As reporters and editors began to arrive from around the country in August 2009, we had the energy, and the chaos, of a startup.

Reinventing Journalism

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal’s unexpected personal journey from journalist to publisher

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In all my years as an editor at newspapers, I never had been involved in a strategy that actually added staff. Suddenly, the Center for Investigative Reporting was exploding, and so were the challenges and rewards of managing growth. As executive director, I preferred this scenario, but I quickly learned that managing growth is as challenging as managing cutbacks. Downsizing creates an environment of gloom and a sense of failure in newsrooms. It is emotionally distressing for everyone, and it was personally brutal for me. But when you are building and more than doubling your organization, the sudden addition of staff creates an exhilarating but complicated brew. Issues and problems come flying at you from so many directions that decisions have to be made quickly using both your gut and your head.

My role during this initial period was to instill confidence and trust in the new team and to somehow make sure the culture we were creating was as open and flexible as we envisioned.This may sound easy, but I knew how unpredictable things could be, as with any team, when you factor in personalities and egos.

While we were hiring and getting the new staff in place, Louis Freedberg, who was part of the management staff of California Watch, traveled to various parts of the state to discuss our plans with editors and news directors and to assess their potential interest in our stories. There was plenty of interest – mixed with skepticism about how our new model would fit in the traditional journalism world­­ – but no commitments.

Through the Chauncey Bailey Project, I had gotten to know key leaders at KQED. The influential public broadcasting radio station in the Bay Area has statewide reach, as well as strong ties to National Public Radio. We approached KQED’s management with an idea: Would they be willing to partner and work full time with California Watch? A proposal was made that we split the salary and expenses for Michael Montgomery, a veteran radio producer who had a history of working with both organizations. We wanted him to have full access to our investigations. California Watch and KQED would collaboratively make the decisions on which stories to pursue.

We would not impose creative control over radio; our reporters and editors would work together, and CIR would have the opportunity to review final scripts to make sure that all of our facts matched and that important interviews conducted for radio could be woven into print versions of stories. Montgomery would work out of both our office and KQED’s, but needed to be in KQED’s studios to record his work. (Current newspaper covered the collaboration.)

The partnership with KQED was a tremendous opportunity for us to consistently work with a highly respected media partner and reach a statewide broadcast audience in the millions. (KQED syndicates its “California Report” to every public radio station in the state.)

My role during this initial period was to instill confidence and trust in the new team and to somehow make sure the culture we were creating was as open and flexible as we envisioned.

We also wanted to reach beyond the state’s English-speaking residents. We knew we could not develop the relationships or stature that Sandy Close’s New America Media (NAM) had with ethnic media. Another lesson we were putting into practice was not to duplicate something that another organization already did well. And NAM does what it does really well. NAM’s staff would translate our stories, sometimes for a fee, and distribute them to their network. They don’t do this for every story, and going forward, we can do a better job of working with them on reporting. But the times we’ve worked together have been successful.

All of this activity – the new deal-making, the opportunities and growth ­– was like a shot of adrenaline. Our small loft was abuzz with energy. It was exciting and crowded. Everyone could hear each other’s phone calls; “internal communications” literally meant calling across the room. When consultant Marcia Parker pushed back her chair from her desk, she hit the chair of our chief fundraiser, Cherilyn Parsons. The refrigerator was overflowing.

Launching California Watch

From the beginning, I knew we could not create two distinct cultures within CIR – the national reporting desk, where we had a few projects under way, and California Watch – though it was challenging to integrate the two entities. There had to be a symbiosis between CIR and our potentially formidable baby.

What better way to do this than through our inaugural California Watch story? G.W. Schulz, a CIR staff member, had been working on a project on state-level homeland security activities and spending. He had gathered extensive information and data on every state. As a way to quickly launch California Watch, even as the new staff was settling in, we decided to break out a story focused on California, looking at waste and abuse within the multimillion-dollar homeland security grant system. This story, which would be pegged to the anniversary of Sept. 11, offered a solid roadmap for testing our collaborative model. While Schulz could write the overall story for the state, he also had detailed data for almost any county or locality, which offered a great avenue for partnering with media outlets throughout California to localize the larger investigation.

Now we had to figure out distribution. Would editors be open to a ready-made, unique 9/11 anniversary story? Would they demand exclusivity? Would we charge for the story? We decided we would establish a fee if a newspaper wanted to publish our work. If we worked together with a news outlet from inception, we would not charge.

As we began to notify potential partners in late August, I thought we would be fortunate if we got two to four news organizations to sign on. Freedberg, Parker, California Watch Editorial Director Mark Katches and I divided up news organizations in the state on the basis of personal relationships. Between us, we knew many of those we would call or e-mail. We needed distribution. So what if someone said they would not or could not pay? Did distribution trump revenue? There was internal disagreement about this. Some felt we should establish market value. Others felt we should try to reach the broadest audience possible, which would mean negotiating lower prices if news outlets balked. We would ask that the story be published on websites as well, with links back to our site for supporting stories or data.

Several factors helped us succeed in this initial distribution challenge. Personal relationships mattered. We each could get editors to respond to us nearly all of the time, and CIR had credibility and a positive reputation within editing circles for accurate, credible reporting. As we all came from traditional news organizations, we were sensitive to the needs and issues of these newsrooms whose editors we were contacting. We wanted to make this process as easy as possible for our clients. The process was time consuming but crucial.

Freedberg, Katches and I had differing comfort levels with the “sales pitch.” We established a rough pricing structure that was flexible when it came to pushback. The pricing was based on circulation of newspapers and ranged from $50 to $350 for the story. (We have since increased our fees significantly.) News websites would get the story for free, as would other nonprofits and KQED. With hindsight, the amount of back and forth and our anxiety over “the sales pitch” was comical, given the relatively small amounts of money we were seeking. But it was outside of our journalistic comfort zone.

Schulz’s story ran on the front page of about two dozen newspapers, reaching more than 1.8 million subscribers, and on television, radio, news websites and in ethnic media outlets throughout the state.

We began making as many calls as we could, describing California Watch and CIR to editors. We explained that we had a story in which they might be interested, describing how it could be localized, letting them know that we were offering it to others around the state, possibly even other media in their market, telling them we were charging (cringe), and describing timing and plans for release.

We had no idea if this would work, but it did. Schulz’s story ran on the front page of about two dozen newspapers, reaching more than 1.8 million subscribers, and on television, radio, news websites and in ethnic media outlets throughout the state.

We produced the print story at three different lengths and edited custom versions for several news organizations. In San Francisco, KGO-TV produced a 5-minute piece based on our reporting and featuring our reporter; they were even able to conduct a key interview that we were unable to get, which helped strengthen the entire investigation.

The Marin Independent Journal assigned one of its photographers to the story and then allowed us to distribute those photos to all of our partners. Through our partnership with New America Media, the story was translated and distributed in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. La Opinion in Los Angeles translated the story into Spanish, published the story and allowed us to distribute their translation to other Spanish-language outlets, an arrangement we have continued. We did not charge any of these key partners in exchange for their contributions to the project.

Coordinating the release was a logistical feat. The embargo was set to the time of the KGO-TV evening broadcast, with all news outlets free to post to their sites and then publish or broadcast on their own schedule. No one complained. In fact, the only criticism was from some news organizations asking why they hadn’t been part of it. We were stunned. News organizations wanted to be part of this.

What was surprising to us was how the need for exclusivity, once so sacrosanct throughout print as well as broadcast, fell by the wayside. Our new model was being widely accepted and, better yet, adopted. Audiences were so fragmented that news organizations would rather share a good, unique story than not have it and cede it to their competition. And in this era of shrinking revenues, most media could not afford to finance the depth of reporting CIR and California Watch wanted to do. That first story taught us a great deal about not being afraid to try new things and to take risks. Our clients – news organizations – and their content users would let us know what worked.

Reaching wider audiences

As thrilled as we were with the reach of our first story, it also gave us a look at one of our primary challenges going into the future: how to engage and capture our audiences. By publishing through dozens of other outlets, we had limited knowledge about, or access to, our readers, viewers and listeners. Moving forward, our stories often would be the most read and e-mailed on other news sites, amassing hundreds of reader comments and tens of thousands of page views. The blessing and curse of our wide and nonexclusive distribution network is that it takes full advantage of the web and new media: Our stories travel, so they reach huge audiences, but it is extremely difficult to quantify, capture and engage those people when they essentially “belong to” other outlets. We’ve become more sophisticated in tracking the reach of our content. But we still need to get better at it so that we can accurately measure our audience. Knowing who our readers, viewers and listeners are helps us engage with our audience directly. It’s also an important metric for our funders.

The distribution of our first story exceeded our wildest expectations. We followed up with two more packages in the fall of 2009 – one in November on the failure of a program to reduce class sizes in K-12 schools and another in December on the an influential campaign donor.We also opened our four-person Sacramento bureau, based in KQED’s capital office. Sacramento veteran Bob Salladay works as CIR’s senior editor there with reporters Corey G. Johnson, Christina Jewett and Chase Davis.

By January 2010, our investigative reporters and a stable of outstanding freelancers had more than 35 investigations under way. With help from consultant Susan Mernit, we also launched the California Watch website. It featured close to 20 searchable databases and daily blogging by our reporters and editors. We also established an aggressive social media strategy. Our model was to continue to distribute through others, but we wanted our site to showcase our work and not be dormant between investigative stories.

We were in a period of relative funding stability, and we moved in January to a larger office in Berkeley, with the modern conveniences of heating and air conditioning, sufficient bandwidth to keep our computers from crashing, and a desk for everyone. Our new home is less expensive than San Francisco office space, which we also considered, and is close to UC Berkeley and its Graduate School of Journalism. Our proximity to the journalism school has enabled some of us to teach or guest lecture there – and to find ways to collaborate with students.

While signing a five-year lease at our new location gave us a lower rate, there was also an element of risk; there is no certainty of funding that far into the future. It was a roll of the dice. More and more, I was learning that there’s a lot of crapshooting in the decision making of a nonprofit leader. Yet, without taking risks, you cannot grow.

As we adjusted to our new workspace, our team’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses became clearer. We focused on stories and creating the model and, most important,a culture in which multiple platforms and skills were at the table from the beginning of a project. But our gaps were evident. Every newspaper editor has had the experience of having a deeply reported story come to a close when someone asks, “Where are the photos and graphics?” Despite our all-out attempt to cover our multimedia bases, there was so much more we wanted to be able to do with each story – but there was only so much our staff could do. Some skills were lacking. We had no photographer or graphic artist on our team, for instance.

The effort to think with about visuals, multimedia and audio involved a cultural re-education for some of our reporters. We needed to shed the traditional media practice of keeping stories “secret” from all but top editors before publication. Instead, we wanted everyone to embrace a routine of presenting stories-in-progress to a group of colleagues who could help build interactive graphics, video, radio and animation. The broader team would not only ask questions, but also think of ways to take the facts and data and use them to tell the story in their specialty. This was vital to producing multi-faceted stories across various platforms so that each element could be in process simultaneously as we headed to a release date.

It was much easier to create and shape this model from the beginning than it would have been to transform an entrenched legacy newsroom, where change was typically met with resistance. In this new model, any question was a good question, and staff members had to be reminded and encouraged to take risks and think differently about storytelling and reaching disparate audiences.

More and more of my time was involved in fundraising and internal issues mainly related to managing personalities, egos and the conflicts that did arise, as they would in any growing workplace. I felt fortunate that I had management experience in dealing with personnel issues in my past roles, albeit in much larger organizations. In a smaller workplace, such issues are magnified and must be dealt with swiftly or they can become poisonous.

Solving distribution conundrums

As stories began to be completed and distributed, we refined the editing and distribution process we had established with the homeland security story. We knew from that experience that there was a need to help news organizations localize our stories. But we could not manage that process for every partner.

Katches came up with a solution. He edited three to four versions of a print story, by geography, when possible. We might have Southern, Central and Northern California versions, for example. All of these stories were dramatically shorter than the full-length version we would publish on our website. In some cases, 3,000-word stories would be cut by two-thirds for news organizations that couldn’t accommodate lengthy text stories. Partners would have access to our data and could craft local inserts or a new top with our sign-off. They also could do their own sidebars with a local focus. We delivered budget lines as early as possible, frequently two weeks ahead of the publication date.

KQED radio and Montgomery, our shared reporter, were involved from the beginning of stories, deciding in consultation which ones he would focus on for broadcast. The rest of us quickly learned the concept of sound, just as we learned about the need for video through our work with KGO-TV and others. Agustin Armendariz, our data analyst, created searchable databases for many stories.

Distribution was taking up more of Freedberg’s and my time. We knew we needed a staff member focused on distribution and partner management. We also wanted to add a health reporter, so we set out to find additional funding. By the spring of 2010, The California Endowment awarded us a grant for a public engagement manager and a community health reporter. With the support of the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, we added our distribution and online community manager, Meghann Farnsworth, in August.

Farnsworth not only places our work with partners, but also is integral to pushing our stories out through numerous social media platforms. She started with Facebook and Twitter but later began to explore emerging and niche platforms and tools, such as Tumblr and StumbleUpon. She keeps abreast of almost daily changes in social media, Internet sites and emerging platforms that can help us grow and engage new audiences. She has helped reporters experiment with new storytelling platforms, such as Storify. She keeps track of where our work travels in the blogosphere and attends conferences to raise awareness of California Watch and CIR in key communities that could further distribution.

By the end of 2010, we produced far more stories than was our goal and reached much wider audiences than we anticipated. We completed 24 in-depth investigations, distributed through our partners. In addition, we had published 1,118 blog posts. We now call them news posts because so many of them are fully reported stories. Twenty-eight searchable databases complemented our work and helped the public localize and personalize big issues. Stories included a look at BP receiving stimulus funds, cesarean section rates across California and issues related to maternal health, and climate change legislation in California.

Our stories were having an impact:

  • We detailed numerous citations for a major retailer for selling jewelry tainted with lead, prompting the retailer to pull items from store shelves nationwide and leading to pending state legislation to more effectively prevent such sales.
  • We showed how hundreds of nursing homes had cut staff and reduced wages, even as they took money from a taxpayer fund designed to do just the opposite. After the story ran, the governor announced a series of quality and accountability reforms that were approved by the Legislature and signed into law.
  • We showed how law enforcement agencies were increasingly using DUI checkpoints to seize vehicles from unlicensed drivers, mostly immigrants. Afterward, based on our work, the city of Los Angeles and seven other cities halted the practice of impounding vehicles. The story also resulted in public protests. Legislation was introduced to dramatically curb impounding at checkpoints.

Our work has led to industry awards, including a general excellence award from the Online News Association and Journalists of the Year and Investigative Reporting awards from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Our California Watch website also won a National Headliner Award for best online-only news site.

In our first year, we partnered with nearly 80 news organizations and reached an audience conservatively estimated at 25 million.

With Public Engagement Manager Ashley Alvarado in place, we produced in-depth “React & Act” materials in conjunction with major investigations. To enable our audience to take action on issues they care about, Alvarado created Q&As, fact sheets, links to good sources of further information, and contact information for key players and government officials, all in one easy-to-navigate place. Our engagement also extended to direct community contact, such as free lead screenings following our investigation into contaminated costume jewelry, and Open Newsroom events in which we station reporters in Wi-Fi-accessible cafes around the state to explain California Watch to the public.

In another effort to expand our approach to reporting and engagement, California Watch joined American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, which, among other functions, enables reporters to ask questions and find knowledgeable sources for stories.

In our first year, we partnered with nearly 80 news organizations and reached an audience conservatively estimated at 25 million.This was based on newspaper circulation (including newspaper websites) and ratings for TV and radio partners. But we know that this represents a fraction of our actual audience.

Our own web traffic grew month to month, and by the end of 2010, we had more than 200,000 unique visitors. Our revenue from California Watch stories was $27,375. Not much, but we had established the principle of payment for content.

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.”