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A Conversation with the Center for Investigative Reporting Chairman Phil Bronstein

25 mins read

It’s not always obvious, but there are some pretty important things happening behind the scenes in Emeryville. Groundbreaking Biofuels (Amyris), lifesaving vaccines (Novartis), Oscar-winning films (Pixar) of course … but did you know that our little 1.2 square mile chunk of the East Bay is also responsible for some of the most provocative investigative journalism in the country, if not the world?

International stories like the shameful treatment of the heroic SEAL Team 6 member who killed Osama Bin Laden. Local stories like the deplorable Richmond public housing conditions and their “Rape in the Fields” collaboration with PBS’s Frontline series on the mistreatment of migrant women working within the US agriculture industry. It’s ironic to me in a city that gets largely overlooked by the mainstream media … is also home to some of the most impactful, award-winning journalism in the nation!


Founded in Oakland in 1977, The Non-Profit Center for Investigative Reporting began as a collaboration by three veteran Journalists. Their first large investigation exposed the criminal activity of the Black Panther Party and in the past 35 years, they’ve continued this “relentless pursuit of revealing injustices that would otherwise have remained hidden from the public eye”.

The CIR had outgrown their Center St. Berkeley digs and were looking to consolidate their fragmented operations after merging with The Bay Citizen publication. After pursuing leases in Oakland & San Francisco, the Center ultimately settled at the EmeryTech Building adjacent to Clif Bar. Choosing Emeryville for its proximity, value and at least partly for the autonomy that our city offers, the Emeryville CIR office officially opened its doors last December and has already filled the office with 72 full-time employees and 3 interns.

The CIR is working to “reinvent Journalism” with on-staff video editors, a radio program and interactive developers. They are the only nonprofit journalism organization with the in-house ability to produce stories on every available media platform. But it’s more than just news-making at the CIR … it’s about following up and holding the decision makers accountable. Journalism, they believe, is an essential pillar of democracy.

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A recent E’ville Eye post on the Bay Street development documentary “Shellmound” by Cal alum & current CIR staffer Andres Cediel set off a chain-reaction that led me to an intro and tour of the CIR office (thanks Suzanne!). Somehow my little news-blog for the smallest city in the East Bay was face-to-face with one of the titans of bay area journalism!

Phil Bronstein, former executive editor of both the Chronicle & the Examiner, left a 31 year career with the Hearst Corporation to become Executive chair of the board for the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2012. He brings 33+ years in journalism specializing in investigative projects and foreign correspondence. The Veteran reporter agreed to a candid interview with The E’ville Eye about the CIR’s decision to move to Emeryville, the bay area as a talent pool for investigative journalists and the direction of Journalism in the era of social media:

Listen on Sound Cloud:

EE: I’m here with Phil Bronstein, he’s the executive chair of the board for the Center for Investigative Reporting and have been since 2012. You’re the former executive editor of both the Chronicle and the Examiner and director of content development for Hearst newspapers.

Phil: They don’t know what that means …

EE: Ha! 31 year Hearst employee and 33+ years in journalism. Does that sound right? I think I saw 1980 …

Phil: No, before 1980 I worked for KQED’s newsroom and had a nightly News program which started in 1974 and before that I freelanced in San Francisco and before that I had a very unsuccessful Academic career at UC Davis and wrote for not the school paper but the Davis city paper. So I would say goes back I think I got there when I was 16 or 17 and now I’m 63. So do the math …

EE: You may have to go back into Wikipedia and make some edits to your bio …

Phil: You know the Wikipedia thing is always been wrong and what was interesting to me is that I had no interest in fixing it and I don’t know why. I guess I should since it’s the only “A record” that’s out there. Fundamental things like my birthday wrong … you know … “stuff”!

EE: I’ve been steered wrong by sources before, you can’t always assume Wikipedia …

Phil: So here you are and you can’t always assume that I’m a telling you the truth either but at least you’re staring me face-to-face it’s not somebody anonymously posting a factoid that may or may not have a yelp-like impetus to it …

EE: Yeah another pratfall of the Internet is lack of accountability for what you’re writing …

Phil: Well, there’s a verification process of which we are a part of. I hope. I think …

EE: One of the advantages Facebook has even though it’s not totally tied to one’s identity but more so than “Yelp”

Phil: SFGate commenters were known to be some of the most vicious in the country so there were a lot of conversations while I was there and I’m sure after I left about making people register … and they did have to go through some registration process but it was very easy for them to have a pseudonym. There’s been endless arguments about the “Broken window neighborhood” aspect of anonymous comments. Does it create a bad neighborhood on whatever site or place you’re doing it and I don’t know if anyone’s really determined the answer for it. The wisdom of the crowd is pretty interesting but probably has its limits.

EE: Facebook, Google, they’re all trying to crack that code of identifying real data about people that they can use.

Phil: Well they have much better ways of doing it than looking at Wikipedia …

EE: Ha! So 31 years at Hearst and a specialty in investigative projects and foreign correspondents, Welcome to Emeryville!

Phil: Thank you. We do like it here …

EE: Can you tell us what other cities you were considering when you outgrew your Berkeley office and what criteria ultimately lead to your decision to set up shop here in Emeryville?

Phil: Well we wanted to stay in the Bay Area so we essentially looked at San Francisco which was Cost-prohibitive and would only have I think have chosen San Francisco had we got a landlord that was also a benefactor which wasn’t gonna happen. We looked at and got very close to making a deal on buildings in Oakland … because Oakland was less expensive. A lot of nonprofits are based there in part for that reason … 1500 Broadway was a building we looked at? There was another building in Old Oakland … nice spaces … but ultimately for a wide variety of reasons we decided to come back here … we had seen this place … and thought maybe we should. Oakland might have been a bit cheaper. This was in some ways more space than we needed … turned out to be NOT more space than we needed. We came back here happily to talk to Jim Ellis and the folks who owned the building. They were very responsive to us. We called and said , “hey we know we told you we weren’t going to do it but we want to come back and took a look and have another conversation” with Jim and some key people in the organization. It was the kind of response and attention that everybody likes to have when making a big decision.

EE: So there was a customer service component of being accommodating and responsive?

Phil: Yeah, that was my experience. Good Service.

EE:  So as part of the discovery process, were there any amenities of the city that met what you were looking for in workspace?

Phil:  I think there’s a little bit of a state of mind aspect, sense of culture aspect where you have a lot of tech firms. The building’s called EmeryTech. Pixar’s down the street. I think that we don’t mind not having a particular city identity. We definitely are a California organization, but all the years we were in Berkeley, that carries with it some reputations … mostly by people who were outside of Berkeley, or outside of the Bay Area … that I think we wanted a break from. We do big national and international stories, as well regional and some local stories, but with an eye towards the larger issues. So I think Emeryville suited us in the sense that a lot of people don’t know where it is. You’re not San Francisco based, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. It’s not a bad thing to be Berkley based necessarily, but I think it suited us to be in a place that was neither here nor there.

EE:  A little more autonomous than the perceptions they might have if you were in Berkeley?

Phil:  Yeah, I was going to say mysterious but that’s way overselling what we were thinking. I think that you do to this day you say, “Here’s my card. I’m in Emeryville.” “Emeryville?” A lot of people, at least in my generation, have the same recollection of Emeryville that I do, which is, “Oh, yeah, there’s that giant high‑rise in the middle of a landfill out there in the bay. That’s “Emeryville”. Of course it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it had changed.

EE:  When I moved here I didn’t necessarily know of any identity that Emeryville had like what you said. A lot of people remember the mud flat sculptures. That was a kind of landmark for finding us.

Phil:  I didn’t even consider that. I considered that Berkeley because I would go by them on the way from Berkeley to San Francisco and back.

EE: I wonder how much the Bay Street mall with the big Emeryville sign emblazoned across it has helped fortify the identity of Emeryville. You can’t avoid it now. You drive by the Maze, you now know that you’re in Emeryville, not necessarily Berkeley.

Phil:  Yeah, but you don’t know all their names.

EE:  Yeah, that’s true. So what amenities would you say the city is lacking? Obviously, we don’t have a BART Station. That would be amazing but we do have the Emery Go‑Round. Food establishments. Your workforce, do you hear any outpouring of “Man, I wish there was this … ” “I wish we had that …” “I have to drive all the way…”

Phil:  There was a shift going from Center Street, which is perhaps one of the most foot trafficked streets in Berkeley with a restaurant in … every building is a restaurant. A lot of social activity which in a respect, we’re not relying on walk in traffic. That really wasn’t a functional issue for us. I thinks it’s a shift to be out there walking along the street in very sparsely populated in Emeryville. There’s the restaurant down the street. There’s a Subway franchise. There’s a Starbucks. If you go down two or three blocks that, there’s a pretty good restaurant on the right. I don’t get out that often when I am here. I would say, you should talk to some of my colleagues about their exploration of restaurants. I had a friend, who lives in Berkeley, come down the other night. We went and drove someplace down that way. I didn’t know where it was but it was a nice bar and restaurant. I think there’s probably enough of those so‑called, “amenities,” that places to eat, if you want to eat healthy or do not want to eat healthy … I think the culture of the place, as far as I can tell, is still more encased in the building. The Clif Bar, which is our neighbor …

EE:  They have a cafeteria I think …

Phil:  They have a cafeteria. They have a theater. They have a spa, gym. They have a childcare service.

EE:  It’s like an all‑inclusive resort.

Phil:  It is. It’s not the Google campus but they got a lot of good stuff going on there plus if you’re hungry. What a great place to be.

EE:  It’s one of the reasons I’ve been critical of Pixar, as a neighbor, because they have the all‑inclusive resort approach to being in the city. So I don’t know if the city really, totally benefits from them being there besides just recognition.


Phil:  Years ago in San Francisco, I had a friend who started a Japanese duty-free shop and his complaint was the Japan airlines actually owned all the other Japanese duty‑free shops, and that they would give the Japanese tourists their own separate credit cards, playing on the fear of crime by saying, “Don’t bring any money use credit cards.” They would steer them to shops that they owned to buy duty‑free or anything else that they wanted. All the money basically went back to Japan, and none of it stayed in San Francisco. I understand that there could be frustration, in terms or all‑inclusive, that you don’t get the community benefit of these companies being here. Again, we really haven’t been here long enough to get a sense of that.

EE:  I’d like to think that your company and others joining the neighborhood might hopefully create that organically. More restaurants opening up to cater towards you guys.

Phil:  I don’t think the presence of “The Center for Investigative Reporting” is going to create restaurants, but I get your point. That would be great, to have more choices. I think you mentioned the shuttle. One criterion we had that was very important to us was we needed to be near BART. Actually, originally our goal was no more than two blocks because a lot of folks take BART.

and I think, again, of the pluses and minuses. The pluses were strong enough, so that we decided that … there was a shuttle service. We tested it. People at the CIR tested it. People who come here on their bikes tested it.

Particularly, as they saw the space, which is a great space, people became less and less reluctant or concerned about the extra time that it would take to do the shuttle. It does take extra time, but there is a shuttle. Although, I read up last night, because you warned me … that might be a topic of conversation. I’m hardly an expert but I understand the controversy over the shuttle.

EE:  Yeah, just to recap it, the former political figure I mentioned earlier, Ken Bukowski, he leads basically a lobbyist organization for small and mid-size companies. They don’t really see a benefit of the Emery Go‑Round. They don’t have employees that use it, or have businesses that benefit from it, warehouses, that kind of thing. I think they charge per square foot, they’re rebelling a little bit. And there are other issues. I think they’re at capacity and the budget’s stretched thin. They have a “task force” right now that’s trying to iron everything out.

Phil:  I’m skeptical of task forces because in journalism they never come up with a conclusion that’s been helpful. But it’s does seem, in reading your pieces and others, that there are alternatives they they’re suggesting. They may be attractive to some groups, but at least people are thinking about what are some other ways that we can pay for the service …

EE:  I think everybody wants to keep it. We’ll see where it funnels out. I guess you’ve already expressed how important it was for your employees as an option for getting here. Hopefully avoiding getting in their cars.

Phil:  Yeah, one of our board members, she and her husband have investment in a shuttle service that you can set up anywhere. Theoretically, we could have done something here but, frankly, it was less expensive and more convenient for us to use the existing shuttle. If it hadn’t been here I think we may very well have made a different choice. Not to take sides, but it’s a fact of life.

EE:  I guess it should be noted to prospective Emeryville companies. If they’re going to commit to a long lease here it would probably be of interest to make sure the Emery Go‑Round is going to survive. If they pull it you’re stuck … back in your car. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I hope they’re going to work out some compromise, but we’ll see.

Phil:  Again, the fact that they have options on the table is always a good sign.

EE:  Yeah, I think they want to. Something we touched on earlier, on the way to coffee, you might be familiar with Emeryville’s seedy past? Do you have any stories to share?

Phil:  I saw this coming. Again, I think I had a girlfriend in 1974 whose sister lived in the high‑rise…

EE:  This is pre‑UC Davis?

Phil:  Post. [a girlfriend] who had a sister who lived in whatever high‑rise it was that looked like … I think it was all out there pretty much by itself.

EE:  Probably Watergate …

Phil:  Probably Watergate. That was my entire knowledge of Emeryville other than just sort of passing by and occasionally seeing factory outlets sprouting up on the right‑hand side of the freeway going East. So when you said, “Emeryville story seediness,” that’s not the correlation that I make.

EE:  I guess it goes back to, I think it was a former chief of police, John Lacoste. Apparently he basically ran the city out of a restaurant, “The Townhouse.” Before that…

Phil:  These are the great stories that I think we miss when we’re not able to support local news. I think, “What are you left with?” You have your blog, and there may be others, but the struggle to … you know your question about, the struggle to have those things survive.

I have a friend, Eve Batey, who runs something called I hired Eve at the Chronicle to help us with digital transition. She’s really good. She really cares and works her ass off to put out news about San Francisco that you might not find elsewhere, but the survival piece is really challenging. What happens is, stories like that can happen … I remember when I was still at the “Examiner” with a guy who’s since passed away. He was a great reporter. He went on to Bloomberg, Dave Dietz … we did something about this guy name Bill Oldenburg, who was sort of a billionaire developer. He had this piece of property over in Richmond. The Richmond city council at that point, it was like the Wild West.

EE:  Dysfunctional.

Phil:  Had we not gotten there through this guy who had a bigger profile in San Francisco, and leased the top floors of 101 California, and got in Herb Caen’s column all the time, we never would have gotten to that story about Richmond.

I think that’s a tragedy because people of, say, Emeryville, in this era that you’re talking about, deserve to have as much revealed about that as can possibly be revealed so that they can make informed judgments about, “Do they like having a guy run the city out of a coffee shop, or a bar, wherever it is, or do they not?” and, “How is he running it?”

EE:  Yeah, there are a lot of stories like that that are just evaporating with the sands of time …

Phil:  I was at a panel last night where some of the real “greybeards” of journalism, with a couple of sort of younger types. This was a study done at the Shorenstein Center, the Press and Public Policy at Harvard. Very briefly this question of local came up and there really was no answer. In other words, your question, “Patch is disintegrating. Is there a way to support local news reporting?” There was a guy there who runs “WordPress.” A young guy…

EE:  Matt Mullenweg? My hero!

Phil:  Matt. I have to say … we walked into the room. It was like, not just that he walked into the wrong room, but the wrong era.

Everybody else there was retired “New York Times,” retired “Wall Street Journal,” retired “Time Warner.” They all knew each other from the Times, or somewhere else.

EE:  “What’s a content management system?”

Phil:  No, but they had studied this very hard at the Shorenstein Center. “Should we have started charging 15‑years ago instead of giving it away?”

“Should there be engineers not only at the table, but perhaps running some of these media organizations?” “Yes, there should.”

But Matt, I think, took a whole different perspective, which is a much more crowd‑friendly approach, obviously.

But he talked at one point. He and Will Hearst were having a little back and forth. Will was like, “If I find somebody who’s passionate, and good at what they do, and wants to report on something, I want to hire that person.”

He was talking about how blogs may end up being paid products for media organizations. I know Will for 30‑plus years, and I think this has been his view all along. I think he was very much ahead of the game on that.

Matt’s view was, “If you get paid for it, it might diminish your enthusiasm.” People who are really passionate don’t care if they get paid.

EE: That’s where I’m at. [laughter]

Phil: Right, so you’re valuable in that way, but you may not be sustainable.

EE: So The Center for Investigative Reporting has broken some major news stories. Can you spotlight a few that summarize what the CIR for audience members that may not be familiar with…?

Phil:  Yeah. Just in the last week there have been a ton. Together with ABC we did a story about an ongoing story that we’ve been doing. Aaron Glantz, our veterans reporter, has been breaking stories nationally about problems in the Veteran’s Administration and the wait time for disability claims. The Senate passed 99 to zero, I think it was yesterday or the day before, a bill that included…

Aaron had written a story about over‑prescription of opiates to vets. In other words, sort of this, “You just prescribe them a ton of opiates and send them out the door.” This was creating, of course, all sorts of problems. The Senate passed a bill, which included a provision that said that the VA had to offer alternatives to opiates. That was a pretty big impact on a lot of people. It was for the public good, and hopefully will get instituted in a way that actually serves the public. At the same time, that’s sort of the macro level. At the slightly more local level we did this thing about the Richmond housing project, which is one of the worst in the country. About the…

EE:  Infestations, crime…

Phil:  Not just the horrible conditions there but the fact that the administrators were paying themselves for vacations. It was one of those typical, “There’s trouble here, and people not acting the way they should, and not being responsible in their jobs.”

Of course, that’s a fundamental duty of journalism is to shine a light on that stuff. We not only did that, we went in there and we did a story which was on NewsHour and spread around in The Chronicle and spread around. It led to the Housing Authority investigating each and every unit and everybody’s audit, Richmond Officials.

We brought with us these kids from Youth Speaks, the national spoken word organization, because we had a relationship with Youth Speaks where we felt that they could benefit from facts. Their work is almost purely emotional and experiential.

They talk about, if it’s diabetes, they’re from disadvantaged communities that suffer disproportionately. You give them some actual credible facts, it turns out that their performances are much more powerful. In the past what we’ve done is they come in behind us and Stocked and we did some stuff about the problems with Stocked.

They wrote some poems that were based, in part, on our reporting. In this case, these kids, these three poets, went into the projects with the report and so had that experience.

The idea being that we can take them from being kids at that age ‑‑ and not just that age but a little older and a little younger ‑‑ who either hate the news, don’t trust it, don’t like it, are not interested in it, don’t think it serves them, and, in fact, refer to it as “the news” in a negative sense. The news wants to talk to us when we’re shooting in Oakland.

Let them know that journalism is something that can help them, help their art, help them understand better the circumstances that they care about, and, at the same time, we get from them a whole different perspective ‑‑ a perspective from a much younger point of view.

A different platform for our stories because even though it’s an artistic license piece they’re still rapping, or they’re still reciting poetry about our stories. In that way, open the door to younger people understanding what we do and also understanding what they do and having a better relationship.

I think that happened. I think the Richmond experience…and they made a video, these three poets. I think it opened their mind further, and I think it empowered them in a greater way to be able to create art with not just a message but backed‑up by facts.

Those are two very disparate things that we’ve done lately that I think were pretty good and interesting.

EE:  It sounds like it could be a great marriage of exposing them to journalism and showing them the tools that they can use to get their message out, as well. Then you can make an impact. You can harness those two things.

Phil:  The kicker of it is this is what CIR does that no one else does. There are other great journalism organizations out there, fortunately, investigative journalist organizations. In terms of innovating in this particular way, we have a video unit and no other journalism investigative non‑profit has a video unit. We do our own video work.

We have a radio show called Reveal that we’re doing pilots for right now that may turn into a weekly show. We’re definitely multi‑platform, not just in word but in deed. Innovation as we reflect the area we live in.

EE:  You guys were just a lot more nimble in adapting to the new…

Phil:  We were a lot more, sometimes, impulsive in a way that I think is mostly good. Opportunity comes along to do something differently and with greater impact. We have a woman here who’s an impact tracker.

EE:  She’s looking at data.

Phil:  She’s looking at data. She’s a PhD. A [Carnegie] Mellon Fellow for two years here. We hope she stays. She’s been now asked by media organizations around the country to come talk to them about how she tracks the impact of stories.

EE:  Couldn’t do that besides polling people with newspaper two decades ago …

Phil:  Not only couldn’t you do it two decades ago, but I would argue that a lot of journalists didn’t want to do it. “What do you mean you’re going to put comments on my stories? Those trolls!” I don’t want people commenting on my stories. I don’t have time dealing with the public. I’m too busy being a journalist.

I think that that…what I always called the “higher calling disease” “I have a higher calling and I don’t need to mess with the public. I do my job and I write my stories and it’s their problem” That is not a very helpful way to serve the public.

EE:  I can’t imagine, in my case as a Web designer, designing something and having a thread of comments critiquing it. That’s journalism. It’s the new journalism.

Phil:  I hope that becomes journalism, where the public does play a role. Whether crowdsourcing becomes the best way to get at a story or another way to get at a story or not, I think if you ignore the public and you think dealing with the public is just icky and unnecessary I think you’re dead as a journalist.

EE:  I think the exciting thing for Emeryville residents is right here in our 1.2 square miles the CIR is breaking not only local stories, not even national stories, but international stories all right here from this epicenter.

Phil:  All right here within Emeryville, right by the train tracks. Motivated by that whistle every day.

EE:  You’ve broken some stories that are going to make an impact and there’s going to be a lot more. We’ll definitely be following it. So, what makes a good investigative reporter? I’m asking this for selfish reasons because I have a little bit of a thirst for it. Is the Bay area and its Liberal‑leaning politics a good breeding ground for developing good investigative journalists?

Phil:  I would say that I have known great investigative journalists who personally probably are much more Conservative than some others. Conservative or Libertarian even. I wouldn’t agree that the Bay area necessarily…even though we are the oldest … 37‑years‑old … been around forever. Very aggressive and, some would argue, “progressive” journalists.

I think that the political climate is really not what creates great investigative journalists. I think if you’re in a less vocal place and less voluble place ‑‑ the Midwest, say, as an example ‑‑ and there’s less of this public debate that goes on and protest that goes on, all the more reason why you would be motivated because then you have the guy running the city out of a restaurant and no one’s paying attention because no one knows about it. They probably should know. I think that the key thing is … when I used to hire reporters, not just investigative reporters, the two things that were required …

I’m a dropout. I’m an academic “total disaster” so I didn’t look for their degree. What I looked for was was there any hint of magic in their writing? Were there lyrical turns of phrase that just hit you? Did they understand that writing a story or telling a story is like a musical piece. You have to compel people to read it. You want to make it compelling as a story. To do that, you have to pay attention to where you put the quote attributions and you use this word versus that word. I think that’s important. But mostly, it was inviting curiosity and an open mind.

If you had those two things, you had the makings of a really good journalist. Writing is partly teachable, partly innate. The “snooping” is very teachable, but, again, you have to have that instinct to want to get your nose in other people’s business and find out what’s really going on.

EE:  I wish more people had that. [laughter] I’ve had a struggle trying to track down like‑minded people to help stir things up …

Phil:  I guess that surprised me a little bit. I grew up in the post‑Watergate era where newsrooms had money and were flooded with journalists. When I went to The Examiner in 1980 I was 29. There had been a whole raft of people of my generation who had been hired there and everybody was motivated by this “You can challenge a US administration” and, in fact, have them brought down by their own misdeeds through reporting. That was a very encouraging thing. I think we’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs since then. That was the boomer class of journalists.

EE:  I guess we need another catalyst like that …

Phil:  It happens every day in journalism. Something is exposed. What we pursue more aggressively than some others is the impact. Something happens. We’re not the ones who are going to tell you what to think or do, you have to figure that out, but we have to help you by providing you with all the material and information that you need. That’s where a lot of media organizations still are what some would call the “leave it there approach”. Here’s a story, have a nice time. We’re on to the next thing. I don’t think that that’s always a great public service.

EE:  A big part of what you’re doing is just getting the conversation started about things. Hopefully the things that people latch on to just grow organically. One little nugget could turn into a Watergate, I guess.

Phil:  Well I think that there’s a danger of looking for the “big story” in every story because every story is not a big story. In fact, a lot of stories, particularly in investigative journalism, you can follow down the rat hole and they don’t go anywhere. So I think you have to be a little modest. I used to be a criminal justice reporter in the early days of The Examiner, and I’d just wander around the Hall of Justice or the Federal building and get to know people. You sniff stuff out and you say, “This is an interesting story and it has some broader implications and it’s traumatic and not being told. Let me tell that story.”

EE:  I’m sure for every great story you’ve written, you’ve probably thought there was a story and it led to a dead-end, just wasn’t there.

Phil:  All the time. Hopefully, you find that out earlier rather than later.

EE:  Yeah, waste all your resources there. So do you think the foundation and member supported journalism like CIR will always be viable or do you eventually think other funding sources, including state and federal support, will be needed to sustain it?

Phil:  Other than public broadcasting, news organizations have not taken government money. And I think that’s probably a good thing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be careful if you take a bunch of money from a private individual, that that person might not have some interest that they’d like represented. That’s not our job. So people who give us money always need to understand, no matter how much it is, we’re not doing this to become your private news service. We have actually told some of our larger donors who deal with a lot of businesses, “At some point, we may end up on your doorstep, you understand that, right?” “Yeah, OK, OK.”

EE:  Keep your nose clean and we won’t have to…

Phil:  Work, take your risks, whatever you’re going to do. So I think that the government thing is not going to happen. Will Hearst said yesterday on this panel that he thought philanthropy was a critical part of supporting this kind of journalism. I agree. I’m glad he thinks that, because he’s a supporter of ours. We keep looking at different ways. We have these things called “lunch clubs” where we bring potential donors, our board members and others, and kind of dramatize the investigation of the moment. Those are very popular. Should we charge for those? Maybe we should.

EE:  I guess the jury’s still out on the New York Times and their paywall …

Phil:  The guy from The New York Times who started it, Martin Nisenholtz, was at this thing last night. He was, of course, encouraged by it, but he’s there. The New York Times still has some legacy issues that could be problematic, but if a legacy media outlet is going to survive, it’s probably going to be The Times.

EE:  I’ve hit obstacles before in trying to get information about a story. What do you think are the biggest adversaries to sustaining quality investigative reporting today and its biggest allies?

Phil:  Adversaries, basically the tendency of powerful institutions, government being the most or one of the most powerful, to continue to want to create their own narrative. That’s why you have press conferences. That’s why you have press secretaries. That’s why you have press releases. Is to spin. Their job is to create a little bit of a mythology about what they do, to perpetuate themselves and to sell it.

Our job is to pull the curtain back. There will be that constant adversarial relationship which is natural. I think that’s always an obstacle.

I think the Obama Administration has been worse than any other previous administration combined in going after the sources of information for journalists, and in threatening to put journalists like Jim Risen of the New York Times in jail for not revealing their sources. That’s going to be an obstacle.

As you pointed out earlier, social media is a big plus. How we use it, how you verify it, how you stitch it together remains to be seen. It’s had a dramatic impact on revolutions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world, so journalists have to figure out how to best use that to provide context and depth for those people that want that.

We’re still trying to figure it out, I mean … stuff changes every day. Every day. BuzzFeed is hiring investigative reporters, FOX is hiring investigative reporters … Pierre Omidyar wants to hire investigative reporters. Ya know, that’s been a big change over the last couple of years …

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

1 Comment

  1. Great interview, I had no idea the CIR was just down the street from me! I like how you touched on not just their journalism but also more Emeryville-focused questions.

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