In late 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle broke news implicating legendary left fielder Barry Bonds in a doping scandal. The Chronicle’s reporting led to Bonds’s indictment and the imprisonment of the founder of BALCO, a company that produced and distributed performance-enhancing drugs. It also blew open a section of the sports beat whose effects are still reverberating today.
For refusing to reveal their original source for the BALCO Affair during a grand jury investigation into the laboratory’s practices, however, Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams—despite affidavits from, among others, Carl Bernstein—were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. A plea agreement reached by their source, BALCO attorney Troy Ellerman, later spared the reporters from jail time.
Now, in early 2009, there’s rampant speculation that the Chronicle will soon be folding. If it does, we can safely assume that innovative journalistic entities—hyperlocal sites, microfunded reporting, niche investigative outfits—will emerge to take the Chronicle’s place.
But we wonder: Will those entities have the clout, power, and resources to stand up to the institutions that would challenge the stories they report—to defend reporters like Fainaru-Wada and Williams, and the stories they produce? Do you need a big institution to stand up to big institutions, or to support those stories that stand up to big institutions? In other words: Does size matter?
Every Tuesday, CJR outlines a news-related question and opens the floor for debate. For previous News Meeting topics, click here.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.