I’m not sure I would have become the executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in January 2008 if I had really understood the challenges ahead of me and had thought them out carefully; I had no idea what I was getting into.

Reinventing Journalism

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal’s unexpected personal journey from journalist to publisher

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When CIR approached me, I was 59 and unemployed. For the second time in six years, I had left, or been asked to leave, high-level editing positions at large metropolitan newspapers. Most recently, I had been managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle; before that, I was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nearly 40 years working in newsrooms left me with solid core competencies. I knew a good story, I was passionate and I got great personal reward from enabling talented journalists do what they do best. But many of these skills were not very useful outside a newsroom.

I could also look back, knowing that I had been privileged to be involved with great journalists and important journalism. As a 22-year-old, I was an editorial assistant at The New York Times and was assigned to work on the Pentagon Papers team. At 25, as a reporter at The Boston Globe, I was part of a newspaper-wide effort that won the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service.

I later moved to the Inquirer, where I was a reporter and editor during that newspaper’s golden age. It was a demanding culture in which reporters were encouraged to be ambitious and take risks. We also believed we could produce the best journalism in the country. It was a supportive system driven by stories, especially those that could make a difference. And it was fun.

The newsroom cultures of that era nurtured young, talented journalists. So many of them had worked their way up from copyboy or clerk jobs, through a system that rewarded hard work and talent. It was an environment where young journalists were taught by some of the most skilled and experienced men and women in the business. The best editors gave reporters room to flourish, guiding and teaching along the way, and they held us to rigorous standards.

I learned that the best editors, and the best newsrooms, cleared the way for you to succeed – while lending all the support needed. This was vividly conveyed by one of my most influential and powerful mentors, Gene Roberts, then the editor of the Inquirer. He had just told me he was going to name me foreign editor, my first editing job. I asked him, “What do the best editors do?”

“Well,” he drawled, “they are like a blocking back in football. They go through the line, knock somebody down, clear the way, and lie in the mud so the guy with the ball can step on their back and score.”

The image has stuck with me. The most successful editors put their bets on people who can deliver for them. When a reporter proved he or she could produce a great story, the reward was to get to do the next one. There was an adrenaline-filled urgency that made newsrooms crackle. Those staffs rarely worried about who was financially sustaining the work. And they never imagined that it might end.

At the Inquirer and the Chronicle, I believed that I could make a difference in these newsrooms that, like many others, were beginning an unprecedented struggle for survival. But I was deeply frustrated by a lack of vision, ambition and passion on the business side that was throttling creativity and undermining the crucial role that journalism, and especially investigative reporting, play in our democracy.

As an editor, the priority was on content – not profit. That was the responsibility of the business side. I never had to worry about raising a dime. Many conversations with publishers or corporate officers focused on money. I was never comfortable with those discussions. Far too often, these conversations were about cutbacks aimed not at maintaining profit, but increasing it at the expense of good journalism.

Once, on a visit to the Miami corporate headquarters of Knight Ridder (the owner of the Inquirer), I walked into an office to find two executives dancing a jig. I stood there, embarrassed, while they laughed and explained that the share price had hit a new high that day. They were about to cash in some stock options.

That scene stuck with me and was a crude reminder of the disconnect in values between journalists and the corporate office. There was nothing wrong with profit; those profits had supported the work of journalists, including cost-intensive investigative reporting, for decades. But the demand for ever-increasing profit was the source of the difference between a creative, story-driven culture and a numbers culture.

I relate that story because I see now that every defeat and every success I’ve had, from the first day I walked into a newsroom in 1969 as a summer intern to the day I exited as an editor decades later, has informed my decisions. These experiences have provided the fuel to help me transform and grow CIR and to create California Watch, our successful statewide reporting team.

CIR, the Petri dish

Frustrated by the constraints of “corporate media,” reporters Lowell Bergman, Dan Noyes and David Weir started CIR in 1977. Over three decades, CIR’s fortunes had ebbed and flowed. It produced a great deal of award-winning work, much of it in documentary films with partners like PBS’ “Frontline” and “60 Minutes.”

What I soon learned was that those of us who have taken on these new entrepreneurial and innovative roles in journalism must evolve. For me, the evolution was into a role I never imagined playing – a publisher.

I was aware of CIR’s history and had worked with the organization on one story at the Chronicle, but that was the extent of my knowledge. When I became executive director, the organization was at risk. The nonprofit investigative space is driven by values that I have always had at my core, but its survival is perilous. What I soon learned was that those of us who have taken on these new entrepreneurial and innovative roles in journalism must evolve. For me, the evolution was into a role I never imagined playing – a publisher.

Before I joined CIR, I understood that for the future models of journalism to succeed, the “money side” and the “creative side” would have to align. And in CIR’s case, that alignment had to reside within me.

CIR had journalistic credibility, and its board already had spent two years looking for an executive director who had vision and the ability to lead. It is the oldest independent, nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the country. But its future was unclear. Taking this job was a great risk. But it also provided an opportunity to build an organization. I had a clear idea of where to go, but getting there was uncharted.

In the summer of 2007, before CIR approached me, Nieman Reports asked me to write a personal essayabout the “future” of journalism. That process helped me focus my thoughts about what kind of newsroom I hoped to build. I was also just beginning my work with the Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaboration of Bay Area journalism outlets. We had joined efforts to try to solve the murder of slain Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey and to continue his work. The essay for Nieman Reports was published in the 2007 winter edition. In it, I wrote:

The crucial element determining success will be the strength of emerging relationships among those whose money will support the journalistic enterprise and those who create the product.

They will need to arrive at a sense of shared values and passion about what their journalistic enterprise is and the value it holds – not expressed in monetary terms alone. To use the term “news organization” does not begin to describe the potential opportunities I see ahead for these new ventures. “Publishing” partnerships will be formed and collaborations among news organizations – though these might look very different than we think of them today – will be crucial.

Creating these organizations – using a new DNA – will be easier than the slow transition we are witnessing today with the “old model” organizations. Energy increases when we become engaged in building something new instead of feeling demoralized as institutions we once valued so highly are being destroyed by our own cannibalization.

I have faith that new models of journalism are going to fly out of this whirlpool of change and be successful. Ten years ago, Google wasn’t even in our vocabulary. Ditto Craigslist and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube.

Journalism, as practiced at newspapers, is not dead. But journalists will need to salvage what is essential, figure out how to transform it to the new media, and become leaders in this period of upheaval. It will take men and women of vision and deep pockets, whose primary catalyst is not profit.

As journalists, we live in a time of crisis – offering the possibility of historic change – as we witness a pillar of our democracy being wounded and withering away. Great urgency and risk taking is called for to stem the collapse of what newspapers have stood for in our country’s past. We have no other choice.

I didn’t realize that a few months after I wrote that essay, I would be given the opportunity to turn this vision into reality. Linked in my mind to these cultural values was the idea that the new organization would be a multi-platform content creator, either through the expertise of its own staff or through collaborations with other news organizations.

Credit: Hamilton Hughes Design Credit: Hamilton Hughes Design

I used the image of a wheel’s spokes to explain this vision. At the center of the wheel is the story, and each spoke represents a different platformmost importantly, a different way of telling the storywith each platform complementing the other. In this way, diverse audiences would get the story in the platform or medium they were most comfortable with.

This way of working was different from how newsrooms traditionally were organized. Creating an entity that could produce this new kind of storytelling, and also explaining it to potential funders, was my first challenge.

My transformation from journalist/editor to salesman/evangelical entrepreneur began immediately in the winter of 2008, within weeks of joining CIR.

I was basically starting from scratch with a staff of seven people and a budget around $1.5 million. Much of that funding was dedicated to a documentary film project. There were no major funds in any pipeline. The nearly two-year-long search for an executive director had been frustrating and disappointing. When I was hired, not all of the board members supported my vision. The organization for many years had produced a small number of high-quality projects annually, funding investigations individually. Some people thought it should remain that way. But the time was right for change.

The quest for funds

How do you raise money? If there was a useful guidebook, I never found it. But what I did have was a passion for journalism, a vision, the credibility of CIR’s 30-year history and survival instincts. My first focus had to be on sustaining CIR. I knew how to craft stories and stories were what most of the journalism funders were comfortable financing. So I began by framing pitches around projects.

I spent several rainy February days in New York visiting major foundations with Christa Scharfenberg, our associate director, who had been with CIR for five years and had been acting executive director for the year prior to my hiring. I explained the multi-platform approach we wanted to create and talked about a few major projects, including work associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, human rights, the environment, and state coverage of California. No one jumped out of his or her seat with excitement. There were doubts and challenging questions about the necessity of creating new models out of small existing nonprofits.

Then, weeks after the New York trip, we met with the James Irvine Foundation. The program officer listened patiently to my multi-platform concept and to our story ideas, and then she asked, “Can you do something that’s focused on California? Our funding is focused on California.”

I was thrilled: A potential major funder was interested. Covering the state, with a clear focus on investigative reporting, did not intimidate me. I had been a statehouse reporter and ran newsrooms where state and statehouse coverage were priorities. California, in addition, is not only bigger than most countries, but is fertile ground for investigative reporting.

The process of creating what would become California Watch took off after that conversation. A little while later, I had my first meeting with staff of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. I laid out a similar menu and the multi-platform approach. They also responded positively. They liked the idea about creating a journalistic organization in which using technology, engaging the public and sustaining the effort were central to the mission.

We were interested in engaging the public in reporting, an evolving concept. We realized that it was worth exploring the question readers and viewers often ask after an investigation has been published: What can we do now? We wanted to find a way to build that into the journalism, even around the sensitive subjects that investigative reporting explores.

How to manage and engage an audience was something we would have to build into our planning. We wanted to create new strategies to share information, as well as explore new distribution models. Social media was exploding and offered some new pathways for public engagement and distribution. The ability of stories and video to go viral presented a clear opportunity. We wanted to create communities of interest around subjects and geography. And we wanted to involve these communities to gather information and help find solutions.

At the same time that I was formulating a state concept, former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Louis Freedberg had gotten seed money from the Irvine Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to develop a similar program. Freedberg and I had several talks, and while we had differing visions, there was reason to share our plans. We both knew that funds were limited and that it might be pointless to compete, especially in increasingly dire economic times. We decided that we would pursue our plans separately, but leave open the possibility of joining forces.

Around this time, a talented television producer left CIR. Instead of replacing her with another journalist, I decided to hire someone who could help pay the bills. We needed to raise money.

Through a friend, I met someone with a strong fundraising résumé, including experience raising money for journalism, a rare combination given how few journalism-focused nonprofits there were at the time. In what proved to be a crucial decision, Cherilyn Parsons was hired as a part-time development director. It was also a key step in my evolution from editor to publisher.

While most editors, including me, would have demanded exclusivity in the past, they now preferred to be part of something big rather than be excluded.

In my past role as editor of a big newsroom, I resented when editorial resources were cut while business budgets increased. But now, thinking more like a publisher than an editor, I knew that replacing the departing journalist with another reporter was not an option. I needed someone who understood the world of foundations, their nuances and interests, and had a sensibility about our journalistic mission. With 15 years of experience in fundraising, much of it with journalism nonprofits and the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, Parsons was exactly what we needed.

Learning collaborative distribution

In the spring of 2008, reporters on the Chauncey Bailey Project were stationed in our small office. News organizations throughout the Bay Area had teamed up to produce and distribute these stories. The success of that collaborative project would serve as a model for building California Watch, which was still in the planning stages.

The Bailey Project’s model had gained a great deal of positive attention. It was clear that we had hit the tipping point – the point at which news organizations with disparate skills and expertise and shrinking resources were better off working together. We knew that we were doing great journalism, which felt good, but the collaboration was necessary to keep the investigation going; it was producing stories that eventually led to convictions and reforms in the Oakland Police Department.

With the Chauncey Bailey Project, we learned that we could control distribution through as many partner relationships as we could manageprint, television, radio, websitesand that traditional concerns about exclusivity, even with 15 or 20 organizations involved, were less relevant if a story was strong and compelling. While most editors, including me, would have demanded exclusivity in the past, they now preferred to be part of something big rather than be excluded.

Every news organization involved in the Chauncey Bailey Project had the right to post each story on its website at the same time. What this meant was that if the embargo time was 10 p.m., a story went live then across all the news organizations. Television stations with 10 p.m. broadcasts reported the story on air then. If their broadcast was at 11 p.m., it was live on their website earlier and aired on TV later. For newspapers, it meant web first, print in the morning. For radio, generally, it was websites first and broadcast at drive time in the morning. We could time the release and coordinate it with many news organizations in different media. It sounds simple today, but in 2008, it was innovative. And it worked.

The Chauncey Bailey Project’s stories saturated the Bay Area. It was a tremendous, positive lesson, not only for the project, but for the profession of journalism. The project shaped where we were about to go next.

In the spirit of journalistic transparency, “Reinventing Journalism” is Robert J. Rosenthal’s account of taking over leadership of the Center for Investigative Reporting and launching California Watch, its statewide reporting team. This report was written at the request of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with the aim of helping fellow journalism organizations, particularly nonprofit startups, learn from CIR’s experiences.

Read the report in PDF format or, thanks to our partnership with Byliner, download the e-book from Apple’s iTunes Store or from Project Gutenberg.

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Robert J. Rosenthal is the chief executive officer at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Rosenthal was the executive director of CIR from January 2008 to spring 2017. When he joined CIR, it had a staff of seven and when he left, it had a staff of nearly 70 and was recognized as one of the leading nonprofit newsrooms in the country. He is an award-winning journalist and worked for some of the most respected newspapers in the country, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosenthal worked for 22 years at The Inquirer, starting as a reporter and eventually becoming its executive editor in 1998. He became managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2002 and left in 2007. During this time, he led the investigation into the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. That work became known as the award-winning Chauncey Bailey Project. Before joining The Inquirer in 1979, Rosenthal worked for six years as a reporter at The Boston Globe and three and a half years at The New York Times, where he was a news assistant on the foreign desk and an editorial assistant on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon Papers project. As a reporter, Rosenthal won numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club Award for magazine writing, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for distinguished foreign correspondence and the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Third World reporting. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting and was a Pulitzer judge four times. He has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rosenthal is also currently advising or on the board of multiple journalism nonprofits. In 2018, Rosenthal was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists for his “extraordinary contribution to the profession of journalism.”