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The Muckraker

CIR Staff | Update | February 7, 2012

Center for Investigative Reporting, The Bay Citizen announce a joint memorandum of understanding to pursue merger

 

Related coverage

BERKELEY, CA and SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012 – The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Bay Area News Project (BANP), which operates The Bay Citizen, announced today that they have entered into a memorandum of understanding to pursue a potential merger. The agreement was unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both nonprofit organizations.

The conceived merger will bring together The Bay Citizen, an award-winning nonprofit news organization focused on covering the San Francisco and Bay Area, and CIR, the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative news organization, which operates California Watch. The merger will create a more sustainable foundation for their shared missions: to provide high-quality journalism that is essential to an informed and engaged democracy. The proposed merger will bring together the collective expertise, reputations, and innovative talents of both organizations.

A transition team comprised of members of both organizations will conduct a thoughtful, thorough review process and will make recommendations about integration, which will be subject to approval by both boards.

The combined organization will have a board of directors that will include an equal number of voting members from both of the current Boards. Phil Bronstein, current President of the CIR Board, will serve as the Executive Chair of the merged organization and Robert J. Rosenthal, Executive Director of CIR, will be the Executive Director of the merged entity.

Rosenthal will be in charge of editorial and overall strategies and will be responsible for its day-to-day operations. Bronstein also will focus on overall strategy, as well as audience engagement, board functions, fundraising and overseeing a variety of approaches to support the nonprofit.

Together, Bronstein and Rosenthal will work with the Board and the merged organization to assure that it is at the forefront of creating unique, high-quality accountability journalism on multiple platforms. A crucial focus of the strategy will be to engage the Bay Area community in the organization’s new form of accountability journalism.

"This is an opportunity to take accountability journalism to an even higher level," said Rosenthal. “We will now be able to combine all the strengths of CIR and The Bay Citizen and have an outstanding team of journalists focused on the Bay Area. With California Watch, CIR does stories that have made a difference in the lives of people throughout California. We bring CIR stories to national and international audiences. The Bay Citizen has brought voice to local politics, community issues, and Bay Area news in an innovative manner. We will now be able to bring our combined strategies for engagement and accountability journalism to a region of the country that can best embrace it. Because it's the Bay Area, stories we do here will be of interest to audiences across the country and around the world.”

The Bay Citizen is a nonprofit, nonpartisan member-supported news organization that provides in-depth original reporting on Bay Area issues including public policy, education, the arts and cultural affairs, health and science, the environment, and more, online at baycitizen.org as well as in print in The New York Times Bay Area report on Fridays and Sundays.

Phil Bronstein, said, “I've been a journalist in the Bay Area my entire adult life and have deep roots and affection for the extraordinary and unique culture here. There is more innovation, activism, and civic involvement in this region than anywhere in the country. This is the basis for engaging people where we all live. With our unified nonprofit model, we can bring together combined talent, technology, investigative power and creative skills to serve the public in dynamic ways.”

Jeffrey Ubben, Chair of the Board of The Bay Citizen, expressed his support for the new entity. “The Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting are each stellar news organizations. We look forward to working out the details and joining forces. Together, we will draw on the vision and talents of each of our high-caliber staffs, and ultimately become stronger and more effective than the sum of our parts. This merger bodes well for an informed and engaged Bay Area.”

Brian Kelley, Interim CEO of The Bay Citizen, acknowledged the recent transitions in leadership preceding this announcement. “The Bay Citizen was the vision of the late civic leader, Warren Hellman. He appointed Lisa Frazier, who in less than three years catapulted the organization from an idea to an award-winning news force. This new direction builds on the creative and generous initiative of Mr. Hellman and the excellent execution by Ms. Frazier.”

“The Bay Citizen was started as an experiment in journalism,” said Susan Hirsch, a founding member of The Bay Citizen’s Board of Directors and the philanthropic advisor to the late Warren Hellman. “My earliest discussion with Warren centered on the need to find innovative and creative ways to investigate and report the news. We believe the future of the free press is to be found in collaboration and cooperation between news outlets with differing strengths and this belief has led us to discussions with the Center for Investigative Reporting. From the beginning, The Bay Citizen has been committed to high quality journalism, progressive use of technology, and a strong business model. This potential merger is another step on that path.”

The transition team plans to spend approximately 30 days working out the details of the merged entity, including staffing, board membership, and location(s). The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions, including notifying the California Attorney General.

# # #

About the Center for Investigative Reporting

Founded in 1977, the Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative news organization, producing unique, high-quality reporting that has impact and is relevant to people's lives. CIR’s newest venture, California Watch, is the largest investigative team in the state. The organization’s stories appear in hundreds of news outlets including NPR News, PBS Frontline, PBS NEWSHOUR, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, The Daily Beast, MinnPost and American Public Media’s Marketplace. CIR stories have received numerous journalism awards including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, George Polk Award, Emmy Award, and Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. Its reports have sparked state and federal hearings and legislation, United Nations resolutions, public interest lawsuits and changes in corporate policies. For more information, please visit www.centerforinvestigativereporting.org and www.californiawatch.org.

About The Bay Citizen

The Bay Citizen is a nonprofit, nonpartisan member-supported news organization that provides in-depth original reporting on Bay Area issues including public policy, education, the arts and cultural affairs, health and science, the environment, and more. The Bay Citizen's news can be found online at www.baycitizen.org as well as in print in The New York Times Bay Area report on Fridays and Sundays. For more information, please visit www.baycitizen.org.

Contact:
Sara Ying Rounsaville
415.733.8588, syk@sff.org

 

Mark Katches | Update: California Watch | January 10, 2012

Media partners pool resources to fund bullet train trip

When Fresno Bee business reporter Tim Sheehan boarded a plane for Spain in November, his trip signaled a new chapter of collaboration for a growing group of California news organizations.

Sheehan spent eight days abroad, gathering string for a package of stories about Spain's 20-year-old bullet trains. Of all the high-speed rail lines in the world, experts say the Spanish system has the most in common with the one California officials envision. Sheehan wanted to find out what lessons we can learn from Spain's experience.

The reporting trip cost about $4,000. At a mid-sized regional newspaper like The Fresno Bee, that type of price tag might have put an international trip out of reach – especially in this economy. But The Bee wasn’t going it alone.

Twelve news outlets across the state pooled resources to fund the trip – most pitching in about $400. (The smallest organizations with less than 40,000 circulation chipped in half that amount.) Joining The Fresno Bee and California Watch were The Bakersfield Californian, The Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune), The Orange County Register, The Modesto Bee, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, KQED Public RadioThe Tribune of San Luis Obispo and the Merced Sun-Star

All of these partners will publish or broadcast Sheehan’s stories starting Jan. 15. California Watch, which is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, produced a video with footage taken by Sheehan. We also created graphics for the group.

The trip was a major step forward in a growing collaborative effort by California news organizations to cover high-speed rail in a way that makes good business sense.

Three or four years ago, a collaboration such as this probably wouldn’t have happened – in large part because newsrooms had enough resources to do what they wanted. Those days are a thing of the past.

In the new media ecosystem, more pragmatic news leaders increasingly are looking for ways to maximize the talents of smaller staffs. And that means forming partnerships to accomplish objectives that might otherwise be out of reach.

No single news outlet from our group likely would have sent a reporter to Spain if we hadn’t joined forces. But when you divide by 12, it doesn’t look so daunting.

What makes the Spain collaboration even more unique is that the news organizations got involved in the early planning process and then trusted a small team from two newsrooms to execute. The Bee produced the text stories, photos and video. California Watch produced the multimedia and graphics and split the editing duties with Fresno. There was no meddling or micromanaging from other partners.

How did we get to this point?

The seeds for the high-speed rail collaboration were planted a year ago, when we launched the new California Watch Media Network. Members of the network subscribe to a set number of stories produced by the state’s largest investigative reporting team. Members also get our story lists so they know what we have in the works. The first members of the network included The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian and the San Francisco Chronicle.

But when we created the network, we hoped it would be much more than just a way to get our stories into news outlets across the state. We envisioned it as a way to bring newsrooms together to collaborate.

Fresno Bee Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye wondered if high-speed rail would be a project best tackled by the larger network. The Central Valley is ground zero for the nearly $100 billion rail project, which would connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours on trains traveling up to 200 mph. Construction is supposed to start later this year on the first leg between Fresno and Bakersfield. Such an endeavor, if it actually occurs, would be the biggest undertaking here since construction started on the California Aqueduct nearly 50 years ago.

With an idea to rally behind, editors and reporters from about a half-dozen news outlets began jumping on conference calls and finding ways to share tips, ideas and finished stories about the planned rail system. It was a little bumpy at first. But we’ve doubled the number of participating newsrooms.

The news organizations in our rail group still work independently, unleashing their own reporters to find scoops and break news about the nation’s largest public works project. But we’re sharing those scoops and trying to limit duplication of routine daily news stories. We’ve also teamed up some reporters with complementary skills to tackle stories together. And we’ve found opportunities, such as the trip to Spain, to coordinate and plan story packages in a way that makes sense for all of us.

The result has been broader coverage than any one of us could probably produce on the topic. Our group has shared 38 stories since late May – written by 12 different reporters.

"I look back at the state of high-speed rail coverage in California a year ago, and I'm amazed and proud of what we as a network have accomplished since then,” Lumbye said. “The issue has gotten the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to all our efforts. None of our organizations could have done so much to raise the public awareness of this so quickly and so effectively on our own."

The idea of an international trip was first raised last summer. The group had been covering rail developments from every angle in California. But we hadn’t really done much to compare the planned California system with existing services abroad. If California is going to learn about high-speed rail’s challenges and possibilities, Spain's system might offer the most relevant lessons. Like California’s planned system, it connects major urban centers and cuts through verdant farmland. The system has completely transformed the travel patterns in Spain, as Sheehan’s stories will highlight.

The first paper to commit to helping fund the trip was The Bakersfield Californian.

Within 10 days, we had 12 partners agreeing to write a check.

"We thought this would be a worthwhile expense because the project was designed from the start to get behind the headlines and provide a real-world look at a bullet train system that operates in an environment that has many similarities to California," said Bakersfield Californian Executive Editor John Arthur.

It made sense that Sheehan would be the reporter to represent our group. He has covered high-speed rail since 2010 for The Fresno Bee. He also has photography and multimedia experience, which would help bring more depth to his reporting and allow the group to keep costs down by sending just one reporter instead of a reporter and a photographer.

Knowing that Sheehan had to produce work that satisfied a dozen newsrooms added a fair bit of pressure. But he was up to the task.

“I wasn’t so much in fear of screwing this up, but it was always at the back of my mind that these stories would be for a much bigger audience than just Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley,” Sheehan said. “Writing so much over the last year and a half on California’s plans helped me approach this from a broader perspective, both in my advance research and my interviews on the ground.

“One big thing I wanted to accomplish is giving readers a sense of what it’s like aboard the trains, to let people know what all the fuss is about,” Sheehan added.

Sheehan’s stories are free to the participating members, of course. But news organizations that are not part of the collaborative can buy the package. Proceeds will be split among our network members. Meghann Farnsworth, our distribution manager, is handling the content sales.

"The idea of other news organizations helping pay for our reporter's trip to Spain would have been unfathomable before California Watch put this together,” Fresno editor Lumbye said. “A lot of walls have come down. But it's about more than the overseas trip, although that's a very big deal. It's also the way we editors have made a routine of talking about what our newsrooms are working on, offering our work to each other and letting one take the point on one story while another works on something else. It's a terrific mix of generosity and practicality, and the people of California are the winners." 

Later this month, the top editors from all our network news organizations will gather at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Berkeley offices to discuss more ways we can help each other and serve our audiences. We hope our rail collaboration will endure. If the system goes forward, it will generate an endless supply of stories. But sharing rail stories may be just the first step of larger collaborative efforts to better serve readers, viewers and listeners across the state.

 

Robert Rosenthal | Update | December 12, 2011

In a sea of news aggregators, CIR creates hard-hitting work

In an age of aggregators, the Center for Investigative Reporting is a multimedia content creator. We invest our resources in covering underreported stories that traditional media can no longer afford to pursue.

While newspapers have continued to shrink, CIR’s staff has more than quadrupled since 2008, from seven to 32 people. Our highly skilled journalists have expertise that is increasingly rare in budget-strapped newsrooms. They cultivate deep sources, find hidden documents, make sense of complicated issues and develop this information into compelling stories delivered to the outlets you rely on for news.

Our data and digital teams plumb this research and create sophisticated data visualizations, interactive maps and tools that help you understand issues from the macro to the micro level. Our radio, video and digital producers work with our reporters to create engaging documentaries, web videos and even animations that demystify complex topics. Our distribution staff places the work and promotes it across hundreds of outlets. Our community engagement and social media team then works to actively engage the public and make sure our reporting gets to those most affected by it.

In today’s media landscape, much of what passes for “news” is in fact commentary, opinion or even invective. Many news organizations no longer report; they merely repost. CIR is different. We arm the public with thoroughly reported facts and with deep explanations of complex issues from the environment to immigration, government accountability, education, health, campaign finance and more — locally, nationally and internationally.

Rather than covering daily news, CIR reports on the larger systems, power dynamics and forces that shape our world. Our reporting enables people to demand accountability from government, corporations and others in power.

Our California Lost series explores communities that are neglected, disenfranchised, and lacking government services and protections. Recent reports have looked at worker housing conditions in the trailer parks of the Eastern Coachella Valley and environmental pollution in the Southern California town of Maywood. These stories don’t just examine one issue; they look at many of the factors affecting people in these communities and follow them back to the numerous parties responsible, from mobile home park owners to county transportation and land management agencies to California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control to a Utah-based soil recycling company that leases land from the Cabazon Band of
Mission Indians.

CIR is committed to “story before glory:” Rather than compete with other news organizations, we bring media partners together to collaborate on big stories. We partnered with NPR for our investigation into intelligence gathering 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. In California, we are leading a collaboration of 12 media outlets to report on a proposed $98 billion high-speed rail system, which would be the most expensive public works project in the state’s history. These partnerships exponentially increase the reporting capacity, audience reach and potential impact of our reporting. Together, we are accomplishing goals that none of us could alone.

Now there’s something to tweet about.

Support Center for Investigative Reporting

Robert Rosenthal | Update | December 12, 2011

Beyond the Story: Impact

Since 1977, CIR has been on the forefront of nonprofit investigative reporting, telling thousands of stories on all platforms and through prominent outlets, reaching millions.

Over the years, these stories have sparked federal legislation, policy at all levels of government, United Nations resolutions, public interest lawsuits and changes in corporate practices.

Here are a few examples from the past year:

A Senate committee launches a probe after a CIR investigation found that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has done little to improve the nation’s intelligence data.

A police chief resigns amid an FBI investigation and murderers are convicted following dogged reporting by The Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaboration of dozens of news organizations, including CIR, into the murder of Oakland Post editor Bailey by a corrupt group about which he was reporting.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs two new bills following California Watch stories. One prevents unfair seizures of vehicles from immigrants, and the other removes lead-tainted products — many marketed to children — from store shelves.

A grand jury is convened following reporting by Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., that identified a leading suspect in the unsolved 1964 murder of Frank Morris. Nelson is part of The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a collaboration of award-winning journalists, documentary filmmakers, civil rights attorneys, universities and others working together to seek truth; create conditions for justice; and foster reconciliation connected with hundreds of unsolved, racially motivated murders from the Civil Rights era.

Bureaucratic shakeup, rule changes and two separate internal investigations at the California state architect’s office, plus the release of $200 million in bond funds for seismic safety of K-12 schools, follow a California Watch investigation that revealed the failure to fully enforce the state’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools.

The U.S. State Department requests copies of “The Price of Sex,” the documentary film about international sex trafficking, to use for training at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and in embassies around the world.

New laws and penalties are put in place for nursing homes after California Watch revealed that hundreds of homes took money from a taxpayer fund intended to hire staff and boost wages in the name of quality care, but actually cut staff and reduced wages.

The superintendent of public instruction in California calls for an immediate review of school textbooks and a community group gathers 20,000 signatures in opposition to a curriculum after our environmental reporter discovered that the American Chemistry Council directly provided textbook passages that downplayed the environmental risks of plastic grocery bags.

The state Department of Real Estate launches an investigation after we reported about a Southern California housekeeper who was scammed by an unlicensed mortgage lender. At least one reader was so moved by the housekeeper’s story that he donated money directly to her.

Support Center for Investigative Reporting

Christa Scharfenberg | Update | November 10, 2011

CIR adds technology leadership to its board

We are proud and delighted to announce today that Gabriel Stricker, director of global communications and public affairs at Google, and Joaquin Alvarado, senior vice president for digital innovation at American Public Media, have been elected to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Board of Directors. Stricker and Alvarado bring exceptional experience in strategic communications and technology and a firsthand understanding of how technology is revolutionizing the journalism world.

CIR is the nation’s oldest, independent nonprofit investigative reporting organization. It is at the forefront of the reinvention of journalism and is a leader in the nonprofit investigative reporting field, which is filling the gaps left by the decline of traditional media. 

“Stricker and Alvarado will be invaluable to CIR as we continue to build an innovative digital newsroom and work toward a sustainable future,” said board Chairman Phil Bronstein.

At Google, Stricker addresses everything from web search and other search properties to issues pertaining to partnerships, content, and the use of intellectual property. Stricker refined his expertise in strategic communications through his work in the electoral arena, having played an important role on campaigns for political and governmental clients around the world. Stricker is the author of the bestselling book on guerrilla marketing, “Mao in the Boardroom,” published by St. Martin's Press. 

“I'm thrilled to work with CIR to ensure that high-quality, unique and credible journalism flourishes,” Stricker said. “The progress we make in the coming years will have a hand in transforming journalism’s path in the decades ahead.”

Alvarado oversees the digital portfolio for American Public Media and leads the Public Insight Network, a project that is central to CIR’s public engagement strategy. Previously, Alvarado was senior vice president for diversity and innovation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has spearheaded numerous projects, including CoCo Studios, which promotes media collaboration and information sharing for fiber and mobile networks; the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University; and the National Public Lightpath, which advocates for high-speed fiber-optic networks.

“CIR exemplifies a truly networked newsroom with some of the most talented reporters and producers working today. I am excited and honored to join the board and look forward to doing my part to sustain and grow our impact,” Alvarado said.

Stricker and Alvarado join CIR at a critical time. The organization has undergone a renaissance over the past three years, growing from a staff of seven and budget of $1.7 million to a staff of 32 and budget of nearly $5 million. CIR’s editorial output in that same period has included more than 40 major investigations (most developed for multiple formats and published or broadcast in more than 300 outlets) and more than 1,400 blog entries and Daily Reports. The reporting has had real and lasting impact, leading to new legislation, the closing of legislative loopholes, congressional hearings, changes in corporate governance and significant community engagement. 

CIR Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal said: “We want to be on the forefront of delivering our unique investigative stories to audiences on platforms they are most comfortable with, and to engage them not only in the content of our stories, but also in distribution, information gathering and even the quest for solutions to solve the problems we reveal. Both Gabe and Joaquin can help us attain those goals.”

 

Christa Scharfenberg | Update | October 19, 2011

CIR, California Watch win 2 Society of Professional Journalists awards

 

The Center for Investigative Reporting today received two Excellence in Journalism Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter.

California Watch, the largest investigative team in the state, won for Journalism Innovation, "for deftly combining traditional journalism with new ways to connect to communities."

"The Price of Gas," produced by CIR’s Carrie Ching and Sarah Terry-Cobo and animated by Arthur Jones, won in the Explanatory Journalism category for a multimedia daily. The animated feature explains why a $4 gallon of gasoline in the U.S. may cost more like $15, when the carbon footprint and other “external costs” enter the equation.

In 2010, CIR won two SPJ Northern California Chapter awards: California Watch received Journalist of the Year, and reporter G.W. Schulz won in the Online category for "Homeland Security marked by waste, lack of oversight," his investigation detailing waste of federal homeland security funds.

 

Robert Rosenthal | Update: The Price of Sex | October 17, 2011

Chakarova Wins Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting

 


Image courtesy Mimi Chakarova

On Saturday, Oct. 15, Mimi Chakarova and the Center for Investigative Reporting received a prestigious Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting for "The Price of Sex." Chakarova’s documentary exposes the shadowy world of sex trafficking from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Western Europe. The award, given by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was announced at the seventh Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev, Ukraine. Named in honor of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was slain by militants in Pakistan in 2002, the awards were created to honor cross-border investigative reporting.

Awards judge Ginger Thompson of The New York Times said: “Her attention to detail and dignity in her portrayals of victims and the breathtaking courage she showed during her forays into the criminal underworld should serve as the professional standard to which all investigative reporters aspire.”

“The Price of Sex,” winner of the Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, will have its San Francisco, Calif., premiere Nov. 5, part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay festival. A full list of screenings is here.

 

Christa Scharfenberg | Update | October 4, 2011

CIR, San Francisco Film Society present "Behind the Story: Under Suspicion"

The Center for Investigative Reporting and the San Francisco Film Society present Behind the Story: Under Suspicion, at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Film Society’s new theatrical home, San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema (1746 Post St., San Francisco).

Behind the Story, a new series, gives audiences an insider’s look at CIR investigations. Under Suspicion will look at the stories, interviews, videos and an animation that CIR produced in collaboration with NPR to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. CIR’s G.W. Schulz, Andrew Becker, Carrie Ching, Monica Lam, and Michael Corey will all be on hand to present the many elements of the reporting project.

The joint investigation uncovered that Department of Homeland Security programs such as "If You See Something, Say Something" have resulted in suspicious activity reports about innocent citizens, often without their knowledge. The investigation zeroes in on one location, the Mall of America near Minneapolis, where a large private security operation has questioned thousands of people, often passing their information on to police and even the FBI. Most mall visitors interviewed by CIR and NPR said they were unaware that suspicious activity reports describing their encounters with mall security were shared with local police and could remain in law enforcement files for indefinite periods. The project raises questions about the price Americans have paid for increased security since the terrorist attacks.

Tickets are $9 for SFFS members, $11 general, $10 senior/student/disabled. Tickets are available at sffs.org and in person at San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema.

Christa Scharfenberg | Update | October 4, 2011

'Reinventing Journalism' recounts executive director's trials, tribulations in new journalism business model

Today, we’re releasing “Reinventing Journalism,” Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal’s personal account of joining the Center for Investigative Reporting and launching California Watch. We hope that the report, written at the request of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will help other nonprofit reporting ventures learn from our experience and shed light on where the rapidly changing landscape of journalism, and especially investigative reporting, might be headed.

As he says in the opening paragraph, Robert had no idea what he was getting into when he walked into CIR in 2008. “Reinventing Journalism” is his personal account of finding his way: from his own history as a copyboy and young reporter, to assignments around the world, to being in the ring for the collapse of the traditional media business model, to seizing the opportunity to create a new kind of journalism organization, to his own evolution from journalist to what he calls “salesman/evangelical entrepreneur.”

Robert writes about becoming a fundraiser and its excruciating challenges; describes the launch of California Watch and how the distribution and impact of its first stories exceeded his wildest expectations; and addresses the search for sustainability and looking forward to the future of investigative reporting and the nonprofit model. Lastly, he distills his top 10 lessons learned.

“Reinventing Journalism” is available here online and here as a PDF. Or, through a partnership with Byliner, you can download the eBook from Project Gutenberg. Google’s eBookstore and Apple’s iBooks links to come soon.

We’re also hoping you’ll take a look at our new video about California Watch, produced by superstar intern Ariane Wu.

The enduring ambition of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project

 
This article originally ran in the Fall 2011 edition of Nieman Reports.

Soon after I arrived at the Center for Investigative Reporting in January 2008, I spoke with reporter John Fleming of The Anniston (Ala.) Star. He was looking for help investigating a cold murder case from the civil rights era. Within weeks I learned of other journalists in the South and elsewhere who were working on similar cases. Two of them, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi and Canadian documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, had done acclaimed work that helped bring killers to justice and some small measure of peace to the families of the victims.

In the early spring of 2008 I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to talk about collaboration and the funding of cold case reporting with Mitchell; Ridgen; Fleming; Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly paper in Ferriday, Louisiana; and Aynsley Vogel of the Vancouver-based Paperny Films. Our unifying motivation was storytelling, justice and even reconciliation. I wanted to create a project of an ambitious sweep that would tell the untold stories of killers, victims and their families in ways that would tie together a shameful chapter in American history and link it in powerful arcs to today. What I didn't know going in was how inspired I'd feel by hearing these journalists share fragments from their work that spoke to why telling these stories mattered to them—and should matter to all of us.

Nelson was born in Ferriday and raised in a neighboring parish, across the Mississippi River from Natchez. It is Deep South, as Nelson is Deep South. He delivered serious words in a heavy drawl with a measured resonant cadence. I respected and understood his role as the hard-working editor of a newspaper that was central to his community. We came from different worlds but shared the love of story and a core belief that journalists in our democracy have a responsibility to be a catalyst for justice and accountability.

In 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put out a list of about 100 unsolved civil rights era cold case killings, the oldest dating to 1946. Nelson was stunned to learn that a man named Frank Morris had been burned to death in Ferriday in 1964. "I was 9 years old [when Morris was killed] and I never knew about it," he told me. After the Sentinel published his initial story about the case, people in Ferriday complained to the paper about dredging up the past. Let it lie, they said.

One day Nelson was in his office when a black man he had known for most of his life came to see him. He recounted the visit for us, telling us what he'd been told that day. The man said that his three sisters had drowned on the day before Thanksgiving in 1968. He was told that the girls had been fishing on a local pond when their boat capsized. In telling the story to Nelson, he let him know that it had been a cold rainy day, and his sisters had never been fishing before. Nor did they did know how to swim. All three girls were missing clothing.

Nelson was stunned. Though he had known this man for many years, until that day he did not know that the man had had sisters. "Then the man said, 'Stanley, the killers are still walking among us.' "

As Nelson said this, a chill ran down my spine. His words clearly affected the others, too. By the time we left Jackson we had decided to act as a team to go after unsolved killings from decades ago that still reverberate through the South. Our resolve ushered in the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, coordinated by CIR and Paperny Films. But when I started (with the help of others) to raise funds for the project, foundation philanthropy was in retreat along with the global economy. From the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, we secured early organizational funding, and from the Open Society Institute we received funding to help build a website. The project also received developmental funding from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting and public television station WNET.

The potential collaboration we sought would have included WNET, NPR, the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University, MediaStorm, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, as well as Howard University and other historically black colleges. We wanted a well-coordinated, multiplatform, long-term investigative project to tackle the FBI's known cold cases and discover others. To direct our efforts, Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and coauthor of "The Race Beat," came on as managing editor.

We had reporters and cases along with the will and skill to do something special. What we still don't have is the funding for us to act on our ambition. A smaller, more limited version of the project survives. With the help of Klibanoff and others, including the Syracuse University project, Nelson has kept on the Morris case, as the other team members pursue cases when time and resources permit. CIR helps financially when it can, but the project's outlays have not come close to compensating reporters for the time they've spent digging into these cases. In four years Nelson has written more than 150 stories about the Morris case; it's my belief that his work has been a catalyst for the convening of a grand jury in Concordia Parish. Its work on the case is unfinished.

Frustration surfaces when I encounter an absence of interest from potential funders. Perhaps to them these cases happened then and lack relevance to their stated goals today. Then there is the issue of the time I can devote to this effort since my role in building and sustaining CIR is a relentless challenge. Yet the editor and reporter in me appreciate the value these stories hold and recognize the time to investigate them is closing. Knowledge of the past is crucial, yet family survivors are aging, memories are fading, and witnesses and suspects are dying. In many of these cold cases, FBI files have not been made public and their information would doubtless bring us closer to the truth of what happened.

Nelson's work speaks for itself. With a newsroom staff of three, his weekly community newspaper reaches 5,000 readers. This spring his stories about the Morris case made him a Pulitzer finalist. His reporting is a beacon of what's possible. As Klibanoff reminds us: "Every unsolved Southern civil rights era murder that has been opened or reopened and prosecuted or reprosecuted in the last 20 years has been because of a journalist."

And Nelson has not forgotten the man's three sisters.