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New models for news: California Watch

by: Sandy Rowe |

June 23, 2011

New models for news: California Watch

Partnerships of independent journalists and local institutions including traditional news organizations, universities and foundations, offer promising models for supporting local investigative journalism, Sandy Rowe argues in a new paper. Rowe looks at the progress and challenges of one example, California Watch, on the path to sustainable operations.

By Sandy Rowe
When it comes to partnerships, Robert (Rosey) Rosenthal has become a believer. Rosenthal is the Pulitzer Prize winning director of 34-year-old Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), mother ship to California Watch, which he started two years ago.
California Watch, which with CIR has a combined staff of 32 and a budget of $5.2 million, does original reporting which it distributes to several dozen California media outlets, creating a huge multi-platform audience for its projects.  It is an expensive-to-operate story creation and distribution channel, difficult if not impossible to replicate in other states or regions.  As a result of its early success it is already changing, and like ProPublica, it offers lessons beyond its good work.
California Watch has built in the idea of collaboration, looking toward being the primary state supplier of news and investigations on statewide issues and the California center for media cooperation. Now it is partnering on projects with individual media outlets in addition to reporting throughout the state.  In early March it provided editing and direction for a Stanford University investigative reporting class story on a courses of interest list distributed to athletes for classes the athletes described as “easy.”  The story received wide play nationally and strong pushback from the university, which immediately discontinued the list.
Rosenthal describes the California Watch model as a wheel with the stories—the journalism—being the axle and the various media outlets and forums, across platforms and languages and storytelling methodology, as the spokes of the wheel, carrying the story outward and propelling it forward.
What collaboration really means, according to Rosenthal, is that you have to be willing to trust the working partners you have and you have to lose the love of exclusivity.
Those are not characteristics he was known for as a reporter, a city editor or as editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer or managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

He is candid about his own transformation
: “What happened to me was getting my brains beat out and basically getting fired twice.” Failure, he said, opened him up to collaboration.
He sees a different world now. “If we went back and started with the question of how to serve—we’re no longer (investigative reporting legends) Barlett and Steele or a big investigative team, no longer (driven by) exclusivity and competition and those concepts we grew up with.  If I were back in Philly and wanted to work with Bucks County paper and wanted to do a big story, I could see how to do it.”  He pauses, imagining what he would do differently in Philadelphia than he did when he was editor. “I imagine I could sell this if I were in Philly now.”
In April, California Watch released its project “On Shaky Ground,” the result of a 19-month investigative effort on seismic safety and what’s not being done to protect schoolchildren in California schools.  California Watch created a data base of more than 10,000 schools in California and their inspection reports.
The distribution of these stories is the broadest yet for California Watch.  Stories were published in eight newspapers in the state, broadcast over public radio and nationally on PBS, distributed in California ethnic media outlets with the stories translated into Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese, local versions were posted on 125 Patch sites, 40,000 coloring books were distributed to schoolchildren and an I-phone app was released.  It’s a complete melding of technology into story, Rosenthal says, and it is a perfect illustration of the challenge of paying for this complex journalism.

Rosenthal estimates the story cost more than a half million dollars in staff time.
The revenue California Watch derives from sales of the story and the underwriting of the production of the coloring book may total $35,000 to $40,000.
“Clearly that is not a sustainable model,” Rosenthal told an investigative reporting conference at the University of California at Berkeley the week the stories were released. Currently, less than 5 per cent of his annual revenue comes from payment for the syndication of stories on which his distribution model is built.  He knows he needs to get that percentage up to a minimum of 20 percent to show progress and a path toward financial sustainability to the foundations he relies on for continued support.  He is counting on increased sales especially of video as the path to get there.

This is the third in a series excerpts from “Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting,” written by Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, as Knight Fellow this year at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Oklahoma Watch


Northeastern University

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Knight also is a funder of California Watch. Rosenthal was a fellow in KDMC’s 2010-11 Knight-McCormick Leadership Institute.

By Michele McLellan, 06/23/11 at 5:26 am