AJR  Features :     * WEB ONLY    
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Filling the Gap   

Web exclusive
California Watch, a new investigative reporting venture, is launching a beefed-up online operation.

By Stephanie Gleason
Stephanie Gleason is an AJR editorial assistant.     

In a state where the "news climate has suffered more than any other," in the words of journalist Mark Katches, a grant-funded, California-focused, investigative journalism organization is emerging. California Watch, which released its first article in September, then hibernated for awhile, is launching a full-fledged Web presence.

A project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch is designed to help fill the void in in-depth reporting in California created by an avalanche of layoffs by news organizations. While seeking funding for the new venture, "we could really point to the number of journalists who were no longer in Sacramento [the state capital]" and to the need to rebuild the state's roster of reporters, says Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting. The center has received $3.5 million in grants from the Knight, Irvine and Hewlett Foundations for the new reporting initiative.

California Watch is essentially a boutique wire service that offers in-depth journalism to for-profit news organizations for several hundred dollars per story. (The content is free for non-profit news outlets.) Its first story, "America's War Within," an investigation of waste and mismanagement in the administration of homeland security grants in California, was released on September 11. It was published by 30 news organizations and appeared on the front pages of 25 newspapers.

The homeland security story was offered at three lengths, translated into four languages and customized with local angles for seven newspapers. Ultimately, 14 versions of the story reached an audience of 1.8 million people.

"In a newspaper you would call this a department focused on your state," says Rosenthal, who once was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. But in the case of California Watch, "You're not just working for a newspaper but multiple news organizations."

After the release of "American's War Within," California Watch intentionally "sort of vanished into thin air for about six weeks," in order to focus completely on the Web site, Editorial Director Mark Katches says. It resurfaced on November 19 with a series about the increasing number of students in classes in California and will launch the beefed-up Web site January 6. Katches describes the initial bare-bones site as a "placeholder," explaining that instead of wasting energy on improving it, the organization put its energy into the creation of the new site.

In addition to publishing California Watch's major investigative efforts, the site will feature daily reporting and many multidimensional Web resources. It will include two blogs and plans to post new items eight to 10 times a day. One of the blogs will feature breaking news, updates on investigations and links to other watchdog reporting in California. The other will focus on the activities and procedures of the California Watch newsroom and the overall state of journalism, especially in California. The site includes searchable databases on such subjects as campaign spending, stimulus grants, lobbying and contractor expenditures. It also features a resources page with tools, interfaces, guides and story ideas so citizens can do their own watchdog reporting.

California Watch has hired seven investigative reporters and will add two more in the spring. "We have a little army here," says Katches, a former deputy managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and senior team leader at the Orange County Register. The staff also includes two multimedia producers and a four-person editorial management team. California Watch shares offices and support staff with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"I can't think of a better thing to have at this particular moment," says Lowell Bergman, producer and correspondent for PBS's "Frontline" and the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Professor of Investigative Reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Bergman says that widespread layoffs and buyouts have left many vital stories uncovered. For example, in the past, he says, many judges used to complain about newspaper coverage of their cases. With today's depleted roaster of reporters, "now the complaint is that there's no reporter covering their trial. There's no reporter for them to talk to meaningfully about some demographic change in the community that affects policing, for instance."

Media critic Ben Bagdikian, author of "The New Media Monopoly" and a former dean at the Berkeley J-school, acknowledges both the need for more investigative reporting and the fact that California Watch is important for the state. But, he noted in an e-mail interview, the foundation-supported model isn't a panacea for journalism. For one thing, he says, there simply aren't enough big foundations to fund similar projects in every state. He also expresses concern that "extremist" foundations might start funding journalism.

But the model is a work in progress. One of California Watch's goals is to reduce its dependency on grants. Its leaders haven't decided whether they will continue with their current approach to pricing their content or instead switch to subscriptions or memberships. The new Web site is expected to bring in additional revenue via advertising.

While California Watch isn't giving content away, its leaders decided to keep prices low at the start. It's important to establish that California Watch's output is consistently first-rate, Katches says.

In Bergman's view, there's no question that the new initiative has a vital role to play. "It's filling a vacuum that's clearly there," he says. "The question will be whether it can survive" and how long foundations will continue to support it.

But Rosenthal is confident. "This is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, and part of our mandate is to be as transparent as possible and hopefully help other similar organizations get off the ground," he says. "I think we're going to do..really important stories, investigative stories, stories that offer solutions to problems and really have an impact on California."