We’re less than a week from the final day of voting in an incredibly interesting, increasingly heated election season in Oakland.
Like countless nonprofit organizations across Oakland and far beyond, we’re also in the home stretch of end-of-year fundraising to make our work possible.
You may wonder how a nonprofit newsroom like ours navigates both realities. It’s a great time to spell out how we maintain what’s called the “editorial firewall” in our business, keeping the newsgathering and revenue-generating sides of our company separate yet squarely aligned on the same mission: producing high-quality local journalism you can trust.
We do all of this because, as members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, we’re required to operate this way. INN is our industry’s premier organization setting standards for editorial independence and ethics among newsrooms that rely on philanthropic and institutional support, like ours. Its requirements for members are stringent and widely respected, and some big national funders who support journalism won’t fund news outlets that aren’t approved by INN. We’re proud that Cityside and its newsrooms have been INN members since day one.
But we’d do this whether or not we were part of INN or even if INN didn’t exist. As journalists, public faith in our reporting is our bread and butter.
You may not always agree with our decision to dig into one or another aspect of a hot-button issue in Oakland. In election season, you may not always like our reporting on a certain candidate or ballot measure. But you don’t have to wonder if we’re taking orders from politicians, lobbyists, advocacy groups, or people who donate to support our journalism. We don’t.
Here’s how it works in practice. Please get in touch with our editors if you have any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Oaklandside is funded by the Cityside Journalism Initiative, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that creates and strengthens local news, starting with two newsrooms in the East Bay. (Berkeleyside is the second.) Anyone who donates more than $1,000 to support our work is publicly listed on Cityside’s website. We chose this amount in accordance with INN guidelines and after consultation with peer nonprofit news outlets with budgets similar to or much larger than ours. Over 2,600 people support The Oaklanside at smaller amounts as supporting members.
On Oaklandside’s policies page, we further explain that our donors do not influence our reporting. “We accept gifts, grants, and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support. Editorial decisions are made by journalists and editors alone. We do not give supporters the right to assign, review, or edit content.”
No donor has ever participated in editorial decisions at Oaklandside, and they never will. No reporter or editor at Oaklandside has ever written a story, not written a story, or reported a certain way because a donor wanted it that way, and they never will.
This is the third election Oaklandside has reported on since launching in June 2020. Then and now, we get requests from readers, politicians, and advocacy groups to endorse certain candidates or ballot measures. We don’t, because we don’t want to and because we can’t.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, we’re barred by the IRS—which grants us that designation—from making political endorsements. We’re also barred from favoring any candidate for public office in our coverage or any other action.
If you haven’t already, I invite you to read our interviews with 9 of the 10 people running for mayor in Oakland this year. (We didn’t interview one because it would be irresponsible for us to amplify their violent and dangerous rhetoric.)
Nearly every member of our newsroom sat in on nearly every one of these interviews. We intended these interviews—which were a mammoth effort to produce, involving dozens of hours of recording, transcription, editing, fact-checking, and more—to serve as the “main dish” of our mayoral coverage this year.
Beforehand, we came up with over a dozen questions to ask every candidate and a small number of candidate-specific questions. We also invited our readers to submit questions, and a few made it into our final set.
We’ve also reported on hot-button issues this election cycle, from big spending by outside groups to misconduct charges in the mayoral race to an analysis of how local and national debates over public safety might be influencing the campaigns. These stories prompted strong emotions from the supporters of several different political candidates, as election-related stories often do.
As journalists, we are ethically bound to separate the deeply personal decisions we make in the voting booth from how we operate in the newsroom. That means that most of us keep our personal positions private, especially when it comes to how we vote.
(Speaking for myself, I don’t know yet how I’m voting in nearly every local race or ballot measure. Like many of you, I’ll be turning to The Oaklandside’s guide to voting guides this weekend when I finally have time to fill out my ballot.)
Advertising and sponsorship
As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on multiple revenue streams to keep the lights on and the journalism alive. Local ads are part of that equation, and we’re thrilled that businesses, advocacy groups, campaigns, and others see Oaklandside as a place where they want to spend money to get their message across.
In our company, the folks who report and the folks who sell ads and sponsorships rarely interact. We rigorously maintain separate channels across all of our internal communication tools, like Slack, email, etc.
No advertiser has told an Oaklandside editor or reporter what to report, how to report, or influenced a story. No editor has ever assigned or squashed a story to make an advertiser happy.
I can’t tell you if an advertiser has ever been unhappy with a story Oaklandside has reported because our director of local ads has never told me. And she can’t tell our advertisers if we’re about to report something they might not like because she has no idea what we’re working on day to day. That’s not by accident; that’s how we’ve set things up at Cityside, following standards in our industry.
And in case you’re wondering, neither our editors nor our revenue team decide which ads run alongside which stories. Ads randomly and automatically rotate across our sites. If you’re seeing an ad for a certain candidate in a story that focuses on one of their opponents, you might pull up the same story in an hour and see a different ad.
The bottom line
We’ve learned a lot over the past 2.5 years about what it means to be a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom in Oakland, and one that’s part of a larger network of local news sites. The guidelines and membership requirements of the Institute for Nonprofit News continue to evolve along with our civic and political realities, and so do we.
Your feedback is a big part of how we grow; it makes us better journalists. We all have blind spots and unconscious biases and rely on readers to help us see them. Please get in touch with our editors if you have any questions at email@example.com.
If we’ve earned your trust and support, I hope you’ll help us sustain and grow The Oaklandside. You can become a supporting member or check out lots of other ways to donate. If you want to get to know our reporting better, you can subscribe to our daily or weekly newsletters. Thank you for your interest in our work and high-quality journalism for Oakland.