"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.”


Sure sounds like it.

Some call that biased journalism, of course, but naturally I never would . . .

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

Call it what you will, but this type of journalism was essential to the creation of this country and that's why it was enshrined in the First Amendment, and the absence of it allows local corruption and self-dealing to flourish.

Posted by steven on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

not have the internet. So now almost anyone can be a journalist and promote a story.

I realize this trend isn't good for those of your chosen profession, but isn't it generally a good thing that news reporting has been disintermediated by bloggers and the like?

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

Bloggers just aren't a substitute for full-time reporters covering a beat, people who understand the context of events and can ask tough questions of the officials involved, and who have institutional backing and libel insurance that allows us to report the truth. Wihout professional reporters, there would be very little of substance or significance to blog or tweet.

Posted by steven on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

But I understand why you're sensitive about the issue.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

Yes, they do a fine job of linking to the work of professional journalists, that's my point. HP also hosts unpaid bloggers and has a small number of actual reporters, little of which helps inform San Franciscans about important issues in their city.

Posted by steven on May. 20, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

warrant the kind of journalism we see in much larger cities like NY, LA, London etc. We're only 750,000 people.

Or perhaps there is more interest but in something that serves better the entire Bay Area which, with 4 to 5 million people and a broader range of political viewpoints, might yield the critical mass of readership that such entities need to survive..

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

I always really enjoyed their pieces in the New York Times.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on May. 20, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

If you live, work, vote, send your kids to school,pay taxes or own property in San Francisco, you might, just might, want to read and follow the doings, misdeeds, proposals and projects of elected officials,city bureaucrats, police officials and political campaign contributors. To read and follow you'll need dedicated writers digging out facts and reporting them. You don't have any reporting now on a daily basis in San Francisco. Some people think a blog or post is news reporting.Then again, some people think Kim Kardashian is a role model and Ron Conway has your best interests at heart.

Posted by Apthorp on May. 20, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

They don't have a high opinion of government or city workers, expect them to be incompetent, corrupt or both, and just accept that as the way it is.

My view is quite simply that any and all governments are corrupt, and I'd rather invest my efforts into ensuring that it affects me as little as possible rather than delude myself into thinking I can change anything.

All I ask from the city is that the cops keep me safe, and that
taxes are kept low. The rest, to be honest, is just mild entertainment and I organize my affairs so my wellbeing isn't at stake from petty bureaucrats.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

A telling testament to the power of willful ignorance from a conservative troll. Well done, sir, I couldn't have described you and your ilk better if I tried. Don't know nuthin, don't wanna know nuthin

Posted by steven on May. 20, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

government is at it's heart structurally flawed and incompetent.

The aim, therefore, is not so much to reform government as it is not possible, but rather to minimize the affect it can have on you.

This is done by reducing the size of the government and, wherever possible, cutting out it's bloated corrupt core.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

I hate government. Government can't do anything right. That's why we need to give the enforcement arm of the government as much power as possible in order to keep us safe from government. Government sucks, except the enforcement wing of government, which is why all good libertarians need to support more police.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

I mean, how does one avoid our pothole ridden streets - taking pitiful Muni isn't an option...? Or avoid meter maids now hassling us on Sundays and sure to be 24/7 soon...

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

Phil Bronstein and the Center for Investigative Reporting (2 million dollars in debt) basically stole the Bay Citizen's 17 million in assets and used them to pursue CIR's agenda from Day One. The only difference now is that the take over and evisceration of one non profit news entity (Bay Citizen) by another (CIR) is official. CIR, Bronstein and Rosenthal are corporate raiders. They have acted the part of a private equity firm that raids the assets of healthy business and uses those assets for another company entirely. Excusing this theft because of CIR's non profit status or investigative reporting is utter nonsense. Bronstein, Rosenthal, and CIR should be branded the cynical corporate thieves that they are.

Posted by voltairesmistress on May. 20, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

"Rosenthal emphasized that there were no layoffs during last year’s merger or as part of this current move."

I wonder how the Bay Citizen's excellent environmental reporter, laid off last year, feels about this recollection.

Posted by Chris Roberts on May. 20, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

Anyway, the SFBG has laid off people too. The internet is killing small papers.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

Let's be honest, the Exam and Chron reporters just lazily regurgitate City Hall press releases. A former Chron City Hall beat reporter is now doing pr for the City - it was a seamless transition...

LA Times has reported extensively on that City's budget shenanigans and the fraudulent practices of its fire department - we never see that kind of stuff here.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

Big difference. There are nine Bay Area Counties, not one.

Posted by Guest on May. 21, 2013 @ 7:34 am

Decent report, but I find it more than a little amusing, that a journalist for the SF Guardian (a formerly independent community newspaper that just allowed itself to be bought up by a guy who lives in Canada who now owns three of the four major papers in San Francisco) is lamenting the loss of print media diversity in the City. That the Guardian did not also mention its own situation in its report is a troubling oversight.

No matter what your new owner has told you and intends, independent print journalism in San Francisco is now under serious threat.

Posted by Eric Brooks on May. 21, 2013 @ 7:14 am

I'm painfully aware of the limited reporting resources here at the Guardian, as well as at our two new sister newspapers, the Examiner and SF Weekly, which is precisely why I lament the loss of The Bay Citizen. That's not an oversight; that was my point (BTW, the reporting resources at each of the three papers has remained basically the same under our new ownership, so I felt no need to refer to our situation in this article). Yes, print (and original, reported online) journalism isn't what it used to or should be in San Francisco, something that Hellman recognized and which has now been worsened by The Bay Citizen's demise.

Posted by steven on May. 21, 2013 @ 11:56 am

My reasons for objecting and not trusting anything the Center for Investigative Reporting does are so obscure to most Americans, having to do with the Rwandan Genocide, First and Second Congo Wars and ongoing conflict that I didn't bother to publish them, but here's the link, now that I've come across this: http://www.anngarrison.com/content/on-the-merger-of-the-bay-citizen-and-...

Posted by AnnGarrison on Jun. 20, 2013 @ 6:50 am

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