Nevertheless, she persisted: Longtime journalist reflects on rebooting local news

The Exedra is pleased to reprint this Medium post from journalist and former Piedmont resident, Katherine Ann Rowlands, about her journey from reporter and editor to owner and CEO of a long-standing local news source. We are proud to partner with Bay City News for regional stories.

A year ago, I got the opportunity of a lifetime to acquire Bay City News, the newswire business where I began my journalism career as an intern in 1987. Having worked for others my entire life, here was a chance to dream big, put everything I had ever learned to use, and serve my home community with local news that matters. Coming full circle, back to the place where I first earned my reporting stripes as a college intern at BCN, was an amazing bit of serendipity. It’s also the challenge of a career with plenty of obstacles: figuring out how to evolve a legacy media business so that it serves new needs, new customers, a new landscape. (Read the SPJ Quill magazine back story HERE.)

In addition to maintaining the core BCN service that provides 24/7 Bay Area coverage for our media clients in TV, radio, print and digital news, I quickly determined that a crucial way to move us forward was to build an affiliated nonprofit to support public service journalism. Our new nonprofit is creating community-oriented journalism at LocalNewsMatters.org, an ad-free site that is accessible to everyone. Those important stories also get amplified via the newswire so that our 100 clients can republish those that serve their needs and reach the nearly 8 million residents of the Bay Area who deserve great coverage of the place where they live, work and play. Buying an established enterprise — and learning how to sustain and grow it is one thing. Launching a new venture is another thing entirely, and I am doing both at once. Here are a few lessons I have learned about running the hybrid business so far:

1. Courage matters. It took a brave leap of faith to take on the role of owner after three decades as reporter and editor. One friend asked if I was doing this instead of having grandchildren. An acquaintance asked if I were on a suicide mission. A not-so-supportive guy asked if I was sure I could do it by myself. But after years of working for other people, I thought: why not take the lead? I am so glad I did.

An easier path would have been to keep doing what I was already good at — crafting stories, guiding projects, managing teams, doing the journalism. The tougher path was jumping into the deep end of the pool with the conviction that I could make a difference by owning and running the business. Although my friend and fellow John S. Knight Journalism Fellow alum Phillip Smith makes a compelling case for how journalists and entrepreneurs have much in common, I found plenty of knowledge gaps going from reporter and editor to president and CEO. Not only were there mundane tasks to learn — bookkeeping, guild contracts and rebooting the server to name a few — but also complex strategy questions required attention, too.

2. The message matters. Although media insiders know about Bay City News, up to this point we have not been a public-facing brand. Telling a story about what we do to provide accurate, timely and relevant news to our customers (and their audiences) is part of my elevator pitch, but giving relevant examples and proof to a variety of targets is also important. Business skills and asking for money — whether for sales or contributions — are not in the tool kit for most journalists. I’m not a veteran saleswoman, but I do believe in the mission and my message is a compelling one.

~ If I am selling BCN’s 24/7 coverage of the Bay Area to a news company, I have to show that it’s cheaper and more efficient to get our regional news service than to hire a team of reporters. (It is.)

~ If I am selling BCN to a PR firm, I have to persuade them that our information — such as our comprehensive and verified events listings — will make them smarter than their competitors. (It does.)

~ If I am selling BCN to a government agency, I have to make our information about accidents, court rulings, civic affairs and other happenings critical enough that they can’t do without it. (It’s true.)

~ If I am pitching to a donor, I have to describe the impact of our journalism, showing how we inform communities, motivate engagement and serve our residents. (We do.)

3. The audience matters. I am absolutely convinced that local news is more important, needed and desired than ever before — and I am heartened by the number of people who agree with that message enough to give time, donations and strategic feedback. But at the end of the day, what we produce has to matter to the reader, the viewer or the listener so paying attention to their needs is key. We watch to see what stories get traction; we correct our mistakes; we respond to ideas for stories that have not been told.

Fortunately, Bay City News has been a steady force in the 9-county region’s media ecosystem for 40 years so we have a tested product. We are one of the few newsrooms to be on duty 24/7, reporting on everything from weird weather to horrible traffic accidents to midnight City Council decisions to murder trials. With the addition of community and public service journalism produced by our non-profit affiliate, we have the potential to make a huge impact as a source of critical news for the region.

4. Networks matter. All those emails, business cards and personal connections from college to graduate school to my JSK fellowship year at Stanford are coming in handy. I am grateful for the support of these people who truly mean something to me. Everyone has a story, and the small-world connections you make once you get to know people are incredible. I was reminded of that at my recent 30th reunion at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism when I was inspired all over again by the dedication so many have to pursuing our craft. Everyone — from my friends to my former deskmates to my neighbors — has been inspired by the story of my endeavor and the hybrid model I am creating to sustain important local news.

Also gratifying to me is the opportunity to give back. In the last year, I’ve added to our full-time staff by offering part-time work to a dozen experienced journalists in the Bay Area who were either laid off or otherwise downsized from contracting news organizations in the region. Being able to rely on journalists I know and trust has been a big boon for Bay City News and our affiliated nonprofit LocalNewsMatters.org site — but it’s also great for them to continue the journalistic path they have dedicated their lives to pursuing. I have also been able to offer reporting internships to high school, college and graduate school students who want to get experience that could spark a lifelong path in a career that matters.

It’s been a thrill to go from an intern 30 years ago to owner this year at Bay City News. Here’s to new challenges ahead — because they matter. If you want to help us grow, please consider making a donationvolunteering as a mentor or sending ideas for how Bay City News can serve the critical information needs of the Bay Area.


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