By Robert B. Gunnison
Special to Calbuzz
On May 26, 2010, Warren Hellman, the banjo-picking San Francisco financier-philanthropist, mounted the stage at the Great American Music Hall to announce with a song his newest venture – an ambitious news website to serve the Bay Area. Warbled Hellman:
Bay Citizen, Bay Citizen you kick off tonight
I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful delight.
Bay Citizen, Bay Citizen, the future sure looks bright.
That bright future, however, dimmed quickly. A year and a half later, Hellman was dead at age 77, and the board of the Bay Citizen, whose members were handpicked by Hellman, quickly decided to hand control to the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
Now, three years later, the vision of the Bay Citizen is gone, its staff enveloped by the growing empire of the CIR, one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit news organizations, and its mission of providing local daily news coverage vanished. Along the way, CIR also has shuttered California Watch, which it started in January 2010 with foundation support to specialize in coverage of California news and issues.
There’s no doubt that CIR has produced some excellent journalism.* Stories by Aaron Glantz – a Bay Citizen alum — about the inexcusable treatment of veterans by the federal government have won national attention, while Ryan Gabrielson’s series about California’s failure to protect patients in homes for the developmentally disabled was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize this year.
But Californians interested in how their state and local governments function on a daily basis have paid a price for these “mergers.” Independent and diverse voices have been lost and community ties eroded, mirroring what has happened amid the decline of newspapers and other traditional media that these online innovations were designed to replace.
A wrong-turn investment: When CIR completed the Bay Citizen deal in 2012, it pocketed about $5 million of Bay Citizen donations, much of which came from Hellman’s family foundation and his backers.
For some of Hellman’s friends and supporters, this is not the way they imagined his vision being fulfilled.
“When Warren got sick, everything changed. Warren was the single unifying factor – and our belief in him,” Dede Wilsey, a philanthropist, art collector and Hellman friend and business partner, who pledged $1 million to the Bay Citizen and had a seat on the board.
“I don’t think that he ever saw that this investment was ever going to take this turn,” Wilsey told Calbuzz.
“I don’t think Warren’s vision has survived,” said Jim Schachter, formerly an editor with The New York Times, which published Bay Citizen stories for distribution in Northern California two days a week. “CIR had no interest in continuing a relationship with The New York Times.”
Added Lisa Frazier, ex-CEO of The Bay Citizen: “Warren loved the Bay Area and that is why he gave so much to the region. The Bay Citizen was a wonderful gift to the residents of the Bay alongside his many other gifts to the region.”
But Mick Hellman, Warren’s son, who helped broker the merger, has a different take, saying “I really admire what these guys have done to make this whole thing viable.”
The Phil and Rosie show: “These guys” are Phil Bronstein, former editor of the San Francisco Examiner and The Chronicle, and now chairman of the board of CIR and Robert Rosenthal, managing editor of the Chronicle until 2008. (Full disclosure: Gunnison was a Sacramento-based Chronicle reporter until 1999 when he became director of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, whose dean had a seat on the Bay Citizen board, and Calbuzz co-founder Jerry Roberts previously worked for Bronstein at the Chronicle after Hearst bought it in 2000).
“Phil has adjusted the CIR mandate to include what the Bay Citizen was intended to be,” Mick Hellman said. “The absence of investigative reporting leads to all sorts of ills.”
Said Bronstein of Warren Hellman: “I think he would have been proud of the work that has been done.”
Perhaps. There is no doubt that much of the local daily news coverage that was provided by Bay Citizen has vanished, at least as produced by CIR. Not since April 29 has the Bay Citizen’s remnant site posted a story, a report by Zusha Elinson about the reluctance of Bay Area prosecutors to press charges against drivers who kill pedestrians.
The CIR website, meantime, as of a few days ago featured stories about struggling farmers in India and the worst charities in the United States. The only story with a California angle focused on how the growing demand in China for California dairy products might damage the state’s environment.
Before creating the Bay Citizen, Warren Hellman had talked to CIR about making a substantial gift, but he shifted his focus in 2009 when the Hearst operation was threatening to shut the Chronicle during labor negotiations.
The paper was losing at least $1 million a week and that year it suffered the biggest six-month percentage drop in weekday circulation of any major American newspaper, to 252,000. This year it is 218,000. In 1987, The Chronicle had circulation of more than 600,000.
The unions eventually settled and the threat subsided, but the episode led Hellman to explore possibilities for an alternative news source in the Bay Area.
The bluegrass anti-banker: Born to wealth in New York, Hellman accumulated a considerable fortune through his investment firms, but in many ways he was an anti-banker. Informal in dress and spirit, he paid for an annual three-day music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, in Golden Gate Park. He was an avid skier and long-distance runner and horse enthusiast.
He wrangled friends to help him create the Bay Citizen, intended to be a local online news source with selected stories to be printed in The Times on Fridays and Sundays.
Like many start-ups, The Bay Citizen had a bumpy launch. Its promise to cover the entire Bay Area was always a stretch; San Jose might as well have been Swaziland. It did many things well, however. For starters, BART commuters who now ride on plastic seats instead of germ-infested fabric can thank the Bay Citizen for a story that moved the transit agency into action.
In the months before Hellman died, however, editor Jonathan Weber, managing editor Steve Fainaru and CEO Frazier all departed or announced their departure. For the board, most of whose members had no journalism experience, the prospect of filling the three top slots, combined with the death of Hellman, made them look for a way out of the Bay Citizen.
The driving force for the deal with CIR was board chairman Jeffrey Ubben, who pledged $2 million to CIR to sweeten the deal.
“Warren Hellman founded The Bay Citizen because he believed that quality reporting could foster civic engagement. This merger will allow his vision to thrive, creating a more sustainable public service news organization in one of the most diverse and dynamic areas in the country,” said Ubben said at the time.
‘Transcending geography,’ harrumph, harrumph: But to some Bay Citizen staffers, it quickly became clear fix was in: All the key positions were held by CIR. On May 20, its death was announced. The official cause was lack of reach and money.
“Over the past year, we have found that more of our stories transcend geography,” CIR’s Rosenthal said in his announcement. “There also are purely practical reasons for consolidating under one name – namely, saving staff time and money. We spend countless hours managing three websites and 12 social media accounts and publishing our stories with different branding depending on the partner outlet. As a nonprofit organization, resource allocation matters.”
The new organization, however, is not exactly what Dede Wilsey had in mind for allocating her resources. She said she intends to pay all her pledged $1 million in coming years, but wishes someone would let her off the hook for the remainder. “ I’m not crying…it’s just a chance you take,” she said. “I’m sorry this money got diverted.”
Robert B. Gunnison, the only journalist in America whose byline is a complete sentence in Ebonics, worked as a reporter, editor and manager of the Sacramento bureau for United Press International from 1974 until 1985, when he became a capitol reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He left the paper in 1999 and became Director of School Affairs for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, a post from which he retired this spring. This is his first piece for Calbuzz.
*Editor’s note: Calbuzz has also not hesitated to point out CIR’s shortcomings as we did here.