Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism recently awarded the 2009 Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for Best Reporting of Racial Bias and Intolerance to The Chauncey Bailey Project, for its probative reporting on the 2007 assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating a community empowerment enterprise called Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, California. In part because of reporting done by the project (a coalition of area news organizations, freelance and retired journalists, journalism schools, media organizations and funders), the Oakland police chief resigned and the lead police detective was suspended for ignoring evidence against one of the murder suspects. We spoke with Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune, one of the lead news organizations on the project, about the eighteen-month collaboration and where it will go from here.
How do you keep up momentum for a project like this that has spanned a year and a half?
Something that everyone understood from the beginning was the magnitude of this—and we had a model to follow also, which was The Arizona Project. We all understood the gravity of what this whole thing meant. And many of us knew Chauncey. I knew Chauncey personally; I worked with him for probably eight or nine years at the Tribune. And so, I knew his son; we played softball together and basketball at lunch. It was personal and it was professional.
Tell me a little bit about how the collaboration started.
Well, a few days after Chauncey was killed, Sandy Close from New American Media and Joy Maynard from the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (and it might have been Neil Henry from UC Berkeley), but I guess it was Sandy who really called the journalism community together at a restaurant in Berkeley and the question was, what are we going to do and how are we going to respond to this? A lot of people had different things to say about it, and it was decided that we had to continue what Chauncey was looking into.
There were some early indications that he had been working on a story that had something Your Black Muslim Bakery didn’t want out. At that point, she then asked if the Tribune would sort of serve as the lead news organization, and we of course said that we would. From there we had a big meeting in the Tribune news conference room, and… do you remember that song “We Are The World” that was sung by all these famous musicians? It was almost like “We Are The World”—you had all these people from competing news organizations, people from all different walks of journalistic life in this room and it was quite tense, these early meetings. We had a couple meetings talking about direction and which way to go; some of them were with Paul Cobb who was the publisher of the Oakland Post, and then we got Rosie—Robert Rosenthal—to come on, who is now at the Center of Investigative Reporting. At that time he reminded us all the time he was unemployed, which was pretty funny.
Was there friction as you figured out how to work together?
There was tension at times, especially as I said in the first meetings, when we were trying to find our way, and there were competing agendas, and people were uncomfortable with having competition in the room and if you had sources, were you going to share them, and that sort of thing. Eventually, the answer was yes, of course we are, and we did. And I also think, going forth, it’s a model for news organizations in the same markets and maybe even across markets, to figure out how to sustain the newsgathering process while this whole business model shakes out. I think there are some opportunities for big projects where you say, okay, we need to do this to stay relevant to the community, so if we can do something and cross-pollinate with your medium and my medium and our resources with your resources, to do a big investigation, we can look to the Bailey Project as a roadmap to how you can duplicate that for other stories.
In practice, how did the collaboration work?