Earlier this month, two Bay Area news organizations decided to become one. The country’s oldest non-profit investigative outfit, the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, announced a merger with the Bay Citizen, also a non-profit, and a relative newcomer to the industry, based in downtown San Francisco.
It’s a potentially awkward marriage of organizations born in different eras and founded on different reporting styles and values.
The Citizen, formed in 2009 on the back of a $5 million grant to produce progressive journalism, is a fast-paced local news machine with an eye toward new media.
CIR, on the other hand, is a 35-year-old pillar of journalistic tradition with stories that address global initiatives. In recent years, it’s become largely synonymous with its initiative California Watch, the state’s largest investigative unit, which engages in long-term projects syndicated to newspapers around the state.
During a time when newspapers are struggling to repurpose and rebrand themselves as media companies fluent in the ways of the digerati, it’s surprising to see a promising and well-funded media upstart such as the Citizen lean back on an elder for support. Or is it?
In a sense, the Citizen is following the natural path of a Silicon Valley start-up that raises a bunch of money fast, draws attention to itself, and is acquired by an established company. Being bought out by a larger firm may be the goal of most tech start-ups, but for a news organization? Not so much.
Contrast the Citizen’s situation with the successful trajectory of California Watch and the prospects of growing a new news enterprise appear more plausible. California Watch’s tack of blending investigations with multimedia, and producing fewer — but, ultimately, stronger — pieces that are filtered through established news distributors represents “a statewide news agency re-imagined for this century,” says media analyst Ken Doctor.
If you look closely, you’ll see more of these regional, non-profit, investigation-driven initiatives cropping up around the country: Public Source, serving Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, began in November. And Investigative Post, set to launch tomorrow, pledges to pick up the cause in Western New York.
Is this the birth of a new industry standard? Or just another experiment that will be forgotten when the next enterprising group tries to shake up the system?
We’ll be watching the Citizen/CIR merger closely to see what — if any — implications it has for the future of news media. Will you?