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A marriage on the rocks
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Alisha Petro | April 11, 2012
Why a scrappy nonprofit news group with big-league ambitions dumped the New York Times
Last month, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Berkeley-based journalism nonprofit, made big news of its own: After going it alone for 35 years, it was merging with the Bay Citizen (pending approval from the state attorney general), the two-year-old news website that Warren Hellman launched to administer life support to the hemorrhaging local press. As details of the proposed union came to light—it will create the largest investigative reporting nonprofit in the country, with a newsroom of 53; the Bay Citizen will jettison breaking news for deeper muckrakes—one stood out. CIR, which will have a dominant role in managing the new behemoth, will ditch the Citizen’s alliance with the New York Times, according to a tweet from the Citizen’s executive managing editor, Jeanne Carstensen. The last day the section will run in the Times, she claims, is April 29.
The Times had been clear that it wanted to keep the relationship postmerger, so why would a newly juiced journalism venture even think of flipping the metaphorical bird at the world’s best news organization?
Since the Citizen’s creation, its staff has produced a Bay Area section for the Times’ Friday and Sunday papers in a mutually beneficial relationship. For an unspecified fee (both sides are mum on the details), the Times got more regional coverage to hold on to Bay Area readers and boost circulation and advertising dollars. The fledgling Internet startup, in turn, reaped an instant readership, plus the Times’ ironclad street cred with readers, sources, and donors. (“You would get a call back [from sources] as soon as you put down the phone,” says former Citizen reporter Gerry Shih.)
But the arrangement between the Times and the Citizen hasn’t been without its problems, says former Citizen interim editor-in-chief Steve Fainaru, who recently left his post for ESPN. He liked the higher profile the Citizen got from the Times and the fundraising dollars that flowed in, but churning out eight stories a week for the paper was tying up the Citizen’s resources. “Often, meeting the requirements to fill those Times pages was sucking most of the air out of the room,” Fainaru says. He wanted to push snappier writing in place of the staid prose of the Gray Lady. And he was frustrated that no matter how good the scoop, it would still be relegated to the Times’ back pages. “We were putting our best stuff in the Times, and it was kind of demoralizing to pick up the paper and find it on page 37A behind the obituaries.” After toting up the staff hours and freelancing fees, Fainaru decided the deal “wasn’t adding up.”
At the time, not all agreed. “The weekly Times report does consume a lot of our editorial bandwidth,” said the Citizen’s Carstensen when contacted by San Francisco earlier this month, “but it’s worth it for our young newsroom to work with the newspaper of record.” Still, Fainaru shared his skepticism with CIR board president Phil Bronstein during the merger discussions. (If the merger goes through, Bronstein will become the executive chairman.)
CIR director Robert Rosenthal wasn’t thrilled with the previous arrangement, which granted the Times exclusive first-publishing rights to Citizen stories. (CIR offers its stories to many media outlets.) “We want to be inclusive in the Bay Area market,” he says. He also wondered about staff enthusiasm for the deal. “Ask a reporter if they’d rather work on a major investigative story or a quick story for the New York Times.”
One reporter, at least—though admittedly a former Times employee himself—questioned the benefits of the breakup before it happened. “Ending the relationship with a paper like the Times is—I just can’t see how that could ever strengthen you,” said Shih, who now works for Reuters.