Public Comment SF, Wind Newspaper Founders Discuss Starting Local News Publications During The Pandemic

Wind Newspaper Publisher Portia Li and Public Comment SF Editor Annie Gaus participated in a panel discussion about starting news publications during the pandemic. Ingleside Light Publisher Alex Mullaney moderated.

SAN FRANCISCO — Local reporting in San Francisco has never been more important.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s economic downturn and national elections, the need to share essential and important information with residents who live in and work in the city has proved to be critical to the public good.

The current landscape is why two longtime reporters — Annie Gaus and Portia Li — started their own independent news outlets to focus on the city as it faces an estimated budget shortfall of $653 million over the next two years and a community that the mainstream media has neglected to adequately cover over the years.

Gaus and Li Tuesday took part in “San Francisco’s Local News Upstarts,” a panel about their new media outlet ventures. Alex Mullaney, publisher and editor of The Ingleside Light, organized and moderated the discussion.

Gaus is the editor of online news site Public Comment SF , which launched in October. She previously worked as a reporter covering technology, business and corporate finance for several outlets, including the San Francisco Business Times, The Street and Bis Now.

Li is a veteran reporter in the city who worked for the Chinese-language newspaper the World Journal covering criminal justice for over 30 years. She was laid off in April and began her own bilingual newspaper in September, the Wind Newspaper, that serves the Asian community in the city. 

Li’s motivating factor in starting her own newspaper during an economic crisis came from readers who followed her work for many years and asked why her bylines disappeared all of sudden.

“I received phone calls for my readers to ask me why we couldn’t find your articles and I told them what happened then they said you should start your own,” Li said.

Li also spoke with the community leaders who supported her idea of starting a bilingual newspaper. 

Gaus said the confluence of multiple crises happening around the Bay Area, including the pandemic, the economy and the wildfires, made her think about how she could use her background in journalism to focus on localizing what was happening in the city. She got together with a friend, Austin Hunter, who is now the publisher of Public Comment SF, to start the news site.

“We saw an opportunity to kind of cover narrowly, at least to start on the local economy, in the context of COVID-19, and just kind of deliver a niche publication to people who are interested in following the local economy and how policy decisions interact with that,” Gaus said.

Public Comment SF is a digital news outlet that publishes three to six stories a week and sends out a newsletter once a week. Gaus said the site’s mission is to try to focus on the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic and the decisions that city leaders will make over the next few years on the budget.

“The idea being that the next year and probably subsequent years are going to be a lot of consequential decisions that will be made that could shape the future of the city,” Gaus said.

The Wind Newspaper is published every Tuesday and has a website. Readers can find the publication at multiple locations in the city, including Chinatown, the Richmond and Sunset districts. Li said she spoke with her support team that it was important to print the newspaper despite the costs associated with printing a newspaper. 

The idea to make the publication bilingual was her idea. Through her 30-plus years as a reporter, she said she learned that just having a Chinese-lauguange newspaper is not enough to serve not just the Chinese community, but also the Asian community. She also searched online to find that there were no Chinese-English bilingual publications in the entire state.

Both publications have already had success with stories published, including a story on Public Comment SF where they were able to get a public records request from the United States Postal Service on the number change of addresses that originated in the city during the pandemic.

Gaus said there had been stories about residents leaving the city in droves during the pandemic and wanted to put a figure on just how many people were exactly leaving.

“I think we were the one of the first publications to kind of identify a number that kind of pointed to some order of magnitude of this,” Gaus said. “It really got like it got quite a lot of pickup.”

The Chinese community has been hit hard economically during the pandemic with businesses shuttering throughout the city, including in Chinatown. The Wind Newspaper broke the story this week that the owner of the 100-year-old Far East Cafe in Chinatown had announced the restaurant would close by the end of the year.

“This is really sad, but you can tell like the story that it wouldn’t be you know covered by the mainstream media,” Li said. “The community, they really rely on us to be informed and then to tell them what’s going on.

The mainstream media did eventually follow-up on the story and Supervisor Aaron Peskin is seeking a plan to possibly save the restaurant from closing down.

As for plans in 2021, Gaus said she is working on a “big special project” related to the city’s budget and does plan to follow-up on the USPS story.

Li wants to expand her coverage next year to include the South Bay because of requests from readers.

The online event was put on by the City College of San Francisco’s Journalism Department and the San Francisco Independent Press Association, which is presently running a fundraiser called Save SF News

The full discussion is available on Facebook.


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