Compressing the press

What would a Bay Citizen merger with Center for Investigative Reporting mean for local journalism?

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Journalism in the Bay Area has been in decline for many years, with corporate consolidations, shrinking newsrooms, declining print readership, and struggles with how to pay full-time reporters when content is offered free-of-charge on the Internet. And with its waning institutional strength, the Fourth Estate has lost some of its ability to watchdog the powerful, creating a dangerous situation in a country founded on the belief that a free press is an essential safeguard of liberty and fairness.

One countervailing trend during this time was the creation of robust nonprofit newsrooms, with the two largest ones in the Bay Area being the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Bay Citizen in San Francisco. But now those two entities have announced that they're in merger talks — and that the combined newsrooms would be led by Phil Bronstein, who presided over the decline of San Francisco's two major daily newspapers.

Whether this merger bodes well or ill for a journalistic resurgence remains unclear. Both entities have their strengths and flaws, and both of their boards are in the middle of a 30-day review period to determine whether the merger makes sense and what the combined operations would look like.

As the exclusive Bay Area content provider for The New York Times, Bay Citizen made a big splash when it was launched with $5 million in seed money from billionaire financier Warren Hellman in late 2009. As Hellman (who died in December) told me at the time, he was seeking to create an independent, local, public interest alternative to the San Francisco Chronicle, which was being gutted by its New York-based owners, Hearst Corp., and even threatened with closure if its unions hindered the downsizing.

Many were skeptical that a newsroom funded and overseen by Hellman and other uber-wealthy San Franciscans would deliver the kind of public interest journalism that the city needed, but under the leadership of veteran Editor Jonathan Weber, it produced many strong stories, starting on launch day with an investigation of how the richest home owners in the city avoid paying property taxes the city once relied on. And last year, Bay Citizen broke some important stories and created valuable databases on campaign contributions and danger spots for bicyclists, for which it recently won a Society of Professional Journalists award for computer-assisted reporting.

Acting CEO Brian Kelley told us the Bay Citizen has succeeded in creating a strong "three-legged stool" balancing solid journalism, a sustainable business model, and technological innovation. After raising about $17 million in three years, ranging from small donations to the $6 million Hellman contributed, "we're in a very healthy state from a financial standpoint."

But sources say the operation has had some tough internal divisions, some of it propagated by an out-of-touch board and an overpaid CEO, Lisa Frazier, who took a reported $457,000 salary to run an operation that she had served as Hellman's consultant in launching. They say Frazier clashed with Weber and the reporting staff, particularly after it voted to unionize last year, and then with Weber's successor, Steve Fainaru. Both Weber and Fainaru resigned in the last month, creating a leadership vacuum that was one of the factors that triggered the merger talks.

Meanwhile, CIR has experienced the most dynamic growth period in its 30-year history since 2008, when veteran editor Robert Rosenthal took over as executive director after leaving the Chronicle, where he served directly under Bronstein, who also later left the Chronicle and now serves as president of CIR's board.