The disappearance of The Bay Citizen nameplate (it will live on as a web archive of past work) does serve as a public marker of change in Bay Area journalism. But it’s a change that was largely effected in the spring of 2012, when the local outlet was merged into CIR, and the change is hardly a tragic one. The Bay Citizen did some notable work, but also spent significant amounts of time and energy producing stories that were little different than the daily fare offered up by the Chronicle. The Center for Investigative Reporting may well serve up far fewer stories directly hooked to San Francisco than The Bay Citizen in its original form, but CIR has a well-deserved reputation for producing investigative journalism with impact. And the Bay Area-related stories it produces will doubtless continue to be syndicated by Bay Area content partners.
In the end, the disappearance of The Bay Citizen may say more about the importance of nonprofit corporate governance than it does about the viability of a particular brand of journalism. Jonathan Weber was hired as the first editor of The Bay Citizen after stints as editor of Newwest.net, a website covering the Mountain West, and the well-respected dot-com era magazine The Industry Standard. He left The Bay Citizen to take a job as West Coast bureau chief for Reuters before the merger with CIR, giving him a unique vantage from which to view the brand’s demise.
Weber called the decision to eliminate the Bay Citizen name a “logical outcome” of the 2012 merger. And he is quick to note that he does not mean to criticize CIR, which has its own journalistic mission, when he says he does mourn the opportunity that The Bay Citizen ultimately missed. In its first year, the site aggressively pursued daily news, and the Bay Area pages it produced for The New York Times “gave us a lot of clout and influence around town,” Weber said. That had an impact on local coverage from other outlets, pushing them to react and improve, he said.
But the corporate structure of The Bay Citizen never really matured according to plan. Originally, it was to be a partnership that included Bay Area public broadcaster KQED and the University of California’s Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. But after initial talks, KQED bowed out, and the Berkeley journalism dean had medical problems, depriving the Bay Citizen board of directors of outside voices with strong journalistic bona fides.
The result, Weber said, was a board dominated by Hellman. When he died, the board, “which lacked strong leaders independent of Warren,” fairly quickly acquiesced to a merger with CIR, Weber said. After the merger, The Bay Citizen was almost immediately reconfigured to align with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s focus on long-term, major investigations.
Weber is an innovative and highly respected editor who created a quality publication. The Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation’s oldest and one of its most respected investigative journalism nonprofits. It regularly wins major journalism prizes and was honored in 2012 with a $1 million MacArthur Foundation award for creative and effective institutions.
Is quality local daily journalism with a dose of in-depth work, a la The Bay Citizen, better or worse than CIR-style investigative journalism, published with less frequency and, overall, with less direct connection to the local scene? If the answer to that question seems arguable, one lesson from the short life of The Bay Citizen is not: Beyond money and editorial talent, strong leaders are needed at the board level to create the governing structures that make a start-up news organization last.
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