the flip side, local journalism is also a great way to create civic pride. Local papers can magnify all the things that remind us of why we live in the areas that we live in. One of our reporters, a native Oaklander, talked about how he never saw positive news about the neighborhood he grew up in; he’s grateful to work for a publication that is changing that.

Q. What can you tell us about some of Cityside’s individual givers? Why do they give? What matters to them? 

The people that I've spoken to the most are people who really have a lot of love for their hometowns, adoptive or not. They are people who really want to see their communities thrive and they see having active newsrooms as part of how those communities thrive.

One donor story that comes to mind involves a longtime supporter (who has given to both Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside). She believes that most people have a cause that they champion – and journalism is often not it – BUT, journalism can also shine a light on all the causes, whether it's environmental issues or animal rights or civil rights. At the end of the day, we should care about journalism because it has that unique ability to touch on all things that are important to us.

Q. What would you tell donors who can only make small donations, say $5 or $10?

We need everyone at the table. A donation of any amount means buy-in and support, and we need a substantial amount of people to care about journalism to make this crazy experiment work.

Someone was giving us $5 a month, and she attached a note to her donation saying, “I got laid off when the pandemic hit, so I don't have a lot of financial bandwidth right now, but I see what you're doing. I know how important this is.” Here's someone who is probably just trying to hold it together, but really values what local journalism brings to her and her community. That $5 was invaluable in my mind.

Q. What advice do you have for individual donors who are interested in giving to nonprofit newsrooms? 

A financial donation - of any amount - goes a long way for a nonprofit newsroom; being a champion for the organization is equally important. Here are some ways to get started:

  1. Find a local newsroom or a newsroom that covers subjects that matter to you.
  2. Read the the organizations’ news coverage
  3. If they are doing work that you appreciate, make a donation
  4. AND, let your networks know about it
  5. Repeat as much as you can

Nonprofit news gives us a unique platform for stewarding community well-being. Nonprofit news allows us to think expansively about getting key information out there that's not based around revenue streams and clicks — information should be accessible, regardless of ability to pay. Everyone deserves access to that — to make decisions about their own lives and have the agency to do just that. As Ida B. Wells said, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”