Three decades ago, Katherine Ann Rowlands started her career in journalism as an intern at Bay City News Service.
Now, she’s the owner of the 24/7 news service that covers the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
BCN, founded in 1979 with eight offices around the region, provides news feeds to about 100 clients, including TV, radio, digital and print newsrooms. Its subscribers also include government agencies, companies and public relations firms who need to keep around the clock tabs on what is happening.
Rowlands spent most of her career working in Bay Area newsrooms, directing local, state and business coverage at the East Bay Times and Mercury News. She was also a foreign correspondent in Holland and Honduras and served as editor-in-chief at Diablo Magazine, just before buying the news service this year.
A 2017 JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, Rowlands has taken an entrepreneurial approach to her new job running BCN, testing a new business model that is attracting national attention. In addition to growing the legacy company to serve clients, she recently established a nonprofit affiliate to attract philanthropic support for the hybrid organization’s public service mission of better informing the Bay Area.
1. How did you get interested in journalism?
I was born and raised in Berkeley, a city centered around a university, during the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s. We got three newspapers every day and watched the news every night. I was always surrounded by news and was impacted by it, from local to state to national to international.
2. How did you break into the business?
I was a summer intern for Bay City News while studying at Macalester College, the London School of Economics and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Working there gave me a taste for the excitement for breaking news. It was just fun and that has lasted. There are people who don’t really like their jobs; I’ve never felt that way in journalism.
3. You spent 2016-17 as a fellow at Stanford University with 17 other journalists. What was it like to spend a year out of the newsroom?
I wanted to get off the treadmill, be with a group of really impressive, smart and curious people dedicated to tackling the big challenges facing journalism. During that year, I took on a passion project: how to get more women into news leadership roles. During my career, I’d seen how few women make it to the top of news organizations. I spent some time studying this problem and looking for solutions.
4. What did you learn?
It comes down to hiring. If you’re in a position to hire somebody, you can make better decisions about how you cover news. Those hiring choices advance the mission of your organization and help you find stories that matter to your audience. Who you hire, who you mentor can make a difference in coverage. If your organization doesn’t reflect the community it serves, your coverage isn’t accurate.
5. How did you come to buy Bay City News Service?
About halfway through my year at Stanford, I learned that the Bay City News Service might be for sale. I shifted my focus to take business and entrepreneurial courses in the Graduate School of Business. I studied media business models, hiring and recruiting, distribution, monetization — all of the tough issues that are facing local news organizations. I signed papers to take over the business the following year, in March 2018.
6. Is this something you had thought about before?
Honestly, I have thought about owning this business for 30 years — ever since I was an intern and also during times when I went back to work various stints at BCN. Working in every role, every shift, every bureau at the company — and in management jobs at other news organizations — prepared me for my current role. We have such an important opportunity to help news organizations — and their audiences — get more local news.
7. What makes this a good investment now?
It’s definitely a challenging business environment and what I learned as a JSK Fellow was that the challenge also provides opportunity. I was encouraged to explore new business models and I am doing that by marrying a legacy business that has earned revenue together with a nonprofit endeavor that attracts philanthropic support. Both are oriented toward journalism as a public service, an important part of our democracy. I’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of support and the quality local news coverage that we have been able to produce in a short time. In particular, women who hear the story of what I’m trying to do — of a woman leading and owning a media company focuses on serving news deserts so that the people, places and issues that deserve more attention get it — seems to resonate.
8. What are your plans?
I am building on the business itself, its subscriber base, the depth of our coverage and our staff. We’ve reopened a couple of bureaus, created paid internship opportunities, established collaborative partnerships with other local media, and built an ad-free website to showcase our community work at LocalNewsMatters.org. I’m also looking to add new products such as photos, maps, data visualizations, graphics, and custom coverage for media clients that may not have robust staff of their own.
9. What is the focus of the Bay City News Foundation?
We work in several ways to support local journalism.
- We provide on-the-ground local news reporting to fill the geographic and topical news deserts left by contracting legacy media companies; you can find many of these stories about Bay Area news, arts and culture, demographic trends and history at LocalNewsMatters.org.
- We collaborate and partner with other media, particularly nonprofits; we are working with Solutions Journalism Network, EdSource, CALmatters and others to amplify good and important work.
- We work with journalism schools to train the next generation of reporters by providing paid internships; it’s important to mentor students so they have a professional path toward journalism jobs like I did.
- We experiment with technology; I’m interested in testing new products to gather and distribute news in new ways.
10. What is the Wise Women Council that is part of the nonprofit foundation?
I have noticed, partly from my work with media companies and nonprofits, that advisory boards of corporations are largely dominated by men. It seems to me that to really emphasize diversity, having a diverse and experienced council of female advisers who I can reach out to is a smart way to build support and make good decisions. These are all very accomplished women who support what I am doing and are generous in sharing their collective wisdom.