Journalism experts assess Bay Citizen deal

Feb. 17, 2012, 2:08 a.m.

Despite minor concerns as The Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) explore the possibility of a merger, editorial staff at The Bay Citizen said they are optimistic about how the merger might affect the Peninsula’s media ecosystem. Stanford and Berkeley-based journalism experts agreed, arguing that the larger size of The Bay Citizen-CIR organization will lead to better news coverage.


According to Jeanne Carstensen, executive managing editor of The Bay Citizen, the merger is not yet finalized. The boards of The Bay Citizen and CIR both have 30 days, ending on March 8, to review the proposal and decide whether or not to move forward.


“The staff is excited about being a part of a larger newsroom and anxious–as any staff would be–about the merger,” Carstensen said.


The Bay Citizen is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, which focuses on local news stories that may not get picked up by larger media outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle. CIR, which calls itself the “nation’s oldest nonprofit investigative reporting organization,” has a much broader focus.


“The concern when two organizations become one is that the mission of one organization can get swallowed up by the other,” said Ann Grimes, director of the Stanford Graduate Program in Journalism.


Carstensen agreed, stating there are differences between the two organizations’ mission statements that still need to be reconciled. She said that the rules for mergers in the state allow California Attorney General Kamala Harris to step in if she feels that the two group’s mission statements are too different.


Another major issue Carstensen said needs to be resolved is the fact that The Bay Citizen staff is part of a local newsroom union while the CIR staff is nonunionized.


It is also unclear how the possible merger would affect The Bay Citizen’s agreement with The New York Times. Currently, The Times runs pieces by the Bay Citizen twice a week in its San Francisco edition. According to Carstensen, The Bay Citizen does not yet know whether the merger would affect this relationship.


Stanford and Berkeley-based journalism experts said the merger represents a transformation in the way Bay Area news agencies deliver information.


While newspapers across the Bay Area have been making cuts in their budgets and consequently losing staff and news coverage, small online local news organizations have sprung up to account for the vacuum in coverage of smaller stories, they said.


“We’ve seen a lot of the start up of a lot of news sites based on covering solely local communities or certain types of areas,” said Frances Dinkelspiel ‘81, a producer and founder of Berkeleyside, an independently owned local news website that focuses its coverage on the city of Berkeley.


“That is why [hyperlocal media] were created, when there was such a cutback in local coverage in newspapers,” said Grimes, who is the faculty advisor to the Peninsula Press, an online news organization run by the University journalism program that features stories from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.


Both Berkelyside and the Peninsula Press are similar to The Bay Citizen in that that they concentrate their coverage on local news.


“I think the question is: If the merger occurs, will that new organization continue to report on local news?” Dinkelspiel said.


Both Dinkelspiel and Grimes said they are not looking to expand their respective news organizations because they have established a niche market.


“We are local,” Grimes said.


“We have a certain tone and character on our site because of where it is, and it would be hard to replicate that somewhere else,” Dinkelspiel added.


However, while the small size of these independent news organizations allows them to cover extremely specific subject areas, it also makes it difficult for them to pay journalists well.


“It’s become a lot more difficult to make a living as a freelancer because these online businesses do not pay very well,” Dinkelspiel added.


According to both Grimes and Dinkelspiel, the larger organization created by a merger between The Bay Citizen and CIR could lead to fuller coverage of local Bay Area issues.


Carstensen agreed, saying that the merger between the two organizations would result in a net gain for The Bay Citizen, CIR and the people of the Bay Area.


“I hope it will make for a more robust Bay Citizen and that The Bay Citizen will be able to deliver even more enterprise and accountability journalism to our readers,” Carstensen said.

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