I’ve learned many lessons in my time at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Some I knew already. Others I had forgotten. And then there were some new things I should have known and had to learn the hard way.

Reinventing Journalism

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal’s unexpected personal journey from journalist to publisher

Read this report in PDF format

Managing can be a chaotic process that you cannot control. If you can’t handle good and bad surprises, can’t let strong and creative people succeed, can’t handle being challenged, and can’t deal with disappointments along with successes, then don’t try to lead a nonprofit – or a for-profit, for that matter – news organization. You must understand in your gut and heart that learning is a continual process.

  1. Be honest and direct. With staff, with funders, with partners and collaborators. We are all learning, growing and experimenting, and those processes require openness.
  2. Take risks. Innovative and creative environments are charged with uncertainty, and taking risks means that failure has to be acknowledged. Not everything you try will be a success.
  3. Don’t forget your mistakes. They will be among your and the organization’s best teachers.
  4. Build your team. Help them succeed, and make sure you include people who are skilled at and passionate about things you don’t do well or even understand. There are endless new opportunities for journalism organizations; your team should have the skills, experience and diversity to respond.
  5. Trust your team. In this age of technological innovation, new forms of storytelling and potential for large audiences, you need a creative, passionate team that you guide but do not control. Do not think for others; let them think for you.
  6. Collaboration is crucial, internally and externally. Easier said than done.
  7. Understand, manage and control your ego. Others get credit, not you.
  8. Stick to your principles, ethics, instincts and experience, but be willing to change your mind, too, and realize you have just learned something.
  9. Stay calm. Sometimes the best response to a crisis is to stay calm, even to do nothing. Time and events can solve what felt so overwhelming in the heat of the moment.
  10. Listen. Listen. Listen. It’s a basic tenet of reporting: If you pay attention, the story – or the solution to a problem, or the next great idea – will emerge.

CIR – Reinventing Journalism – 10 lessons learned (in no particular order)

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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.


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Robert J. Rosenthal

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.”