Citizen Wanes

The Bay Citizen brand winks out--and leaves behind a lesson about nonprofit governance

Way back in the distant mists of mid-2010, The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco experiment in nonprofit civic journalism, launched its website with grand ambitions and $5 million in support from private equity investor and reputed billionaire Warren Hellman.

At the start, money seemed to be no problem; Hellman’s support helped attract another $3 million-plus in donations from other San Francisco notables, including the family of Don Fisher, founder of the Gap clothing company. An blog post about The Bay Citizen’s May 2010 launch party captured a scene of fancy hors d’oeuvres, a packed media-world crowd, and buoyant ambition. (Hellman, a banjo-playing bluegrass aficionado, had written a song specifically for the event. Sample lyrics: “Bay Citizen, Bay Citizen, the future sure looks bright/It seems our modern news hub is a-comin’ into sight.”) To give an indication of the startup’s lofty goals, blogger Katie Baker quoted its website: “In this historic time of flux in the news industry, we have an unprecedented opportunity to pioneer new ways of creating, distributing and sustaining quality local news. We created The Bay Citizen for people like you who want a reliable source of ambitious, balanced journalism for the Bay Area.”

For more than a year, the Bay Citizen turned out a well-crafted mix of daily reportage and more in-depth work, including twice-weekly, two-page Bay Area reports that appeared in New York Times editions delivered to Bay Area subscribers. In the wake of Hellman’s death from complications related to treatment for leukemia, however, The Bay Citizen merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting in March 2012. The New York Times affiliation was dropped, and the focus turned to the kind of long-term investigative work for which CIR is nationally known.

Now, The Bay Citizen name is winking out—along with that of California Watch, CIR’s statewide investigative reporting unit, which CJR profiled in 2010. Robert Rosenthal, CIR’s executive director, announced on May 20 that those outlets will be subsumed under the Center for Investigative Reporting brand; the change goes into effect Wednesday.

CIR executives described the change as being driven by branding considerations and by a need to improve efficiency. Stories produced by all three imprints were syndicated to local, statewide, and national content partners, creating external and internal confusion, the executives said. Also, updating and promoting three websites was a drain on resources.

Mark Katches, CIR’s editorial director, says the decision to move all the center’s work under one brand won’t change a great deal about the journalism now being done. Since its merger with CIR, The Bay Citizen had moved away from daily coverage and toward the center’s longer-term investigative work, with a dramatic shift in that direction in January, he said. There weren’t any “cries of concern or upset” between then and the recent announcement that the Bay Citizen name was being retired, he said.

And the story mix will continue to be approximately the same, Katches said, with roughly a third of the stories originating in the Bay Area, another third starting elsewhere in California, and a third beginning outside the state. “We’re not abandoning the Bay Area,” added Rosenthal.

Tim Redmond, longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly, sees the situation differently. In an interview, he said that in its “heyday”—that is, in his view, before it was merged with CIR—The Bay Citizen was an important part of civic life, filling holes in serious coverage left by the downsizing of the San Francisco Chronicle and other area news organizations. Before his death, Hellman had been clear that The Bay Citizen aimed to fill that gap.

Redmond says he respects the work that CIR does, but shutting down The Bay Citizen “completely undermined” Hellman’s vision. “I feel like a daily newspaper has been shut down,” he said.

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, 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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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , , , ,