Merger With Investigative Unit Likely to Mean Major Shift in Bay Citizen Coverage: New York Times, March 29, 2012

Once a media reporter, always a media reporter. Although I had not written my media column in the San Francisco Chronicle for several years (I left the paper in 2007, but Media Bytes had ended well before that), The Bay Citizen assigned me the story of their own merger; because of  an arrangement they had with the New York Times at the time, I wrote this story as a followup to my original piece on the Bay Citizen site. It was a good chance to check in on a deal at the forefront of modern nonprofit journalism, and to talk to my former editors Phil Bronstein and Robert Rosenthal, the leaders of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Merger With Investigative Unit Likely to Mean Major Shift in Bay Citizen Coverage

As the journalism world looks to the nonprofit model for salvation in these challenging times for the industry, one of the oldest journalism nonprofits, the Center for Investigative Reporting, announced Tuesday that it would merge with one of the newest, The Bay Citizen.

The deal, in which The Bay Citizen’s local news site, which went live in 2010, will become a brand operated by the Berkeley-based C.I.R., established in 1977, will most likely bring major changes to the newer organization’s coverage. Officials at C.I.R. said they were considering dropping The Bay Citizen’s breaking news and cultural coverage.

C.I.R. will play a dominant role in management and on the board; no one from The Bay Citizen’s senior editorial staff will have a leadership role in the new organization. In addition, C.I.R. said it would assess The Bay Citizen’s arrangement with The New York Times to provide local coverage twice a week, on Fridays and Sundays.

The boards of directors of the two organizations approved the merger on Tuesday. If approved by the state attorney general, as expected, C.I.R. would assume control of The Bay Citizen and its finances in late April.

A leadership crisis at The Bay Citizen led the organization to consider the merger.

Warren Hellman, who was the group’s primary benefactor, died in December, and the chief executive and two consecutive editors in chief departed over the past six months.

The new organization will have a budget of $10.5 million and a staff of about 70, making it what C.I.R. called the nation’s largest nonprofit organization focused on investigative and watchdog reporting.

The deal brings together two very different organizations. C.I.R. produces national and international stories for outlets like “60 Minutes” and “Frontline.” Since 2009, it has also operated California Watch, a statewide reporting project that sells stories to other news outlets. The Bay Citizen serves more than 8,000 donors and members and has a local news focus.

“What we’re most interested in is the ability to have a locally focused accountability news organization, melded with our state and national and international perspective,” said Robert Rosenthal, C.I.R.’s executive director.

The Bay Citizen, which was founded in part because of concerns about the viability of The San Francisco Chronicle, will now be run by two men who oversaw The Chronicle’s newsroom. Phil Bronstein, The Chronicle’s former editor, will be the executive chairman of C.I.R., and Mr. Rosenthal is a former Chronicle managing editor.

In an era in which newspapers have laid off scores of journalists, sites like The Bay Citizen have been formed to fill the void for local news, with varying degrees of success. Another nonprofit, the Chicago News Cooperative, which also produced twice-weekly sections for The Times, suspended operations in February.

Lance Knobel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside, a local news site that provides some of its content to The Bay Citizen, said the move to make the new Bay Citizen more investigative was a good thing. “That will fill a big void, and that’s healthy,” Mr. Knobel said. “But what it won’t do is what The Bay Citizen was set up to be, which was an alternative source of news for the Bay Area.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 30, 2012, on page A23A of the New York Times’ National edition with the headline: Merger With Investigative Unit Likely to Mean Major Shift in Bay Citizen Coverage.



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