CIR-BayCit Merger: What's in It for Places like Berkeley?

By Becky O'Malley
Monday February 13, 2012 - 01:16:00 PM

What’s up with local news these days? How is it going to be possible, in the brave new world of the corporate future, to find out what’s going around home? Here’s what one Berkeley-based superflack has to say about it on her blog:

“Merging CIR with The Bay Citizen and Berkeleyside.com would be a northern California media lover's wet dream.”

Do we believe that? And even, do most consumers of local news know what she’s talking about? 

Just to test the waters, I asked an old friend, a Richmond resident, someone who follows local politics, what he thought of the idea. 

“CIR?” he said. “Is that the place you used to work?” 

Well, yes, but that was a good 30 years ago, and a lot of water has gone over the dam since then. He had no recent image of what any non-profit with those initials might be up to these days. 

(For those who don’t know, CIR is a non-profit which describes itself as “the oldest nonprofit investigative news group in the nation”. It’s now in Berkeley, with previous digs in San Francisco and Oakland.) 

How about the Bay Citizen? “Bay Citizen?” he said quizzically. No idea what that might be. 

How about Berkeleyside.com? “Something about Berkeley, right?” He doesn’t have much interest in Berkeley stories (even though recently he did run across the mayor of Berkeley accompanying his wife to a Richmond Chamber of Commerce crab feed.) 

He gets most of his news from the Bay Area News Group, notably its West County Times/Contra Costa Times outlets, like his parents before him when the CoCo Times was locally owned. Sometimes he hears about specific stories in RichmondConfidential.com and looks them up online. 

And then there was this voicemail message from a longtime Berkeley acquaintance: 

“What do you know about the merger between the Warren Hellman groups that I read about in the Chronicle? It sounds like they have a lot of money, but I wonder what kind of politics they have. One of them had “Berkeley” in the name—have you heard of them?” 

She said she’d just been reading the Planet before she called, and seen the press release about the merger that we posted. She’d also seen the deal mentioned in the Chronicle, but couldn’t sort out what was happening. Unlike many, she’s still a Chron subscriber, though she decries the lack of local news in it. 

Another alternative for people like her is the Berkeley Voice, which is dropped free on Hills doorsteps. It’s one of the multiple weekly manifestations of BANG reporting. These localized weeklies often rerun the same copy which can be found in the CoCo Times, the Oakland Times, the San Jose Mercury and many more. Some kind of downsizing is going on there, though I’m not up on the current details. 

The real question, it seems to me, is who needs news, anyway? And is what they want “news”, or just “media”? 

What’s the media mediating these days, if it’s not the news? 

Well, there’s a lot of entertainment being passed off via various media as news, at all levels. A modicum of actual reported news produced by real reporters is endlessly recirculated and re-packaged, a process called “aggregation” if stories are reproduced verbatim. The practice of embedding a few news stories in a mass of fluff is especially bad in online publications, with Huffington Post the worst example. 

So who’s got news, real old-fashioned news news? 

RichmondConfidential.org , which describes itself as an “online news service”, has news, for one. Currently online: a riveting report of courtroom dialogue in the racial discrimination lawsuit filed by African-American police officers against Richmond's popular new (and gay) chief. 

And why is this? Because they’ve got reporters, at least 15 of them, along with editors and other useful personnel. How can they pay for all this talent? They’re students, working free or cheap, that’s how. And they have grants, too, as well as professional teachers, courtesy of the UC Berkeley Journalism School. But they’re inexperienced and from out of town, and their work suffers as a result. One of them interviewed my Richmond friend once, and he described her as clueless. 

Which brings us to the central question: who pays for reporting? 

Money, honey, was behind Warren Hellman’s gallant attempt to close the news gap by giving $5 million to start Bay Citizen. For those of you who still don’t know about it, Bay Citizen is an online attempt to replace the function of daily print newspapers, now disappearing in droves because advertisers no longer want to pick up the tab for publishing on paper. From its site: “The Bay Citizen delivers daily on its mission to enhance civic and community news coverage in the Bay Area, foster civic engagement and stimulate innovation in journalism.” 

Even though Hellman's friends and other funders kicked in another $12 million, however, no one much seems to be reading the Bay Citizen. In truth, as compared even to the Chronicle, it simply doesn’t deliver much news—seemingly no more than a couple of stories a day, and only some of those hard news. It has done some good stories, but those (and this is also true of the Chronicle) are more like magazine stories than like the hot hard news which used to be a staple of the daily press. 

Which leaves the last media category which my flack friend included in her wet dream: the one that is sometimes called “hyperlocal”. Such web-based publications often use blog software and blog-like formats, even when they bristle at being called blogs. Reader comments are a big part of the package. 

The better ones like Berkeleyside.com are locally produced with home-based talent. Some are non-profit, but the for-profit ones like Berkeleyside solicit local ads. Hope springs eternal—but clearly these ads are not numerous enough to pay many bills, even though costs are much lower than those for print publications. 

The Patch chain, owned by AOL like the Huffington Post, supplies a hyperlocal template into which solo local editors can paste ultra-hyperlocal stories. Classic “Breaking News Alert” example from a recent El Cerrito Patch: El Cerrito Police Dog, King, Dies From Sudden Illness.  

The difficulty, really, is that the best feature of hyperlocal sites, is just that: they cover the small stuff. For residents of small towns like El Cerrito or bedroom suburbs like Berkeley, this kind of news is comfort food. Merging hyperlocals with regional sites like Bay Citizen or those with statewide and national aspirations like the Center for Investigative Reporting would destroy the brand, unless the bonding were simply corporate, a la the Patch-HuffPo affliliation. 

Here’s the rest of the text of the publicist’s Berkeley Blog's take on the BayCit-CIR merger: 

“The force behind this merger seems to be Warren Hellman, now deceased, but while alive, a philanthropic founder and ongoing supporter of The Bay Citizen and a close friend of [CIR board chair Phil] Bronstein. It seems to me these nonprofits can leverage the combined talents of their journalists, photographers, web architects, operators, and funders to become the dominant media provider for citizens in the San Francisco Bay Area, if not for all northern Californians. I'd like to see Berkeleyside.com joining the mix as a feeder for local news from one of the greatest university towns in the world. Berkeley is also a global leader in initiating social, political, economic, agronomic, educational, and other memes that are well covered by the savvy editorial triumvirate at Berkeleyside.com (consisting of two Brits and one Hellman dynasty offspring).  

Seeing the dead hand of Warren Hellman reaching from the grave to control Northern California media, even extending into Berkeley, might appear to be a bit of a stretch, though he did seem to have had an interest in all three organizations. It is, however, noteworthy that the press release announcing the merger listed the San Francisco Foundation’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications as the contact person. Hellman, once chair of the Foundation’s board, was widely believed to be the dominant force in that organization as he was in many others. Maybe she’s on to something here. 

A similar but more cynical take on the situation came from commenter Clifford Barney on the Bay Citizen’s site after the potential merger was announced: [formatting sic] 

from peter lewis's story on the naming of an interim ceo for the baycit:  

“According to 2010 tax documents, The Bay Citizen had $11.4 million in revenue in 2010, primarily from private donations and foundation grants. The company reported $3.6 million in expenses in 2010, including $456,918 in salary, bonuses and other compensation for Frazier, and $261,330 in salary and other compensation for Jonathan Weber, the founding editor-in-chief of the news operation.” 

Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/15zCc

"According to tax documents, CIR in 2010 reported total revenue of $2.4 million, down from $4.2 million a year earlier, while total expenses rose to $4.6 million, compared to just under $2 million for 2009. Tax records indicate that CIR paid its executive director, Robert Rosenthal, $203,750 in 2010." 

Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/15zCc

so despite paying 20 percent of its income to just two people, the baycit finished 2010 substantially in the black. cir spent twice as much as it brought in. 

phil bronstein knows where to save nearly two million in expenses and salaries; how wonderful for cir. will cir also take over whatever cash the baycit has left? because it looks as though this "merger" resembles, as a.j. liebling would have it, the way the shark merges with its prey. 

Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/15AQr)” 

Tacking on one or more hyperlocals wouldn’t do much for the principals if this is the real deal, would it? I haven’t factchecked Barney’s scenario, so he might be right, but he might not. 

Another rampant rumor is that the latest Bay Citizen editor-in-chief, Steve Fainaru, a real reporter with street cred, quit in disgust because of Phil Bronstein’s proposed role as the paid chair of the merged entity. I haven’t been able to check that one either, since Fainaru wisely hasn’t answered my emails or returned my calls. Bronstein’s stints first at the old Chronicle and then at the Hearst Examiner which expropriated it were not well received by working newsies. 

As in many such situations, we’ll have to leave this one in the “Time Will Tell” column. The time, in this case, is the 30 day window that the two non-profits have given themselves to cement the merger. 

If it’s consummated, it might just become the proverbial tree falling in the forest. If it goes down, will anyone be listening? Time, indeed, will tell.