Journalism in the Bay Area has been in decline for many years, with corporate consolidations, shrinking newsrooms, declining print readership, and struggles with how to pay full-time reporters when content is offered free-of-charge on the Internet. And with its waning institutional strength, the Fourth Estate has lost some of its ability to watchdog the powerful, creating a dangerous situation in a country founded on the belief that a free press is an essential safeguard of liberty and fairness.
One countervailing trend during this time was the creation of robust nonprofit newsrooms, with the two largest ones in the Bay Area being the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Bay Citizen in San Francisco. But now those two entities have announced that they're in merger talks  — and that the combined newsrooms would be led by Phil Bronstein, who presided over the decline of San Francisco's two major daily newspapers.
Whether this merger bodes well or ill for a journalistic resurgence remains unclear. Both entities have their strengths and flaws, and both of their boards are in the middle of a 30-day review period to determine whether the merger makes sense and what the combined operations would look like.
As the exclusive Bay Area content provider for The New York Times, Bay Citizen made a big splash when it was launched with $5 million in seed money from billionaire financier Warren Hellman in late 2009. As Hellman (who died in December) told me at the time, he was seeking to create an independent, local, public interest alternative to the San Francisco Chronicle, which was being gutted by its New York-based owners, Hearst Corp., and even threatened with closure if its unions hindered the downsizing.
Many were skeptical that a newsroom funded and overseen by Hellman and other uber-wealthy San Franciscans would deliver the kind of public interest journalism that the city needed, but under the leadership of veteran Editor Jonathan Weber, it produced many strong stories, starting on launch day with an investigation of how the richest home owners in the city avoid paying property taxes the city once relied on. And last year, Bay Citizen broke some important stories and created valuable databases on campaign contributions and danger spots for bicyclists, for which it recently won a Society of Professional Journalists award for computer-assisted reporting.
Acting CEO Brian Kelley told us the Bay Citizen has succeeded in creating a strong "three-legged stool" balancing solid journalism, a sustainable business model, and technological innovation. After raising about $17 million in three years, ranging from small donations to the $6 million Hellman contributed, "we're in a very healthy state from a financial standpoint."
But sources say the operation has had some tough internal divisions, some of it propagated by an out-of-touch board and an overpaid CEO, Lisa Frazier, who took a reported $457,000 salary to run an operation that she had served as Hellman's consultant in launching. They say Frazier clashed with Weber and the reporting staff, particularly after it voted to unionize last year, and then with Weber's successor, Steve Fainaru. Both Weber and Fainaru resigned in the last month, creating a leadership vacuum that was one of the factors that triggered the merger talks.
Meanwhile, CIR has experienced the most dynamic growth period in its 30-year history since 2008, when veteran editor Robert Rosenthal took over as executive director after leaving the Chronicle, where he served directly under Bronstein, who also later left the Chronicle and now serves as president of CIR's board.
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."
Both said that even if the merger takes place, Bay Citizen would continue to provide local coverage under the brand and model it's developed, although the New York Times has not yet determined whether it would continue to run its content if it's not exclusive. The two newsrooms wouldn't initially be merged, although Bronstein has said that achieving savings of up to $1.9 million is one of his goals, something he'd try to accomplish without reducing journalistic content or quality.
The two entities have slightly different cultures and areas of focus, so the question now is whether they're compatible. Bay Citizen's Kelley said he thinks they are: "I personally feel they are very complimentary."