Digital DMA Update

CIR Makes Waves In SF's Online News Scene

In San Francisco's youthful, startup-oriented news community, it’s a nearly four-decade-old nonprofit that is making its presence felt. The Center for Investigative Reporting, which runs muckraking site California Watch, last year merged with Bay Citizen and elevated the CIR’s standing among digital nonprofits.
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Photo: Jerry Lee Hayes

San Francisco remains a hotbed of digital innovation, with a host of journalism startups and media incubators such as Matter and MediaCamp recruiting aspiring entrepreneurs. But one of the most interesting developments in the market involves a news organization that’s been around for more than three decades.

Last year, the 35-year-old nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting merged with the Bay Citizen, a nonprofit news site founded in 2009 by San Francisco investor Warren Hellman. Although the relationship is still in its early stages, digital media experts are watching closely to see what it means for local news in the region and, perhaps, beyond.

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“The idea of a local news nonprofit isn't unique to the Bay,” digital journalist and entrepreneur David Cohn said in an email. “But the idea of coupling it with a national investigative news organization is unique.”

Cohn, whose latest project is the mobile news reading app Circa, wonders if other major investigative journalism organizations might consider local spin-offs if the merger between the center and the Bay Citizen is a long-term success.

There aren’t many nonprofits with the center’s resources and reputation. One of the best-known, ProPublica, has no plans to change its mission to emphasize local news, according to a spokesman. Still, the Bay Area is worth watching in the months to come.

The Berkeley-based center is the oldest nonprofit journalism effort of its kind in the United States. The center was founded in 1977 and, until recently, has employed small groups of journalists looking to break big stories. But all that has changed in the last five years. During that time the center has seen its staff grown from seven to 70.

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(In addition to the Bay Citizen, the center’s staff also runs California Watch, a site devoted to statewide muckraking.)

The merger with the Bay Citizen has allowed the center to serve audiences near and far. The Bay Citizen focuses primarily on local coverage and, until last year, it produced stories for a West Coast edition of the New York Times. That relationship ended the day before the merger, and Citizen-produced work now appears in other Bay Area publications.

That work often has the center’s full resources behind it.

“What we always wanted to do is take the local story to the national audience,” said Executive Director Robert Rosenthal. Teams of journalists work together to report stories that can be told with videos, animations, interactive graphics and, of course, text.

National outlets routinely seek partnerships with the center, but so do those in the Bay Area, which has made this market a hotbed of online investigative journalism.

For instance, one recent project asked why so many veterans were dying while they awaited government benefits. It focused first on the Bay Area, but soon became a national story thanks to extensive data collected by the center’s reporters.

The center’s website is full of similar multimedia projects, including some that were co-produced with Bay Area news organizations. More investigative videos are featured on the iFiles, a YouTube channel supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

This kind of work is significant from a journalistic standpoint, but Rosenthal says it’s also helping the center remain financially sound. A growing number of media outlets want to hire the center to co-produce multimedia projects. Those partnerships, Rosenthal said, are expected to bring in between $750,000 and $1 million next year, which is 8%-10% of the center’s total budget.

Other major sponsors include the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

The center’s list of media partners is long and growing, including ABC’s KGO-TV in San Francisco, KQED’s San Francisco radio station and The San Francisco Chronicle. The staff has also produced work for national and international outlets. The financial details of these arrangements vary, but Rosenthal says the bottom line is that news organizations are willing to pay for quality video.

“Video that’s hard edge, deep storytelling is very expensive,” Rosenthal said. “We can produce it in house and piggyback on existing investigative stories. It’s cost effective.”

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