Compressing the press

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


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.


Hmm. So the very folks who presided over the Chronicle as it went from mediocre to plain awful are now excited to try their hand at local journalism. Color me skeptical.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 11:36 am

I don't think the Bay Citizen has made an auspicious start by bashing rent control.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

I agree with you that this BC column on rent control is terrible, as is most of what Scott James writes. During my interview with Bronstein, I asked him about what I consider to be a truly baffling local reality: why are all of the major news columnists in San Francisco center-right? Why can't we get one good progressive news columnist to counter the James/Garcia/Nevius/Matier/Ross/Griffin/Smith/Saunders/Johnson perspective on this supposedly progressive city? He didn't have a good answer. Until then, keep reading the Guardian.


Posted by steven on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

and those of the right too.

That's what a REAL journalist does Steven - they don't rope off certain issues as sacrosanct (as The Guardian does with rent control or public employee pensions) or start a piece with an ideological end goal in mind (attempting to prove that San Francisco is the best run city in the US). Investigative journalism is like that - if you were one you'd know it.

The Guardian is extremely reactionary - it rarely sets the standard but has become content with simply reacting to the better journalism of others and that reaction is usually a hysterical attempt to accuse those journalists with which it disagrees of doing shoddy work and/or being closet Republicans. It's a position which, in the long run, has come back to really bite this paper in the ass.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

This column you're defending isn't "real" journalism at all, but exactly the sort of "ideological end goal" you're accusing us of. The story is about "people of relatively modest means subsidizing the housing of the extraordinarily wealthy," but it provides no evidence for any of those key assertions. There are no figures or other evidence that the very rich at taking rent-controlled units, and it doesn't seem logical that they would. And what James describes as "mom and pop investors" are people who can afford to buy multi-unit buildings in San Francisco, which cost millions of dollars. Finally, the Small Property Owners is a conservative group that has been seeking to repeal rent control for years. This is bad journalism and reactionary drivel, and I'm surprised it wasn't flagged as such by the NYT editors. Clearly, standards are slipping.
On the other hand, the reason that the Guardian consistently defends rent control is that it is the only thing allowing the working class to remain in San Francisco. It's simply undeniable that letting all rents rise to market rates would price most San Franciscans out of this market, as any economist would tell you. So whether or not there are minor flaws and inequities with the concept, we have written countless articles with far better sourcing and reasoning than this one showing how important rent control is to maintaining the city's socioeconomic diversity.

Posted by steven on Feb. 23, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

The Chonicle is famous for articles that are not particulary insightful, but mostly designed to sell newspapers and get eyeballs to their sfgate website: off-leash dog owners vs. nature lovers; bicyclists vs. car drivers; landlords vs. tenants; Israel vs.Iran. It's not surprising Bay Citizen management is using a similar approach. It seems to be working since the linked article already has over 200 comments, on a newsite site that rarely gets a dozen or two comments per story. I didn't waste time reading either the article or comments since I'm sure both are as predictable as we've been reading from the Chronicle hacks for years. And it's a subject where almost everyone has their entrenched opinion firmly in place and very few minds are changed no matter how many comments or thousands of words written against our particular point of view.

Rent control is really no different than the Prop 13 issue for homeowners. Do people who currrently live in a housing unit get to stay there, assuming they can meet the current cost (rent, mortgage and taxes), or can they be forced out of their home so a landlord can make more rent money, or so a government can get more taxes from the unit, or so a speculator can convert the building to condos?

San Francisco housing is fairly easy to understand. There are a few billion dollars of "free money" laying around on the street that is there for the taking merely by converting a rental apartment to a TIC and condo. Almost any person can make 6 or 7 figures just by converting a small building from apartments to TICs. All that's needed is a little paperwork. A lawyer or two to handle the messy evictions and/or buy-outs. A new coat of paint and maybe a few upgrades. Presto. Easy money while barely lifting a finger. Sure beats flipping tofu burgers every day.

As highly paid jobs continue to grow in the area and new housing construction stays stagnent in the 99 city region, the highly paid workforce will continue to force out - directly and indirectly - the lower paid people in desirable areas like SF, Marin, the SF peninsula and a few decent neighborhoods in the South Bay.

Those of us who grew up foolish enough to think this country, state and city were about building community, sharing a common future, and leaving behind improvements to the next generations were naive, to say the least. Instead we've come to learn that greed rules, both at the government level and at the landlord/big business level. Just check out the billions of dollars of annual tax subsides the government gives to landlords, or the billions of dollars it hands out to the big corporations who shift lower skilled work outside the state and country.

No Country for Old Men is right. I might add No Country for Young Men and Women either, if they are not part of the top 1/3 of society where most of the income and wealth resides.

There's little future here, and there may be far better economic opportunities in S. America or SE Asia. You get the added benefit of not having to pay taxes to US government bodies whose policies mainly favor the rich and powerful. There may be plenty of corruption in other countries, but at the least the government doesn't punish lower and middle income working people as much as the US federal, state, and local governments.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 4:06 pm