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Where media and the Occupy movement intersect

Photo by Katie Styer

Michael Stoll is the executive director of the San Francisco Public Press – a non-profit, non-commercial journalistic outlet that started in 2009. Stoll reported for years in the mainstream media, including the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. But he questioned the values of ad-driven papers. He wants in-depth, public service journalism to be available without any commercial influence. The San Francisco Public Press carries no advertising – it’s actually modeled after public radio – and Stoll is about to publish his sixth print edition. He invited KALW’s Ben Trefny over for a tour of his tiny headquarters.

MICHAEL STOLL: It’s about 600 square feet. This, here, is the conference room – a big round table with a mish-mash of un-matching chairs that we salvaged from various locations, including the street. On the other side of the room is the warehouse. We have about 5,000 old newspapers stacked up. In the other corner is our large-format printer that we look at page-proofs on for the newspaper.

BEN TREFNY: We skipped by the exercise room over here.

STOLL: The exercise room is a large, red exercise ball from somebody’s Pilates class, as any self-respecting dot-org would have available. You look down about 30 degrees...

TREFNY: About two feet in front of you.

STOLL: Yeah, about two feet in front of me. And this is the newsroom. It’s an old folding conference table with about five helter-skelter chairs around it. You turn around another 90 degrees, and there’s the executive suite, which is actually about four mismatching desks and papers tacked to the wall. You turn around another 90 degrees and you have the cafeteria, which is actually a toaster, microwave, coffee maker and little pantry. And off in the corner is our extension services, which is actually a little room that we rent out for freelancers, and that pays most of our rent for this little space.

That’s Michael Stoll, executive director of the San Francisco Public Press, giving a tour of his modest digs to KALW’s Ben Trefny. They sat down at the round table to discuss the Occupy movement, and other subjects, from the Public Press perspective.

STOLL: The Occupy movement is a fascinating and inspiring and also flawed concept coming out of some of the best tradition of grassroots protest. I’ve seen a lot of protests in my time as a journalist, probably attended over 100 of them. I think this is unique in that it is such an open format for dissent, that it incorporates just about every cause under the sun – at least from the perspective of the American left, although there are some other causes that aren’t fit into that mold. I think what is really surprising is the level of energy that has been unleashed that nobody could have predicted before September. It does seem like it has the possibility of creating, or spawning, or spinning off a whole bunch of smaller movements that have enough energy to effect change. But we don’t know if that is going to happen or if it is going to be dissipated through infighting and disagreements built into the open format. It is going to be very interesting to cover. Most of the coverage in the press has been focused on the logistics and the drama of the street protest and not the messages and not the political debates that inspired people to show up in the first place. I think that is a real loss and a misdirection. It is a habit of the news, especially nowadays, when news organization are so under-financed, to focus on the drama and not the substance.

TREFNY: You see the mainstream media covering the drama. How do you think they should go about covering the substance?

STOLL: I think a lot of issues brought up by the Occupy movement – and the Tea Party movement, for that matter – have been kind of bubbling under the surface and have not reached the popular consciousness. I think that really has more to say about the focus of the news media.

TREFNY: What do you think it is covering instead and why?

STOLL: I think there are two things and one is because the news media has cut back so much that they are looking for the easiest stories to cover and they are not doing the investigative reporting and the so called enterprise reporting, whether they have an idea and they are developing it, and they are going out and seeking stories to talk about an idea creatively. It is more reactive. And that has happened more and more as the media have been cut back, since tens of thousands journalists have been laid off over the last five years. Another reason is that the news business has been, for decades, mostly supported by advertising and it has been a commercial industry that has traditionally made boatloads of profit for big corporations who are usually out of town and have no connection to the local community. The assumption is that you are going to go for the interests of the elites because the elites are the most likely to respond to the highest price advertising. So there is an economic incentive to cover only certain kinds of news – typically news that responds to the concerns of the elites. A whole section of the American public is cut out from that conversation. So you have a business section instead of a labor section. You have a car section instead of a public transportation section. You have a homes section instead of a rental section. And there are all these assumptions that we have made and come to accept a standard layout of the news. Newspapers and also broadcast. Now that the industry is self-emulating, we as journalists have a chance, a window to reconsider and reconstruct what the news is about, probably in more of a public service framework.

Michael Stoll is the Executive Director of San Francisco Public Press. The next paper edition comes out February 15.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.