The Bay Citizen

Local civic journalism in the national spotlight

bay.citizen.pngSAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — [UPDATE: In May 2012, the Bay Citizen merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news organization in the United States and the parent of state-level investigative nonprofit California Watch. The merger allowed the organizations to expand their reporting resources, save money, and diversify their funding base. The merger brought together 75 staff members with a $10.5 million budget in 2012. As part of the merger, the Bay Citizen ended its partnership with The New York Times, for which it had produced a Bay Area section since 2010.]

In early 2009, San Francisco philanthropist Warren Hellman grew concerned about the cutbacks in local newsrooms and what he saw as a decline in professional, original reporting in the area. He convened an advisory group to explore the possibility of creating a new journalism outlet for the Bay Area. At the time, there were rumors that Hearst was considering closing The San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s only remaining major broadsheet daily; meanwhile, The New York Times was putting out feelers for a partner that could provide coverage for a Bay Area edition of the paper. The timing was right, and Hellman’s funding was there, and by early 2010, The Bay Citizen was born.

[Profile updated December 18, 2012]

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    • The site launched in May 2010 with a focus on “core civic journalism,” says Jonathan Weber, who was the Bay Citizen’s editor-in-chief until he accepted a position with Reuters in September 2011. He says the newsroom benefited right away from a talented staff with a diverse range of experience. There’s managing editor Jeanne Carstensen, who had extensive online experience as managing editor of Salon, and Steve Fainaru, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign reporter for The Washington Post. Fainaru has since taken Weber’s place as editor-in-chief.

      Since the site’s launch, the editorial staff has grown to twenty-one full-timers. Veteran journalists like Carstensen and Fainaru are joined by younger writers and data researchers; in addition, the site also partners with KGO Radio and the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, to help increase the site’s coverage while training student journalists. In an e-mail, Fainaru writes that eventually he’d like to see fifty journalists in his newsroom.

      Today, the site is a traditional mix of straight news, arts events coverage and reviews, and columns and opinion pieces. Its clean layout makes it easy to quickly read up on news topics like the BART protests or the San Bruno gas explosion. In-depth investigations have their place in the Bay Citizen’s coverage–for instance, an original analysis of military veteran deaths and suicide statistics in California.

      The newsroom often partners with independent journalists and news sites from the area to expand its scope–which often includes hyperlocal neighborhood blogs, or niche subject sites, like the environmental outlet Bay Nature. And as has been the case since just weeks after its launch, the Bay Citizen newsroom still produces articles for The New York Times, in a twice-weekly, two-page print spread called Bay Area Report, which also appears online. The Bay Citizen now also has its own iPhone app, so readers can access its content wherever they are.

      An early goal for The Bay Citizen’s development was a concerted focus on and investment in data journalism. The site now features a Data Library page to collect and showcase all of its database projects, as well as to solicit readers’ ideas for future investigations and apps. One project, a Bike Accident Tracker, collected, mapped, and charted five years of collision statistics. With that information, reporters have been able to make conclusions about the city’s most bike-accident prone demographics and locations.

      The Bay Citizen is a nonprofit organization, and after an initial $5 million investment from the Hellman Family Foundation, it has run on four revenue streams: large gifts and foundation grants; corporate sponsorship and underwriting; individual membership; and syndication. The business model is similar to public radio, and all major funders are publicly listed and kept out of the newsroom’s editorial decisions.

      Just under two years after its launch, The Bay Citizen is “still going through profound changes,” as Fainaru puts it–it’s attracting more and more partners and racking up more and more awards for its coverage. But the main goals of the site will remain the same. “Our aim is to provide consistently exclusive, deep and enterprising content that moves the conversation well beyond the daily headlines,” Fainaru says. “The stories we cover, our goal is to own them.”

The Bay Citizen Data

Name: The Bay Citizen


City: San Francisco

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner