The Center for Investigative Reporting was poised to undergo a dramatic relaunch in the spring of 2008, taking us fully into the age of the Internet and beyond, but if you visited our humble Berkeley office, it would have been impossible to imagine the changes ahead.

Reinventing Journalism

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal’s unexpected personal journey from journalist to publisher

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The CIR workplace was in what was once the loft of an old horse stable in a mixed-use neighborhood near the original Berkeley Bowl, a local landmark. With no central heating system, it could be brutally hot or cold. The staff worked with scarves, fingerless gloves and wool caps on cold days and in warm, blowing wind generated by industrial fans, their cables crisscrossing the floor, in the warmer months. We were a struggling nonprofit with no frills.

In the late spring, the staff began to pull together the detailed plans for a new California project, a plan to create a statewide investigative reporting team covering major issues like education, the environment and health care. The job of putting the funding proposals together fell to Associate Director Christa Scharfenberg and Development Officer Cherilyn Parsons. As CIR’s executive director, I did a final edit and review, but their knowledge and experience in grant writing and foundation interests were invaluable.

At the same time, we were trying to keep CIR alive, funding other potential projects and managing existing editorial work. We were in two simultaneous modes: survival and growth. In the mainstream journalism world, the gutting of newsrooms was accelerating and the global financial markets were beginning to destabilize.

I had no experience writing a proposal and never had been in a situation in which there were multiple potential funders with differing mandates, programmatic interests, personalities and idiosyncrasies. My experience with budgets and planning documents had been with publishers and corporate executives. When I was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the newsroom had an array of resources that seemed limitless compared with where I now was.

And very important, by comparison, I was used to dealing with one direct funding source, a publisher who negotiated with corporate bosses, occasionally with me in the room. When those meetings were over, you knew where you stood. Still, as a journalist, I was never trained for those kinds of negotiations. In that world, when revenue and profit numbers were met, there was relative tranquility. But when revenue and profits dropped, nothing else mattered but making or adjusting the financial goals. That environment was filled with anxiety, conflict, distrust and shortsighted solutions, all driven by the bottom line.

Money-driven conversations were never comfortable for me, but they were now the central and most crucial element of my role in moving California Watch and CIR forward. Unlike the newspaper industry, however, dealing with foundations was never about making a number; it was about convincing them that you could lead an organization that could make a difference, and, specifically, convincing them to invest in the California project. A friend told me, “You are the product.” That it rested so heavily on me to sell the idea and vision to potential funders was unsettling.

With foundations, I was soon to learn, you operated on their cycle and at their pace. They have many suitors. They have internal dynamics, conflicts and staff changes that can alter your organization’s life, for better or worse. But as I was reminded again and again, the job of foundations is to give away money. My job was to present a strong organization and argument for their investments.

There was a herky-jerky rhythm to the various foundation funding cycles and board schedules, which left very little time for me to do almost anything else at CIR. “Face time” with funders, which required the mundane scheduling and confirming of many meetings, was as essential as understanding the interests of each foundation. I traveled frequently to meet with foundation staff members, which often involved three-day cross-country trips with as many as five meetings a day. Getting in the door was not always easy. The experience of Scharfenberg and Parsons was crucial to opening doors. But the meetings were imperative to developing a rapport with very busy program officers.

I was a novice at this, but every step was a new lesson.

Face time with a billionaire philanthropist

The most effective face-to-face meetings occurred when I was able to convey our vision and mission and relay my personal story as a journalist. Parsons had to be present at many of the meetings to coordinate follow-up and draft the proposals. Juggling multiple foundation requests and proposals meant setting up a rigorous management system for which Scharfenberg and Parsons had responsibility. They had my trust, and they had my back. Very important for me, they pushed back, asked questions, understood our mission and turned that vision into clear prose. The California project and CIR’s future were as reliant on their skills and persistence as anyone’s.

Around this time, in the spring of 2008, I had my first one-on-one conversations with philanthropists. The first step is getting in the door. Sometimes, the door can be opened by chance or by contact made through board members, friends or acquaintances. Other times, the door never opens. There is no real training for this. You are selling your wits, personality, passion and vision; chemistry is essential.

A friend who had secured funding from George Soros for a business project years ago told me that in meeting a potential grantee, Soros would know in a couple of minutes whether he would fund you. He said Soros made those decisions with his gut. Through another friend, I was able to meet San Francisco philanthropist and billionaire financier Warren Hellman. When I asked more experienced fundraisers how I should prepare for that meeting, the consensus was “be yourself.”

I went to Hellman’s office. His clothes were rumpled; his shoes were worn and comfortable-looking. He took off his sports jacket and, without looking, tossed it in a heap on a corner chair.

I’d never met anyone with his wealth, and I knew he had the capacity to be a financial game changer for CIR. I immediately felt comfortable with him; I told him about my background, we talked sports, and I eventually launched into where I hoped to take CIR and the kinds of journalism we would do. I did not feel like a salesman, though I suppose that’s what I was.

After a few minutes of my “vision talk,” Hellman stopped me.

“We have to fund the mother,” he said.

“The mother?” I responded. I had no idea what he meant.

“You,” he said. “You need the support around you to do what you can do.”

I did not realize it at the moment, but he got the vision. As a businessman and entrepreneur, Hellman understood the concepts I was laying out, and he was thinking about how to support them, and me.

I came out of the meeting with a good feeling. I liked Hellman, and he wanted to meet again. I had been told that ‘developing” an individual donor could be a lengthy process. It was about relationship building, and here it was in practice.

Over the next few months, I met with Hellman several times. He said he would help and made a $100,000 gift from his family foundation. More important, he offered to host a luncheon in his office for potential donors, some of his friends and anyone I wanted to invite. This was a big opportunity. His advice to me was not to talk about stories, but about the new model.

On the morning of the luncheon, the Hearst Corp. announced that it might sell or close the San Francisco Chronicle. When I walked into Hellman’s boardroom, he walked up to me, grabbed my elbow, pulled me aside, looked me in the eye and asked, “Should I buy the Chronicle?”

I told him I didn’t think it would be a good investment.

As he got more involved in seeing how he could help stabilize San Francisco journalism, Hellman’s interest in CIR waned (though he did continue his generous support for two more years), and his focus went to funding his own startup project, The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco online news site.

I understood his thinking, and I greatly appreciated his support. Large individual gifts are a crucial pillar of the sustainability formula for CIR and all successful nonprofits. I now knew that I could make a positive impression on individual philanthropists. But I also had learned that building these relationships wouldn’t always translate into support that could provide the type of financial resources we needed to reach our vision.

As the Hellman interlude unfolded and unraveled, we also were working with many foundations, large and small. It is important to have many lines out and be ready to evolve and adjust your thinking and strategies.

For example, in initial conversations during the spring of 2008, we were talking about creating a “destination website” for the California project. We were considering the idea of being the go-to site for in-depth California news, including our own investigations and aggregated content from around the state.

But at the same time, the Chauncey Bailey Project demonstrated the strength of collaborative reporting and distribution. We had created the consistent ability to reach large audiences through many simultaneous publishing and broadcast partners. It would have been foolish to ignore that successful learning experience. Through the project – which revealed a shoddy police investigation and led to two murder convictions in 2011 – we saw that large audiences could be reached through the multi-platform, multi-partner approach. That experience ultimately steered us from the destination website idea. The collaborative model, publishing through many partners simultaneously, became central to the vision for CIR and California Watch.

The collaborative model, publishing through many partners simultaneously, became central to the vision for CIR and California Watch.

Nailing down foundation grants

Work with the program officers and consultants with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation accelerated after the summer of 2008. In the fall, we received a planning grant from the Irvine Foundation that supported more staff, as the California project became the focus of our growth strategy.

As the financial crisis exploded, our anxiety mounted, as did pressure on newsrooms. Our primary argument for the state project had been the precipitous decline in the number of journalists covering Sacramento. By the fall of 2008, the number of reporters in California’s capital had been more than halved in five years. Every news organization in the state was undergoing dramatic cuts. And when cutting is the focus, innovation is nearly impossible.

We had to think and act differently. And for me, the Chauncey Bailey Project continued to be a guide. During this time, CIR board members were watching. They were not actively engaged in formulating a strategy or raising money, but they were 100 percent supportive of the concept and our efforts. By the end of 2008, though we had proposals under way, the future of CIR and the California project were very uncertain.

The complexity of our collaborative, multi-platform multimedia model was going to be a challenge to create and manage. Adding to the challenge was the fact that we still had no guarantee of funding. But the convergence of the collapse of legacy media, the availability of talented yet frustrated journalists, advances in technology and interested funders created opportunity.

The underpinning of that opportunity was a shared belief that journalists and investigative reporting had played an important role in our democracy, and that role had to evolve and be supported going forward.

The passion that pushed us at CIR was also born out of personal convictions. My father had started the journalism program at The City College of New York in the 1930s. He died at age 95 in the spring of 2008, a few months after I started at CIR. As I went though his files after his death, I found a yellowed piece of paper with two typewritten paragraphs:

“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should government, which is doing what it believes to be right, allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?” — Nikolai Lenin, 1920

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.”– Thomas Jefferson, 1787

We were in a different world from when those statements were made, but the words resonated with me and still rang true.

During this time, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Louis Freedberg was having conversations the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation regarding his own California initiative, and I had been asked by the Irvine Foundation to consider working with him. He and I had talked about this earlier and now decided to work together rather than compete for shrinking funds. Funders clearly prefer collaboration among potential grantees – another lesson quickly learned.

The narrative for our proposal was taking shape as we honed key principles. To develop and test this model, the California project would:

  • Develop collaboration as a key strategy for the news operations of the future
  • Implement multimedia distribution as part of every story and test new digital technologies
  • Develop innovative, replicable strategies that can generate revenue from multimedia content and help sustain operations

During the last quarter of 2008, we submitted the proposals to the Irvine, Hewlett and Knight foundations. The total original budget for the first year of California Watch was nearly $1.5 million. That would have covered 14 positions and a portion of CIR’s core staff. We had been working very closely with program officers at all of the foundations. Each had its own angle of interest in the project. Irvine’s mission is to expand “opportunity for the people of California to participate in a vibrant, successful and inclusive society.” Thus, that foundation saw the decline of state reporting as a serious threat. We worked with the education program at Hewlett, which was seeking increased coverage of education issues. Knight is the single largest funder of journalism in the United States, with a keen interest in high-quality journalism, new technologies and community engagement.

Each of the potential funders knew of the others’ interest in the project, and they all conferred about our project. That allowed us to ensure that the three proposals complemented each other and provided comprehensive and staggered support over the project’s first three years.

By the end of 2008, Irvine had agreed to a $1.2 million grant over three years. In March 2009, Hewlett matched Irvine. Freedberg began working with us as director of the project, and longtime journalist and former UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism staff member Marcia Parker was hired to help with the startup. Knight, because of the chaos in the financial markets, deferred a decision until its June 2009 board meeting. We decided to begin planning to launch the project, but not to actually launch it or make further hires until we knew our full funding commitment.

Knight was pushing us to be as innovative as possible around distribution, engagement and sustainability. I agreed with those core strategies, though I also believed our ability to generate strong stories would be the basis of our success and core competency. I wanted to establish the project’s journalistic credibility as quickly as possible. That meant we needed strong editorial leadership. As word spread of our good fortune with the Irvine and Hewlett foundations, journalists began contacting us.

Mark Katches, a Californian who had been hired by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2006 to create and run an investigative reporting team, and I made contact shortly after the Irvine grant was approved. He also sent me a proposal that he had put together on his own months before for an investigative reporting project based in Sacramento. His thinking, derived from years of reporting and editing in California and Sacramento, mainly for The Orange County Register, was remarkably similar to ours. He called his plan California Watch and had already bought the domain name – which he later transferred to CIR.

Our leadership team met with Katches, and he was a clear choice to run the project if we secured funding. In June, the Knight Foundation awarded CIR a two-year $1.3 million grant for California Watch, bringing the total funding for the project to $3.7 million over three years. Katches was hired with a start date of Aug. 1. But he began working with us immediately from Milwaukee during his weekends and evenings to finalize staffing and budget.

Building the team

Katches and Freedberg came from very different backgrounds, but they shared the belief that there was an opportunity and need for a new kind of journalism organization in California that would serve the interests of the state’s citizens. Each had envisioned his own model for how this organization might work.

Katches, who started his career in the Bay Area and also worked in Sacramento and Southern California, was considered one of the best investigative editors in the country. He had a strong personality and was extremely organized. Although he had a secure position in Milwaukee, coming off a Pulitzer Prize win for his staff, his family grew tired of the harsh Wisconsin winters. He was ready to get back to his home state and be part of building a new model of journalism.

Freedberg, an anti-apartheid South Africa native, had seen injustice firsthand. He had a long career in California journalism as well, most recently at the Chronicle. He had left that newspaper hoping to create a media “collaborative” in California. He had worked in the nonprofit journalism sector as a young man, including with the legendary Sandy Close, executive editor of Pacific News Service and its offspring – the ethnic media collaboratives New California Media and New America Media.

In early July, we were ready to start hiring. While we had a large amount of money, it had to stretch over three years. The budget was tight, and we needed to maximize it. We were setting out to cover the largest state in the country. Through journalism employment websites, we announced that we were hiring six reporters and two multimedia producers. Nearly 700 journalists applied.

Marcia Parker managed the onslaught. As we began our early strategy sessions and thought about the qualities we were seeking in new staff members, there was agreement that we would be creating a multi-platform, collaborative news organization where everyone had to think of himself or herself as a potential entrepreneur in addition to being a journalist.

In conversations with senior staff, all of whom were involved in the interview process, we stressed the need to be clear with applicants that this was a fragile, but great, opportunity to build something unique. We also emphasized that everyone would be part of the evolution of the project, and they had to be open to, and comfortable with, collaboration internally and externally. We also were determined to hire a diverse team.

The range of applicants was striking, from multiple Pulitzer Prize winners from legacy newspapers to younger journalists who had worked only for web-based news organizations. Katches, who had been on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors and involved with its mentoring program, also had connections to a network of young, talented and ambitious journalists.

There was an abundance of new multimedia journalists on our list and strong computer-assisted reporting applicants. We also were looking for people who had multiple-platform storytelling skills and were comfortable users of social media and new technologies. It was clear that many journalists were interested in being part of building something new. Even with our uncertain future, applicants were willing to be part of what we all saw as a noble experiment.

Our new team would need the ability to adapt to changes and opportunities in technology. I did not want a change-resistant culture wedded to past practices. We needed to have a flexible and nimble organization. We needed to be constantly looking outward to the audience and our partners’ needs.

Katches came on the scene with the authority to shape the editorial team, which would be reporting to him. He had the experience, credentials and reputation to build the unit. In the end, we hired the team we had envisioned: from veteran California journalists Lance Williams (San Francisco Chronicle) and Robert Salladay (Los Angeles Times); to younger reporters Erica Perez (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Christina Jewett (ProPublica), Corey G. Johnson (The Fayetteville Observer) and Chase Davis (Des Moines Register); to multimedia producers Mark Luckie (10,000 Words) and Lisa Pickoff-White (freelancer); to data analyst Agustin Armendariz (The San Diego Union-Tribune).

In July 2010, California Watch was found by the American Society of News Editors to be one of the most diverse online newsrooms in the country.

We were poised to take off, but there would be bumps and challenges ahead.

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.”