Lance Knobel, Frances Dinkelspiel and Tracey Taylor in the Berkeleyside office
Lance Knobel, Frances Dinkelspiel and Tracey Taylor, the three founders of Berkeleyside. Photo: Tippett Studio

Berkeleyside co-founders Frances Dinkelspiel, Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor have been chosen as the Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal recipients for 2019.

Established in 1929, the Wheeler Medal honors members of the Berkeley community for distinguished service in any field whose work has benefited the people of Berkeley.

The trio will receive the award at the Berkeley Community Fund’s annual benefit gala dinner on Sept. 28; this is a public event and proceeds support BCF’s college scholarship fund and programs for Berkeley youth.

The co-founders are being recognized for their “vision and steadfastness in creating a news site that thousands of Berkeley netizens rely on for local news as it happens,” Berkeley Community Fund says in its press release announcing the 2019 award, “as well as for coverage of City Council, commission and school board meetings, elections, public safety issues, the changing landscape of the city, local business, and local arts and entertainment.”

“It is such an honor to receive this storied award,” Taylor said, “and it belongs to our whole small team, not just the three founders. Just as much as we do, they power the engine that allows us to produce important, award-winning journalism.”

Berkeley Community Fund board president Ann Smulka noted that Berkeleyside, which was founded in 2009, has been operating in a time of great tumult in the news business.

“We’ve witnessed increasing media consolidation, the closure of local newspapers across the country, reduced funding for investigative reporting, layoffs at national media outlets, and polarizing cries of fake news,” she said. “In Berkeley, where we value engaged citizenry and objective information to help us make wise decisions, we’re fortunate to have Berkeleyside as a trusted news source.”

“We’re thrilled about the Wheeler Medal because it’s a recognition of how important local news is to a city, particularly a city that is as politically engaged as Berkeley,” said Knobel. “At a time when local news seems to be fighting a losing battle in so much of the country, we’re determined to reassert its fundamental civic role.”

The Berkeleyside co-founders join a long line of distinguished Wheeler honorees who have had a deep impact on Berkeley and the wider world, including an early California Supreme Court justice and first president of the Berkeley Public Library (William H. Waste, 1929), the inventor of the cyclotron and Lawrence Hall of Science namesake (Ernest O. Lawrence, 1945), the co-founder of Save The Bay (Syliva McLaughlin, 1977), founder of the League of Conservation Voters and Earth Island Institute (David Brower, 1988) and the founder of the California Jazz Conservatory (Susan Muscarella, 2018).

Thinking about the longevity of the courts, libraries and other civic organizations that Wheeler medalists have founded or supported over the years, Smulka expressed her wish that Berkeleyside would also flourish for many decades to come. “I hope it continues to be very strong and has a long life,” she said, “especially in light of the current climate in the media.”

The award is named for Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who was a community leader and president of the University of California from 1899 to 1919, where he was known for transforming the school from a small land grant college into the world-class university it is today.

Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel feels a personal connection to the award because her great, great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, was a UC Regent and a great friend of Wheeler’s. (Dinkelspiel tells Hellman’s story in her 2008 book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.) In spite of resistance from some factions who wanted a native Californian to helm the university — Wheeler came to California from Cornell University, where he was a professor of Greek and comparative philology — Hellman pushed for his appointment.

“Wheeler, of course, was eventually selected and he and Hellman worked together closely for 28 years,” Dinkelspiel said. “I love history and I love that the award connects another generation of my family to Benjamin Ide Wheeler.”

Dinkelspiel, Knobel and Taylor are the first news publishers and journalists to get a Wheeler Medal, according to Smulka.

“Like all of the recipients before them, they remind us that Berkeley is filled with people who are committed to the greater good and who make the city such a unique place to live,” she said.

The origins of Berkeleyside go back to 2009 when the trio of Berkeley-based journalists realized “we didn’t know what was going on in our own city,” Knobel remembers.

Knobel and Taylor, who are married, had relocated to Berkeley from London in 2005 and met Dinkelspiel through their children, who attended the same school.

In the UK, Taylor had been a writer and editor at the Financial Times and Knobel edited the magazine of the World Economic Forum. Dinkelspiel had written for the San Jose Mercury News and had published Towers of Gold, her first book.

Concerned about what they saw as “a black hole” in local news, they started publishing occasional stories on a basic site that Knobel built. Then they started covering city hall, the school board and other local goings-on; eventually, the site evolved into a full-fledged online news organization, always maintaining a well-honed focus on Berkeley.

Today the site averages over 1 million monthly page views and 300,000 unique visitors a month.

Knobel says that Berkeleyside remains as committed as ever to fulfilling the traditional role of journalism — “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

“Looking around we see lots of places that are still uncovered,” Knobel said. “Every city deserves its own version of a Berkeleyside.”

Jeanne Carstensen is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Intercept, Nautilus, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. Her radio stories...