What would a Bay Citizen merger with Center for Investigative Reporting mean for local journalism?
CIR has traditionally had a small staff working on a shoestring budget to produce a handful of big investigative journalism projects per year, including award-winning broadcast segments for "Frontline" and "60 Minutes." But Rosenthal focused on securing millions of dollars in foundation funding and creating collaborations with media outlets around the state (such as KQED), launching California Watch to beef up coverage of statewide issues, as he describes in his 24-page essay "Reinventing Journalism: An unexpected journey from journalist to publisher" (www.californiawatch.org/project/reinventing-journalism).
"I was deeply frustrated by a lack of vision, ambition, and passion on the business side that was throttling creativity and undermining the crucial role that journalism, and especially investigative reporting, play in our democracy," Rosenthal wrote in the report that was requested by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of three foundations that provided more than $1.2 million each to launch California Watch (the others are Irvine and Hewlett foundations).
The Guardian has long raised questions about the trend of foundations increasingly stepping in to fill journalism's funding voids, arguing that it can compromise journalistic independence and allow wealthy interests to determine what issues get investigative scrutiny (see "Buying the news: How private foundations are quietly underwriting — and shaping — local news coverage of major issues," 10/8/97).
But in an era when most California newspapers are clinging to life, Rosenthal had used the funding to augment CIR's investigative reporting staff and get impactful, award-winning stories to run simultaneously in outlets around the state, challenging old journalistic norms about competition and exclusivity.
Rosenthal admits the model has its shortcomings, including the unreliability and often-narrow focus of foundation funding and how CIR's successes have done little to backfill the loss of local beat reporting (such as covering City Hall or keeping the cops and local power brokers in check), but he thinks the merger might help in those areas.
"It's exciting for us to be able to address what has been a vacuum in San Francisco for a long time," Rosenthal told us about reviving local coverage. And on the funding model, he said, "If we can do this right, it's about creating a local base of people who believe in accountability journalism to give small donations."
Bronstein told us that many of the shortcomings at his old newspapers were the result of business decisions Hearst made and general trends in the industry. But he acknowledged people's concerns about whether someone with such a long local history is the best person to turn things around: "I don't know that I'm the best person to take it over. That's something other people should determine, not me."
Both admit that the Chronicle under their tenure could have better covered the consolidation of wealth and power and other economic justice issues, long a Guardian focus and one that the Occupy movement helped highlight. "The Bay Area media could have been a lot more effective on those issues," Rosenthal said.
But Bronstein said he's committed to supporting more accountability journalism in the Bay Area, supporting the work of the Bay Citizen, and supplementing work done at papers like the Guardian: "The weeklies do a fine job of writing some in-depth stories and we need more of that, providing context."