Bronstein and mergers are not what local journalism needs

Oh no, not Phil Bronstein. Anybody but Bronstein!

Local, independent, public interest journalism – which is what Warren Hellman sought to create by founding the Bay Citizen in 2009 – could be undermined by a proposed merger between that newsroom and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) under the leadership of former San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein.

It is unseemly that Bronstein is claiming support for the idea from Hellman, who died in December, making comments to the Bay Citizen that misrepresent Hellman's intentions. How do I know? Because I spoke with Hellman about his concerns about the Bay Area media landscape and what it needed several times before he announced its creation – a story that I broke on the Guardian website, scooping this incipient newsroom and others by a day.

“We’re forming a new media news center. Basically, it will be a not-for-profit 501c3 that will be source of Bay Area news,” Hellman said in that article. “It will focus on local news events, including politics and the arts, the kind of thing that is just dying at the Chronicle.”

That interview was a culmination of conversations that I'd had with Hellman on the subject for more than a year. He thought the Chronicle was doing a terrible job at covering the city – a legacy that began under the leadership of Bronstein, who was always more concerned with high-profile projects that might win awards and with expanding the paper's reach and focus into suburbia than the bread-and-butter local coverage of issues and events that were important to San Franciscans.

In his comments to Bay Citizen, Bronstein (who has not returned our request for comment) cynically leaves the impression that Hellman would have supported his takeover bid, and that what he wanted was a combination of investigative reporting and quirky features like “Rascal of the Week, Crook of the Week, hilarious stuff.”

He might as well be describing the Chronicle, which was not what Hellman was seeking to duplicate. Nor was he pursuing the CIR model of using philanthropy and grants to fund journalism projects that would run in the Chronicle and other mainstream newspapers. No, what Hellman wanted was more media outlets with less dependence on advertising revenue, not to simply subsidize a newspaper that he thought was lacking.

Frankly, this whole proposal is very suspicious. Bronstein officially left Hearst Newspapers, which owns the Chronicle, just last month to play an unspecified new role at CIR, where he sits on the board. He and other Chronicle brass opposed and belittled the Bay Citizen when it was created, but since then, the Bay Citizen has been real bright spot on the local media landscape, often scooping the Chronicle on important stories that run in the New York Times, for which BC supplies content. And now, Bronstein wants to execute a deal that would potentially kill that competition.

I'm really not sure what's going on at the Bay Citizen these days, or why all its top brass seems to be jumping ship. But it's clearly not all bad. The departure of top executive Lisa Frazier – who consulted on BC's creation and then gave herself a ridiculously high salary – seems like good news, at least for BC's bottom line. I acknowledge that some kind of change might be needed.

But whatever happens, it should be about maintaining and improving strong local news coverage. The BC board only has one token journalist on it, and that's not a good sign. CIR does good work and has a good journalistic ethos, but its board should realize that merging with BC (and cutting almost $2 million from their combined operations, as Bronstein is reportedly proposing) is bad for local journalism and bad for San Francisco.

Corporate journalism is the problem to which nonprofit journalism was the supposed antidote. That was Hellman's vision. But we're all in trouble if this experiment gets co-opted by a longtime Hearst company man, the very person who undermined local coverage and public interest journalism in the first place, a corporatist with a history of undermining competition with his illegal Chronicle-Examiner JOA, his backroom deal with Media News Group, and other bottom line tactics.

That's bad enough, but to falsely invoke the spirit of the recently deceased to justify it, that's just disgusting.