Frances Dinkelspiel, Cityside’s co-founder and executive editor, announced today that she is leaving the nonprofit organization after 13 and a half years to pursue new writing opportunities.
Dinkelspiel, along with Tracey Taylor and Lance Knobel, founded Berkeleyside in 2009 when they grew concerned about the decline of local news. From a scrappy start-up conceived and launched around Taylor and Knobel’s dining room table, Berkeleyside has grown into a nationally recognized news provider with three editors and six reporters, 519,000 monthly readers, 70,000 Twitter followers, and newsletters read by tens of thousands of people. Berkeleyside has built a loyal and engaged community of readers by providing thorough, high-quality coverage of the city council, school board, police, courts, UC Berkeley, the East Bay food scene and neighborhood stories.
In 2019, Dinkelspiel, Taylor and Knobel brought in Tasneem Raja, co-founder of The Tyler Loop in Texas, and the four of them launched Cityside, a nonprofit news organization now regarded as a model for other local independent news organizations. In June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Cityside launched The Oaklandside, a newsroom serving the information needs of the residents of Oakland. Cityside now employs 25 people across both its newsrooms and in business roles and has a $4.8 million annual budget.
Dinkelspiel has served Berkeleyside and Cityside in many roles over the years: as a reporter (for which she has won numerous journalism awards), editor, strategist, fundraiser, and local news evangelist. In 2019, Dinkelspiel, Taylor and Knobel were awarded the storied Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal which honors members of the Berkeley community for distinguished service in any field whose work has benefited the people of Berkeley.
“Across the country, many local news startups over the last decade have come and gone,” said Knobel, Cityside’s CEO. “Berkeleyside – and now Cityside – survived and thrived to a great extent because of the intelligence, passion, and energy that Frances brought to the organization. She has an incredibly rare combination of skills.”
“Our organization would not exist or be where it is today without Frances’ impeccable news judgment, entrepreneurial zeal, stellar reporting skills, and unwavering passion to serve communities with excellent local journalism,” said Berkeleyside and Cityside co-founder Tracey Taylor. “She has always been an inspiration to me personally, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
“I am so proud of how far Berkeleyside, The Oaklandside and Cityside have come and the positive impact our reporting has on informing residents of the East Bay,” said Dinkelspiel. “I remember the early years when I would call someone up and say I was from Berkeleyside. I was often met with silence and then the question: ‘What’s Berkeleyside?’ That doesn’t happen anymore, I am happy to say.”
Berkeleyside has twice been named by the northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as the “best community news site.” The Oaklandside also won that distinction in its first year of operation.
“Cityside is among the most successful and best-emulated local news organizations in America,” said Jim Friedlich, executive director of The Lenfest Institute, an early funder of Berkeleyside. “The team has demonstrated both editorial excellence and long-term business sustainability. The business has scaled over the years from its Berkeley roots to a larger regional footprint including all of Oakland. Along the way, revenue, product, and news leadership have continued to mature. The organization is poised for greater growth and impact ahead. The founders and continuing leadership should be very proud indeed.”
In April 2021, Cityside put in place new leadership at Berkeleyside — editor-in-chief Pamela Turntine and managing editor Zac Farber — to allow Dinkelspiel and Taylor to focus on the operations of Cityside.
Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges facing local news today. More than 2,100 local newspapers have shuttered in the last 15 years, and more than 40,000 journalists have lost their jobs. Hedge funds like Alden Global Capital buy up newspapers en masse, sell off assets and severely cut back staff. In response, nonprofit news organizations like Cityside have leaped in to help fill the void.
Dinkelspiel has played a crucial role in raising funds to help Cityside thrive. In 2019, the Google News Initiative and American Journalism Project contributed $1.56 million each to launch the new nonprofit and the Oakland newsroom. Other major donors include the Facebook Journalism Project, the Hellman Foundation Fund, the Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation, Taube Philanthropies, Renaissance Journalism, and many others. More than 7,000 readers in Berkeley and Oakland also support the newsrooms by making membership donations.
On top of her leadership responsibilities, Dinkelspiel has continued to report and write. She pointed to a few stories of which she is particularly proud: her award-winning oral history of Feb. 1, 2017, when Milo Yiannopoulus came to UC Berkeley to speak, and protesters, including some Antifa activists, shut him down; stories on the decline of Pacific Steel Casting, an 84-year old West Berkeley company that was ultimately shuttered after an equity firm diverted some of its assets; a series of stories on the $55 million wine Ponzi scheme run by John Fox, the owner of Premier Cru, that ensnared thousands, including some of Wall Street’s biggest tycoons. (The television show American Greed featured Dinkelspiel and her reporting prominently in its episode on John Fox); her examination of Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, and his run for Berkeley mayor; and her recent analysis of why UC Berkeley has not built more student housing. Dinkelspiel also pointed to a prize-winning project she did with Berkeleyside’s senior editor Emilie Raguso in 2016 that took a deep look at homelessness in Berkeley.
Dinkelspiel is also the author of two award-winning bestselling books: Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, a 2015 New York Times bestseller, and Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle bestseller.
Dinkelspiel’s freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, People magazine and elsewhere.
Dinkelspiel now plans to focus on researching a new book project. Her last day at Cityside will be June 10.