"One powerful newsroom" pulls back from its San Francisco roots

CIR last year took control of The Bay Citizen, which it has now folded into its own nationally focused news operation.

Locally focused journalism in San Francisco took another big hit today with the announcement that The Bay Citizen — which was founded by the late Warren Hellman in 2009 specifically to augment declining reporting on San Francisco and the Bay Area — is being folded into Center for Investigative Reporting [Updated below].

When the two entities merged last year, Bay Guardian and others raised concerns that local accountability journalism in San Francisco would suffer and that the strong donor base that Hellman developed to support Bay Citizen was being used to support CIR, whose board is chaired by former San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein, who engineered the deal.

"It's exciting for us to be able to address what has been a vacuum in San Francisco for a long time," CIR Executive Director Robert Rosenthal, addressing the need to strengthen local coverage, told us last year.

But today, in an upbeat press release and blog post announcing The Bay Citizen’s demise entitled “One Powerful Newsroom,” Rosenthal seems to dismiss the importance of San Francisco City Hall coverage and other locally based reporting in justifying CIR’s flip to a more national focus.  

“We know that as long as we are telling the right stories – the stories that no one else is covering, the stories that reveal deeply hidden information, the stories that actually make a difference in people’s lives – it doesn’t matter if they are about San Francisco or Sacramento or Washington, D.C.,” wrote Rosenthal, who has not yet returned our call to discuss the issue [see below].

For anyone who cares about journalism and accountability in San Francisco, where wealthy interests have essentially partnered with the Mayor’s Office on an ambitious agenda that is changing the face and future of the city, it does matter where reporters focus their time and energies.

CIR Editorial Director Mark Katches also wrote today that in addition to less coverage of San Francisco, the merged organization will do fewer overall stories: “First and foremost, we have rededicated ourselves to high-impact investigative reporting – stories that matter. We’ve largely stopped covering routine stories and breaking news, which got in the way of this core mission. Last year, we generated about 1,000 stories. By choice, we expect to produce about 200 stories this year. But the stories we go after will be the ones we think can make a difference.

“The newsroom will also rethink the scope of its coverage: Last year, about 95 percent of the stories generated out of this newsroom were either focused on the Bay Area or the state of California. That left a small fraction of our work focused on national or international issues or produced in a way that would appeal to an audience outside California’s borders,” wrote Katches, who also hasn’t yet returned our call (we’ll update this post if and when we hear back from Rosenethal and Katches).

While it’s always good to have more quality journalism focused on national and international issues, San Francisco needs more accountability journalism, not less, particularly when the Chronicle newsroom has been decimated and the stories that its reporters are doing are now stuck behind an online paywall, further reducing readership.

That dearth of San Francisco-based reporting is why Hellman created The Bay Citizen, as he told me while he was conceiving the concept and shortly after it was created. “It will focus on local news events, including politics and the arts, the kind of thing that is just dying at the Chronicle,” Hellman told me.

And now, just as we feared, two of the Chronicle editors who oversaw that demise -- Bronstein and Rosenthal -- are killing off the once-successful local newsroom that was created to shine a critical light on what’s happening in San Francisco and around the Bay Area.

We certainly wish CIR well and we hope that this “one powerful newsroom” will continue to devote some reporting resources to San Francisco, as they did most recently in exposing radioactive contamination at Treasure Island. But this is still a sad day for the Fourth Estate in the rapidly evolving city of St. Francis.

Update: Rosenthal just got back to me and expressed the hope that San Francisco won’t suffer from this latest move: “We’re going to continue doing what we hope will be stories that make a difference in San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

But as a longtime newspaper editor who also values local reporters working beats to hold powerful people and entities accountable and to inform local citizens about issues that affect them, Rosenthal said that he understands the Guardian’s concerns.

“I love beat reporting, and yes, beat reporting will suffer,” Rosenthal said, decrying the newsroom cutbacks in communities across the country. “At the same time, we’re the only news organization, if you can call us that, in the country that has been adding staff in the last five years.”

Rosenthal emphasized that there were no layoffs during last year’s merger or as part of this current move, and in the always challenging modern media environment, he said the question he wrestles with is: “How do we keep the whole organization alive?”

Rosenthal also said CIR plans to expand its investigative reporting on the technology industry and its impact on San Francisco and other cities, which should benefit the need for accountability journalism here.

“We don’t want to abandon the Bay Area or the Bay Area media,” he said, citing recent coverage of Bay Area pedestrian deaths as an example the kind of stories that can make a difference locally.

As for Hellman’s vision of The Bay Citizen as a local news outlet, Rosenthal said, “It evolved.”