CIR takes on California

8 May 2009

For about six months in 1994, I worked with then-Executive Director Rick Tulsky as the director of development for the Center for Investigative Reporting, here in San Francisco. CIR had just been awarded a pretty good sized “capacity building” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and Tulsky hired me to help build the organization. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, Tulsky (who’s a terrific investigative reporter, and came to CIR from the Philadelphia Inquirer) moved on, and so did I.

Before I did that, though, I saw how CIR’s fundraising worked: besides a relatively small individual donor base (and a couple of important major donors) at that time most of the foundation fundraising they did was organized around film or video projects they were working on, usually in conjunction with WGBH’s Frontline. [Over the years, CIR and Mother Jones have collaborated on a number of stories.]

They did some great work, but that always seemed like a tough way to fund an organization, project by project.

Anyway, after Tulsky left, Dan Noyes stepped in to put things on an even keel, and then Burt Glass took over for several years and began putting CIR back on the upward flight path. Its reputation grew, so by the time former San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal took over as E.D. in 2008, it was one of the most respected investigative journalism organizations around.

Like Tulsky, Rosenthal came up through the ranks of the Philadelphia Inquirer. (The Inquirer’s former Executive Editor, Gene Roberts, was one of the really great ones.  Like so many reporters who started out in the late 50s and 60s, Roberts came up from the south to the big northeast papers (including a stint at the New York Times.  I had the opportunity to watch him drink acre-feet of iced tea in his office when I did a college research project that took me to Philly; never forgot it.

Rosie is a real newspaper guy, but when he came over to MoJo soon after he’d been hired, it was clear he was in serious learning mode.

Part of the problem I suspect was CIR’s ongoing reliance on those project-related grants to keep the doors open.Well, anyone who’s been paying attention knows that at best depending on foundation grants for documentary film and video isn’t much of a steady gig (Andrew Blau brilliantly laid out the transformation underway in this 2004 report).

Well, it looks like that’s about to change – and in a big way. CIR put out an announcement today that it’s been awarded – in collaboration with the California Media Collaborative – $2.4 million over three years from The James Irvine Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to produce in-depth multimedia journalism specific to California and to engage the public on issues of critical importance to the state.” Louis Freedberg, who ran the CMC, will manage this project, which leads one to suspect that there was another conversation going on with the funders about getting these two organizations to merge, one way or another.

CIR’s hopes for the project are big:

The project will cover key California issues, including education, the environment, immigration, state governance and public safety. A major focus will be on making statewide data accessible to journalists and the public, connecting the dots on particular issues between communities throughout the state. It also will emphasize “solutions-based” reporting, identifying ways that ordinary Californians, as well as policy makers, can address the issues covered. Social networking tools will encourage audience interaction and help communities solve problems and identify potential issues to be investigated.

We’ve also heard of plans to open a Sacramento bureau to feed state politics info to media outlets around the country.

So it’s a big, big deal for CIR, organizationallly speaking, and may mark an innovative shift in how it pursues its mission. I think anyone working in the field today needs to sit up and pay attention to how they do it. ProPublica has carved a path through this wilderness on the national level – and with its recent hiring of Amanda Michel may finally have the talent in place to develop top notch “pro-am” investigative journalism. Let’s hope CIR pulls that rabbit out of the hat in California, too.

It’s an even bigger deal for journalism in the Golden State, as the number of full time reporters covering state politics has dropped to abysmal numbers. At the very least, CIR’s project can hold back the tide until guys like these figure something out…

I think it’s a great move.

One Response to “CIR takes on California”

  1. Watch Archer Says:

    Hey, that’s some saucy information you got there. Archer Episode 2 is coming soon!

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