Q & A with Martin Reynolds

Oakland Tribune editor talks about The Chauncey Bailey Project

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism recently awarded the 2009 Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for Best Reporting of Racial Bias and Intolerance to The Chauncey Bailey Project, for its probative reporting on the 2007 assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating a community empowerment enterprise called Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, California. In part because of reporting done by the project (a coalition of area news organizations, freelance and retired journalists, journalism schools, media organizations and funders), the Oakland police chief resigned and the lead police detective was suspended for ignoring evidence against one of the murder suspects. We spoke with Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune, one of the lead news organizations on the project, about the eighteen-month collaboration and where it will go from here.

How do you keep up momentum for a project like this that has spanned a year and a half?

Something that everyone understood from the beginning was the magnitude of this—and we had a model to follow also, which was The Arizona Project. We all understood the gravity of what this whole thing meant. And many of us knew Chauncey. I knew Chauncey personally; I worked with him for probably eight or nine years at the Tribune. And so, I knew his son; we played softball together and basketball at lunch. It was personal and it was professional.

Tell me a little bit about how the collaboration started.

Well, a few days after Chauncey was killed, Sandy Close from New American Media and Joy Maynard from the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (and it might have been Neil Henry from UC Berkeley), but I guess it was Sandy who really called the journalism community together at a restaurant in Berkeley and the question was, what are we going to do and how are we going to respond to this? A lot of people had different things to say about it, and it was decided that we had to continue what Chauncey was looking into.

There were some early indications that he had been working on a story that had something Your Black Muslim Bakery didn’t want out. At that point, she then asked if the Tribune would sort of serve as the lead news organization, and we of course said that we would. From there we had a big meeting in the Tribune news conference room, and… do you remember that song “We Are The World” that was sung by all these famous musicians? It was almost like “We Are The World”—you had all these people from competing news organizations, people from all different walks of journalistic life in this room and it was quite tense, these early meetings. We had a couple meetings talking about direction and which way to go; some of them were with Paul Cobb who was the publisher of the Oakland Post, and then we got Rosie—Robert Rosenthal—to come on, who is now at the Center of Investigative Reporting. At that time he reminded us all the time he was unemployed, which was pretty funny.

Was there friction as you figured out how to work together?

There was tension at times, especially as I said in the first meetings, when we were trying to find our way, and there were competing agendas, and people were uncomfortable with having competition in the room and if you had sources, were you going to share them, and that sort of thing. Eventually, the answer was yes, of course we are, and we did. And I also think, going forth, it’s a model for news organizations in the same markets and maybe even across markets, to figure out how to sustain the newsgathering process while this whole business model shakes out. I think there are some opportunities for big projects where you say, okay, we need to do this to stay relevant to the community, so if we can do something and cross-pollinate with your medium and my medium and our resources with your resources, to do a big investigation, we can look to the Bailey Project as a roadmap to how you can duplicate that for other stories.

In practice, how did the collaboration work?

A lot of people floated in and floated out; you had people from UC Berkeley and the kids from San Francisco State coming in and crunching numbers. It really was a collaborative effort from competing organizations, you know. There were different places where we met; we did some stuff out of the Center for Investigative Reporting for a while, we did some stuff out of the Tribune’s newsroom. So you’d have people like [retired journalist] Mary Fricker who would come down from Sebastopol and sleep in a cold garage. She was just insane, and would come down and work—many a night, I’d come to work and she’d be there, and I’d leave and she’d [still] be there. And then of course [independent journalist] Bob Butler and Thomas Peele, who is the investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, which is my company—we’ve had him on the story exclusively for eighteen months.

What significance do you see here for collaborative, investigative journalism?

A lot of people say, well, news organizations can’t do investigative journalism [anymore], but that wasn’t why we came together. It wasn’t because the Tribune or the Bay Area News Group couldn’t have done it. But I don’t think that it would have been anywhere close to what it was or made the statement that it did, because we also had Channel 2 KTVU, Channel 7 at one point, KQED, and KCBS have aired stories—so we had all these different mediums and entities who would link out. We had a big story for instance, that talked about the phone records that had been ignored and really pointed to a conspiracy, as well as this videotape [of Your Black Muslim Bakery leader Yusuf Bey IV describing the shooting in detail and bragging about being protected by his friendship with the lead detective on the case]. When we came out with that, that was a huge break—we had coordinated television with that as well, and we subjugated us coming out first thing in the morning with having the 10 o’clock news do a story at night and then saying “you can read about it in the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times,” which is a pretty big departure from what you would do in a normal competitive environment.

If we [as news organizations] are going to redefine ourselves going forward, investigative reporting is one of the things that have to be part of what we are and what we remain. So if that means developing these partnerships that before we wouldn’t have done because we would have just done it ourselves, I think it’s something we have to take into account and do.

How about going forward; what’s next?

Obviously, we’re going to continue to follow the trials, every hearing, every court appearance; we will be there. Whether it is a Chauncey Bailey Project story or just an Oakland Tribune staff story, we will certainly be covering this stuff gavel to gavel. And we want to see justice meted out. The outgrowth of this has been an effort to see that the institutions within the city of Oakland are held to a higher standard, the police department, city officials, and the like. For a long time there hasn’t been this level of probative newspaper coverage or media coverage of the goings on within the Oakland police department. We’re not trying to tear it down, we’re just trying to make it more of a functional organization, and that’s really the goal.

Another thing that has been nice about this has been that the California Endowment, which was one of the funders, has expressed a desire on some of its other projects to potentially put together a Bailey-esque kind of collaborative reporting project to report on some of the initiatives that the foundation is doing. So people are already using the Bailey Project sort of as an adjective, and that’s pretty cool.

What would you say you’ve learned in the course of doing this?

It’s that what’s most important when you’re talking about serving a community is the journalism; it’s not the competition. And I think we have to really re-think what our priorities are. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be first and right, but we can’t afford at this point to be so focused on competition that we forget that we’re in survival mode now, redefining ourselves. And if we can work together as journalists, we can do great good and remain essential to the communities we cover, and that means sometimes ignoring that traditional competitive spirit and making it collaborative instead.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.