The Bay Citizen on Tuesday enters the second phase of its young life, surrendering its independence in exchange for a partnership with an older, more established journalistic entity as its parent organization merges with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The focus of the combined organization will be on investigative and accountability journalism, with a staff of approximately 70.
The merger agreement, signed Tuesday, ends a five-month period of uncertainty at the two-year-old Bay Citizen that included the death of its founder, billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman, and the resignation of its CEO.
While technically a merger, a similar deal in the corporate world would be termed an acquisition, with Berkeley-based CIR assuming a dominant role on the board and in the management of the combined organization. No one from The Bay Citizen’s current senior editorial or technology management teams will have a leadership role in the expanded organization.
The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission. CIR is also considering whether to continue providing coverage for The New York Times. The Bay Citizen’s reporting currently appears twice weekly in the Bay Area section of The Times.
Proponents of the deal, in the works since December, say each of the two nonprofit organizations will bring its strengths to the other: CIR brings The Bay Citizen the prestige and heft of a well-established outlet that breaks state, national and international stories, while The Bay Citizen brings a fast-paced newsroom built for the Internet era, a donor and membership base of more than 8,000 and healthy cash reserves.
“The goal here is to have an organization that would have a strong local focus in the Bay Area as well as have an opportunity and the ability to do stories that are relevant to California, as well as national and international stories,” said Robert Rosenthal, CIR’s executive director. CIR will operate three brands — The Bay Citizen, covering the local region; California Watch, a project founded in 2009 to report on statewide issues; and CIR, which for more than 30 years has reported on hundreds of major stories, and which earlier this year won a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, bringing $1 million.
Those brands will all work in one newsroom — at a location still to be determined — bringing local stories to a national and international audience and relevant national and global stories to the Bay Area.
"I'm excited to see what the new organization can do,” said Brian Kelley, The Bay Citizen’s interim CEO. "The merger brings together the strengths of both of our organizations, expanding our capabilities in journalism and technology.”
Bay Citizen reporter Aaron Glantz, chairman of the organization’s Media Workers Guild unit, expressed relief that the process was nearly complete and the uncertainty over. “We are very excited,” he said in a text message, after speaking to colleagues. “This is good for journalism. We look forward to working with our new colleagues and being part of one of the most aggressive newsrooms on the West Coast.”
Jeff Ubben, current chairman of The Bay Citizen’s board of directors, and the family of the late financier Warren Hellman, founder of The Bay Citizen, together committed more than $4 million in additional funding to the merged entity, Rosenthal said.
“Our dad felt strongly that democracy only works if there is a vibrant press, and that local journalism in particular needed strong community support in order to survive and fulfill its essential mission,” Hellman’s son Marco ("Mick") Hellman said in a press release. “Our family agrees with that point of view. We feel that the merger with CIR offers the opportunity to renew leadership, add strength to the reporting staff, and diversify revenue models and content distribution channels.”
Warren Hellman founded The Bay Citizen (initially known by the name of its parent organization, the Bay Area News Project) after watching in despair as the Hearst Corporation threatened to shut down the financially hemorrhaging San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. Hellman, a noted investment banker and philanthropist, considered buying the paper before he decided to start a new, online news organization instead. Hellman initially gave $5 million to start The Bay Citizen, then added another $1 million. The funds were the cornerstones of an ambitious fundraising effort that ultimately brought in $17.5 million.
“Warren cared a lot about San Francisco, and he genuinely believed strong journalism was important to a strong community,” said Jonathan Weber, the site’s first editor-in-chief, who is now the West Coast bureau chief for Reuters. “He saw the dramatic weakening of journalism in the Bay Area, and he decided to do something about it.”
The Bay Citizen launched in May 2010. It has won the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and the James Madison Freedom of Information Award.
The recent series of changes at the organization began last fall, when Weber and Lisa Frazier, the chief executive of The Bay Citizen, announced their departures. In December, Warren Hellman died of complications from leukemia at age 77. In February, Interim Editor-in-Chief Steve Fainaru also left, completing the creation of what Kelley, the interim CEO, called “a leadership vacuum.”
The Bay Citizen board approached CIR’s chairman, former San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein, about the vacant CEO position. Bronstein wasn’t interested in the job, he said, but instead suggested the merger. In early February, the two organizations announced they were exploring the possible union and that their respective boards would vote within 30 days. Extra time was needed to ensure that funders would continue to support the merged entity.
Within the past two weeks, Tom Goldstein, the interim dean of the University of California’s Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, resigned from The Bay Citizen’s board. Goldstein said he was the last member of the board who wanted to see The Bay Citizen remain independent. (Another board member, Andrew Woeber, a managing director of the investment bank Greenhill & Co., also left in recent weeks.)
The merger became official on Tuesday when the boards of directors of both organizations voted to approve it. Under the law, California Attorney General Kamala Harris oversees mergers of nonprofit corporations. Harris now has 20 days to review the merger. Unless Harris determines that the missions of the two nonprofit news organizations are incompatible, the merger would take effect at the end of the 20-day review period.