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March 29, 2012, 10 a.m.

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

On cutting back on breaking news coverage at The Bay Citizen: “There’s almost no such thing as first anymore.”

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days. (Note: We originally said Bay Citizen stories were due to the Times on Tuesdays. Actually, while Tuesday is the first deadline in the week for a Bay Citizen story, other stories have deadlines later in the week, including some right up to the day before publication. We regret the error.)

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.” Times associate managing editor Jim Schachter told me the partnership is mutually beneficial: An organization like The Bay Citizen is put “in the same breath with the nation’s leading news organization,” and The New York Times has a network of locally knowledgable reporters to tap for stories if something big breaks — the 2010 San Bruno gas leak is once example.

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.” Times associate managing editor Jim Schachter told me the partnership is mutually beneficial. An organization like The Bay Citizen is put “in the same breath with the nation’s leading news organization” and gets access to tens of thousands of local Times print readers. The New York Times gets a network of locally knowledgable reporters to tap for stories if something big breaks — the 2010 San Bruno gas leak is one example.

“These organizations are doing things that we ourselves are not able to do,” Schachter said. “The Times respects, admires, and has needed each one of these organizations to provide this journalism to our readers in local markets…This is not saying, ‘We’re the big mighty New York Times and you’ve ridden on our shoulders.’ It is a genuine collaboration.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 29, 2012, 10 a.m.
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