Bay Area media merger approved, pending okay from AG


The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Bay Citizen today approved a merger that would consolidate the media organizations into a single newsroom, eliminating its breaking news coverage of San Francisco but seeking to generate local news stories from the data-heavy reporting of CIR's California Watch and figure out what's next for the journalism industry.

The merger requires approval from the California Attorney General's Office because of potential anti-trust issues, with approval becoming final if AG Kamala Harris doesn't object within 20 days. Although it was announced as a merger by both organizations, the Bay Citizen reported that it's really an acquisition given that CIR will run the combined organizations under the leadership of Phil Bronstein, the CIR Board President who served as editor of the Examiner and the Chronicle before spearheading this merger.

CIR Executive Director Robert Rosenthal, who will oversee the combined newsrooms, confirmed to us that CIR will play the lead role, but he emphasized the complimentary aspects of the two organizations. “They have strengths we don't have in terms of membership and local brand,” he told us, noting the Bay Citizen's website will be a local portal and “a way to send people to other stories that we're doing.”

Membership-based fundraising has been Bay Citizen's strong suit since the late financier Warren Hellman launched it as the Bay Area News Project in late 2009 with $5 million in seed money, raising more than $17 million since then. The Hellman family and Bay Citizen Board Chairman Jeff Ubben have also reportedly committed to give another $4 million as part of the merger.

Bay Citizen has broken some important stories since going live in 2010, although it has recently suffered from a leadership crisis after resignations from two consecutive editors and then its CEO, who had clashed with the journalists there. While welcoming the leadership of a respected editor like Rosenthal, one Bay Citizen source told us that many in the newsroom are disappointed that they'll no longer be covering breaking news.

“We're not going to be a breaking news organization,” Rosenthal told me, confirming the report. “But it does not mean we're not going to be a lively site.”

So while the Bay Citizen may stop doing stories on City Hall meetings, developments in political scandals, and spot news stories likes fires and crimes, Rosenthal said the intention is still to do “accountability reporting” that would provide strong local coverage. “I would hope that what we're doing as for as covering City Hall would be more in-depth,” he told us.

Jonathan Weber, Bay Citizen's first editor who now serves as West Coast Bureau chief for Reuters, said it's not clear how the new approach will work but he thinks strong local news coverage is important. "It was my view when we started the Bay Citizen that if you're going to be a news site that it be very vibrant and give a sense of what's happening around the Bay Area on a timely basis," he told us.

But he doesn't want to second-guess the decisions CIR is making, telling us, "The Bay Citizen has a bigger mission than it had resources to accomplish it, so making a decision about what you're going to do and not do is appropriate." Yet he believes the Bay Area is underserved with strong local news coverage, "so to the extent that goes away, it will be a loss."

Still to be determined is whether Bay Citizen will continue providing semi-weekly content for the New York Times, an agreement that immediately elevated the stature of the media startup. Some local journalists say they fear the merger will mean less local journalism, which has already been hit hard by corporate media consolidations and layoffs.

Bay Citizen reports that Tom Goldstein, interim dean of UC Berkeley's School of Journalism and the only journalist on Bay Citizen's board, resigned in the last couple weeks after being the only board member resisting the merger. Calls and emails to Goldstein were not immediately returned, but I'll update this post with his comments if and when I hear back.

The other aspect of this merger that may be troubling to some is the leadership by Bronstein, a controversial figure who led the Examiner and then the Chronicle through a era of major downsizing by Hearst Corp. Bronstein wasn't available today, but when I asked him about the issue in February, he defended his local record and blamed cuts to local journalism on corporate decisions and general industry trends.

He also said, "I don't know that I'm the best person to take it over. That's something other people should determine, not me." Yet the Bay Citizen's coverage of merger indicates its board asked Bronstein to be its president – he was already president of the CIR board – and that he declined but suggested the merger as an alternative and has been working to make it happen.

Rosenthal, a longtime journalist who worked under Bronstein for years at the Chronicle, said they work well together and that Rosenthal has always felt supported in doing good journalism. Under the merged entity, Bronstein and Rosenthal will reportedly get the same salary, a little more than $200,000, and Rosenthal will focus on the newsroom while Bronstein focuses on the donor base.

As we reported in February, Rosenthal has had to expand on his journalism skill sets in recent years as he successfully sought foundation funding to beef up CIR's news-gathering operations and launch California Watch, which partners CIR with media outlets around the state to do investigative reporting and statehouse coverage.

“Our merger with The Bay Citizen announced today puts us in a unique position as journalists, innovators, technologists and, yes, entrepreneurs. I worked in newspapers for decades, starting as a copy boy and ending up as the top editor. No one ever strung those four words together to describe what we were as an organization,” Rosenthal wrote today in blog post describing the merger. “But to survive, thrive and evolve, the journalism, the innovation, the technology and the entrepreneurial vision all have to be intertwined in the new model.”

That sense of trying to create a new model for the journalism industry – which has been decimated in recent years, hindering its ability to play a watchdog role in a country founded on the importance of a free press – seems to dominate in the comments coming out of each news organization, emphasizing new ways of funding, covering, and delivering the news.

“We are bringing together two Bay Area enterprises with very complementary strengths,” Bronstein said in the press release. “They are both devoted to protecting justice and democracy through great, engaging journalism.”

But what that looks like, whether it's sustainable, and how it is going embraced by Bay Area residents remain open questions as the merged newsrooms struggle to work together and resolve outstanding issues. Or as Rosenthal told me, “This is going to evolve.”