How The San Francisco Chronicle rebuilt its investigative team

Last year, an important visitor walked into Audrey Cooper's office with an idea.

Cooper, the editor in chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, had long desired to beef up the paper's investigative reporting. Enter Jeffrey Johnson, The Chronicle's publisher, with a question.

"So, that I-team you wanted to build — how much would it cost?" Cooper recalled Johnson saying.

He was fresh from a screening of "Spotlight," the Academy Award-winning movie that depicts Boston Globe journalists uncovering rampant child abuse by the Catholic Church. At first, Cooper was surprised by Johnson's offer.

"I said, 'are you kidding me? You want to start an I-team after watching a movie?' And he said, 'are you kidding me? You're arguing with me?'"

Then she laughed. "What would I get if I sat you down with my DVD copy of 'All the President's Men?'"

She didn't have to. On Friday, The Chronicle's new investigative team published its first major story, an unsparing yarn that raises big questions about a star-studded San Francisco charity. It ran in print on Sunday and has caused a stir among Bay Area socialites, Cooper said.

"This is the most San Francisco story ever, is it not?" she asked. "You have empty mansions alongside Golden Gate Park. A bad nonprofit that should be helping developmentally disabled people. And haute couture. What could be more San Francisco than that?"

The story is the result of a months-long investigation by The Chronicle's I-team, which dug into 18 years of financial records from Helpers Community Inc., a charity helmed by San Francisco socialite Joy Venturini Bianchi. It describes a nonprofit that has "strayed from its cause," following fishy business practices with little oversight.

But it's ultimately a consequence of that early conversation between Johnson and Cooper, who took steps to build the team as soon as she had the green light. On the same day she talked to Johnson, Cooper got an email from a woman who would eventually join the team, former Chicago Tribune reporter Cynthia Dizikes.

"I thought, 'this is providence,'" Cooper said.

Cooper was interested, but she didn't want to make any hires before she found her editor: Michael Gray, who was previously deputy business editor at The Chronicle. Before rejoining The Chronicle, Gray was senior editor at Ozy and West Coast editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Gradually, the team came together. The Chronicle hired Karen de Sá, a longtime investigative reporter at the The San Jose Mercury News. Joaquin Palomino, a data reporter, joined the team from the business desk. After her out-of-the-blue email, Dizikes wound up joining, too.

For The Chronicle, the hires meant rebuilding a capacity for deep digging that was sapped by leaner times. The decline in print advertising dollars hit regional newspapers hardest in the late 2000s, and The Chronicle was no exception. The newspaper underwent staff cuts that kept the paper from beefing up its investigative capacity.

But before that, The Chronicle broke some major stories on the BALCO steroid scandal that won the 2004 Polk Award and spurred a federal investigation. The reporters behind the story, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, faced prison for refusing to give up a source, who ultimately got them off the hook by pleading guilty.

At the height of the BALCO reporting, San Francisco Magazine published an article, "Who Put the Chron on Steroids?" that described a newspaper reporting bombshell after bombshell despite its reputation for being an investigative lightweight. It was written by Steve Kettmann, who was a sportswriter for The Chronicle from 1990 to 1998. Among other things, Kettmann credited the paper's 2000 merger with the rival San Francisco Examiner for supplying a dogged reporting team created by editor Phil Bronstein.

But by the time Williams eventually left The Chronicle in 2009, he was the last investigative reporter on an I-team that once comprised 12 journalists, he said.

Now that The Chronicle is profitable — no small feat in daily newspapering — and growing its revenue, it felt like time to re-invest, Cooper said.

The Chronicle has increased digital advertising revenue by 20 percent compared to 2015, and that category that comprises 41 percent of the company's revenue. 2016 will be the paper's most profitable year since Hearst acquired the paper in 2000, and The Chronicle is up year over year in both advertising revenue and circulation by mid-digit percentages, Johnson told Poynter in an email.

Williams approved the decision to hire additional investigative reporters, especially in light of cutbacks to I-teams at newspapers across the United States.

“Any investigative reporting is better than no investigative reporting," he said. "I hope they make use of the opportunity. Because it’s really important, and it’s not really being done now."

Having an investigative team also gives the newspaper clout when it's time to recruit journalists, Cooper said. The notion that any reporter in the newsroom can team up with the I-team — as features reporter Carolyne Zinko did for Sunday's story — is a major selling point.

Cooper has considered sending a thank-you note to Marty Baron, The Washington Post executive editor who championed the Catholic Church investigation when he was editor at The Boston Globe. Without those stories, without "Spotlight," The Chronicle's team might never have come to be.

"I always meant to email Marty Baron and say, 'you probably hear this all the time, but it inspired our newsroom to start an I-team,'" Cooper said. "What a great legacy for that movie."

Now, if only another movie about reporting could make its way to theaters.

"I think more people should make movies about journalism, because every time they do, he comes in and gives me more staff," Cooper said with a laugh.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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