Journalists express doubts about nonprofit media merger

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Will the Bay Area's two biggest nonprofit newsrooms -- Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting -- merge and what would that mean for local journalism? While we await votes as soon as next week on the first part of that question, I explored the second part in last week's Guardian. But for the old-fashioned reason of limited space in the paper, I couldn't use another set of interviews that I'd gathered for the story at the recent launch party for San Francisco Public Press' sixth print edition.

In many ways, the Bay Citizen and Public Press are mirror images of one another. Both pursued the nonprofit, noncommercial, reader-supported model for doing local journalism with an emphasis of media partnerships. But while the Bay Citizen tapped wealthy benefactors to fund well-paid leadership and full-time reporters, the Public Press has been a labor of love put out on a shoestring budget largely with volunteer labor, although its journalists are now getting small stipends.

I played a role in the launch of both newsrooms. In 2008, I was one of the founding board members of the Public Press, working with director Michael Stoll (the Examiner's former city editor and a current journalism professor) to help launch the project and hire its first paid editor, consulting with them periodically thereafter. I had also developed a good working relationship with billionaire financier Warren Hellman and helped spark his interest in reversing the decline in local journalism, which led to Hellman's founding the Bay Citizen with $5 million in seed money in 2009. Before that, I helped set up a mutually beneficial meeting between Hellman and Stoll (Hellman got some good advice for his project while the Public Press soon secured its first $35,000 grant from San Francisco Foundation, run by Hellman's family).

Yes, the journalism community in the Bay Area seems just that small at times and – despite our fiercely competitive impulses at times – we all have an interest in promoting good reporting on local institutions. It's just something we believe in, and something that we don't like entrusting to the big, out-of-town corporations that own the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.

So, as Stoll and his Public Press colleagues celebrated their latest print edition – a solid effort featuring investigations of human trafficking that go beyond the hype of activists and pandering politicians, as well as follow-ups on their last issue's coverage of Healthy San Francisco – at Booksmith on Haight Street, I asked what they thought of the proposed merger.

“Hopefully the marriage of the two will be better than either of them are independently,” Stoll said.

He praises the statewide work CIR has done under director Robert Rosenthal, a respected journalist, but it hasn't helped fill the gaping hole in Bay Area journalism created by years of media mergers and layoffs. And while Stoll thinks Bay Citizen has done some good work, it hasn't had the local impact one might expect with a $17 million budget over the last three years.

“If I had the millions of dollars they had, I would have done some things differently,” he said.

Praveen Madan, who owns Booksmith and has worked as an editor for Public Press, is even more critical of Bay Citizen, calling it a “misguided philanthropic activity” that lacks the independence journalistic outlets need to be credible and effective.

“It's about public education,” Madan said, calling the proposed CIR-Bay Citizen merger “a terrible idea.” Madan has been in the business world for 20 years and has consulted on mergers and acquisitions, and he said that 60 percent of mergers fail, usually because of differences in the culture and values of the entities. And he said media mergers are an especially bad idea.

“Independent media means you need lots of independent organizations reporting on the community,” Madan said.

He also criticized the proposal that the merged newsrooms would be led by Phil Bronstein, who ran the Examiner before taking over as editor of the Chronicle when Hearst Corp. bought it. “He is the person who presided over the failure of the Examiner,” Madan said.

Stoll agrees that Bronstein could be problematic as a leader, if for no other reason than the symbolism: “He has had such an influence on the quality of journalism in San Francisco that it's tough to distinguish between him and the problems we're trying to address.”

Public Press Publisher Lila LaHood also expressed reservations about Bronstein and the merger: “One runs the risk of having one voice homogenizing both the corporate and nonprofit journalism in San Francisco.”

When I asked Bronstein about that issue for my last article, he said, "I don't know that I'm the best person to take it over. That's something other people should determine, not me."

But Stoll thinks the merger itself might help each entity make up for the others' shortcomings. “If CIR can provide the leadership that the Bay Citizen has been lacking, and if Bay Citizen can provide some of the magic and capital that the Bay Citizen had, it may work,” Stoll said.

“They're going through a lot of changes and permutations, and who knows what their future is,” Stoll said of the Bay Citizen.

Its funding model has been working well, but it doesn't seem to have a guiding vision of the role that it wants to play in San Francisco or the kind of journalism that the city needs. And for Stoll's crew, the problem is how to find the resources to fund the community-based journalism they believe in.

“We had a vision and we still have that vision, but the goal is not as close at hand as it seemed four years ago when we started this,” Stoll said. “If it's not sustainable, it's not going to help anyone.”

But, like Bronstein and Rosenthal both told me, Stoll said it's important that these conversations and efforts are taking place because of the important role journalism plays in this country and in the Bay Area: “We're all trying to do something to keep journalism alive and keep public service journalism alive.”