Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bay Citizen, NYT Partner in SF,
Evasive on $17M Fiscal Transparency

As a news junkie, I have followed the creation of the Bay Citizen, a regional online news service that twice-weekly provides content to the New York Times' print and online Bay Area section. There is serious money underwriting this effort, but scant financial transparency from its leaders.

The Bay Citizen's site explains their start:

Concerned about the negative impact of this decline on the community, in early 2009 local philanthropist Warren Hellman convened an advisory committee to examine the issue and offer possible solutions. In January 2010, after many months of research and planning, and with a generous $5 million contribution from the Hellman Family Foundation, The Bay Citizen (first known as the Bay Area News Project) was founded.

That figure is lower than what the FAQ page states:

We launched with $9 million in start-up funding from foundations, philanthropists, corporations, and individual members.

Did they launch with $5 or $9 million in the bank? Would be good of the Bay Citizen to clarify how much they started with, to help watchdogs track their funding.

In January 2011 the project touted raising even more money, shared some detailed about where it came from and what a few big donors had given:

The $10 million was contributed by a broad array of philanthropists, foundations, members and corporations, including $1 million gifts from the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund; the Fisher Family Fund; the Elizabeth and William Patterson Foundation; Jeff and Laurie Ubben; and Diane B. Wilsey. Other contributors include the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund; Arthur Rock; and Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor. The Bay Citizen also welcomed First Republic Bank and Wells Fargo as major corporate sponsors. (A full list of contributors is available at

It's safe to say this news outlet has taken in at least $17 million since Warren Hellman began the project in 2009, more than two-years ago. That's a lot of money, and certainly raised my curiosity about the Bay Citizen's fiscal transparency, along with their oft-stated mission to not only deliver the news but also "foster civic engagement".

This is the background that led me this week to follow-up on a phone chat I had in June with the project's director of marketing, Rose Roll, who is listed at GuideStar as the person to contact for info regarding their IRS 990.

Here are many of the questions sent to Roll and several colleagues.

When do you expect the first IRS 990 filing from your accounting firm to be delivered to your CEO, Linda Frazier? Any idea when she will accept and sign off on the filing, thus becoming on that date, the filing available for public inspection?

There is no annual report on your web site. My recollection from our phone conversation is that you hope to have the report ready sometime in July. Do you have a date for when this fiscal document will be posted?

I am a longtime sunshine and non-profit accountability advocate, and find it deplorable that the Bay Citizen with $9 million in startup funds currently shares not even a single page of data about that kitty. How about immediately posting a breakdown of how much came from which source and expenses?

Other pushy questions asked about town hall meetings as part of their non-profit agenda, if their board meetings were open or closed to the public, and would they share board minutes on their site.

Additionally, I wanted to know how much their media partners - the New York Times, UC Berkeley School of Journalism, KGO Radio - contribute to the project's budget.

Rolls sent a terse, and very disappointing, reply:

We are currently working on these documents for 2010, which was our first year of operation. The documents will be available on our website in due course. Thank you for your interest.

My response asked the Bay Citizen's top leaders to reconsider giving me decent answers. This reply hit my in-box today, from Jonathan Weber who is editor in chief:

[A]s Rose said, we will have 2010 financial info posted in due course. We were founded in 2010 and our reporting of financial data is in line with normal practices as to timing. We have around 30 employees and that pretty much explains how we are spending money. The tone of your questions indicates that you think we have something to hide, which most certainly is not the case. We're just not in a position to answer detailed questionnaires of this sort in advance of posting the information on our site.

A very evasive reply that would please Rupert Murdoch, in boldly attempting to swat away basic fiscal and accountability concerns. Wish I knew why Rolls and Weber only tersely address the IRS 990 and annual report questions, totally ignoring my other questions. Wonder what they would tell their reporters to do if they had made similar queries of a $17 million non-profit, and were stonewalled.

Rather humorously, Weber thinks I should simply accept his word that his employee costs "pretty much" should satisfy my curiosity about his budget and revenue sources.

Reminds me of the days before we had GuideStar and everyone had to ask AIDS Inc nonprofits for their IRS 990s, and the charities wanted to know why the tax filings were being requested, how they would be used by the requester, etc. AIDS groups also once dismissed their critics, saying the tone of their requests and statements that high salaries were at the expense of direct services to people with AIDS were offensive. Life is unfair.

With $17 million, a deep back bench of private foundations, wealthy individuals and myriad corporate donors, extended partnerships with the New York Times, UC Berkeley and ABC/Disney's local AM radio outlet and a host of local online news sites, there should be more much more fiscal transparency from the Bay Citizen.

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