Q&A: A journalist who loves to rake muck

Name: Michael Stoll
Age: 42
City: San Francisco
Position: Editor and executive director, San Francisco Public Press

J.: In 2009 you launched the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit, noncommercial newspaper. What else sets it apart from mainstream papers?

Michael Stoll: We do much more long-term, data-driven reporting on public policy and less daily reporting trying to compete with other news media. As the commercial press continued to shrink, we realized that was where we needed to focus, on more solutions-based journalism. This is a time of incredible experimentation because of the troubles facing traditional media; we exist in a community of hundreds of other startups around the country trying to make a go of independent, professional journalism.
Was that what you set out to do after getting your degree from Columbia?

In 1998, everyone graduating from journalism school assumed they would get a middle-class job with a 401(k), doing significant reporting work somewhere. I thought I’d work my way up the corporate journalism ladder to get better and better jobs, emulate Woodward and Bernstein and take down a president. I eventually was able to do some investigative-style journalism, but by that time the field looked very different, and there was less appetite at dailies to invest in long-term projects.

Michael Stoll

You worked at a number of newspapers before starting the SFPP with publisher Lila LaHood. What was the turning point?

I actually was let go from the Examiner in 2002 after many fights over whether to investigate politicians who were friends of the publisher. I felt there should be no sacred cows in City Hall, and management felt otherwise.

In 2003 I was hired at Stanford to work on the grade-the-news project. It was a grant-funded media literacy project examining the quality of Bay Area television and newspaper journalism and focusing on the ethics of news selection. It’s where I discovered the concept of the social responsibility theory of journalism — that the purpose is more than just giving readers what they want, but embracing the role of independent arbiter of the public good.
The Public Press has been recognized for that, right?

We’ve received five or six journalism awards. The last one was the Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists for our February 2014 story on inequality in public schools, due to unequal fundraising prowess by parents across the S.F. Unified School District.
Have any of your reports had local impact?

We’ve heard from school board members that we lit a fire under the leadership to address diversity after our report earlier this year on continuing racial and ethnic segregation in public schools. We feel like we sparked a conversation about the topic that was previously ignored and is now part of the public-policy agenda.
What other recent issues are you proud of?

Our project last summer on creative solutions to the housing crisis was rewarding because we were able to get smart, creative thinkers from a broad swath of the affordable housing debate together in one room. The exchange of ideas was really enlightening and inspiring.
You raise money through subscriptions, donations, and grants from the San Francisco Foundation and others. What’s your budget, and how do you manage?

Last year’s was $110,000 and this year we’re shooting for $150,000. I haven’t drawn a salary since the start of the project. I’m hoping that changes. I’ve had a number of freelance and teaching jobs along the way. I live very economically, low down on the food chain, in a 460-square-foot rent-controlled apartment in the Mission. I bike to work so I have zero transportation costs.

Is it all worth it?

I see what I’m doing as a perfect intersection of two proud Bay Area traditions: the Silicon Valley garage entrepreneurs who pour all of their efforts and resources into a product they believe in passionately, and the nonprofit, social justice-focused organization that wants to do good in the world.

What’s your Jewish background?

I’m a 100 percent secular atheist who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan around many Jews. Some of my grandparents were observant. All of my grandparents are from New York, all born there. My family goes back as many as six generations in the U.S.
Your younger brother is the actor Corey Stoll. You’re both in the public eye, but in pretty different ways.

We’re both artists, me in the nonfiction literary tradition and he in the performance arts. One similarity is that we’re both stubbornly dedicated to our craft, enough to continue even in the face of repeated frustrations and rejections.
Are you a fan of his work? Did you see “Ant-Man”?

Yeah, I see everything that he’s in. He was a big comic book fan when he was growing up, and now he’s realized his dream of becoming an action figure. They actually made a Lego action figure of him that I have on my desk at work.

“Talking with …”
focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.