Time, Money, Public Records: Journalists Discuss State Of Investigative Reporting In San Francisco

As federal investigations expose San Francisco’s far-reaching public corruption, local investigative journalists are experiencing greater barriers in their investigations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a flagging media market.

Local investigative journalists Tim Redmond, Derek Kerr and Alexis Terrazas spoke at a panel about the state of investigative reporting in San Francisco as part of the Save SF News fundraiser. Ingleside Light publisher and editor Alex Mullaney, who also organized the fundraiser, moderated the discussion.

With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating news outlets’ existing struggle to survive, and investigations have become more difficult to pursue, with the added disadvantage of being costlier.

“It takes time to go through documents and records; it takes time to make public records requests; it takes time to track down and interview people; it takes time to be out on the streets looking for information,” said Redmond, editor at 48 Hills. “And that costs money.”

Redmond said funding investigations was difficult even with a robust staff decades ago as the executive director of the former alt.-weekly newspaper the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He recalled when an investigative reporter spent several months on an article that led to the release of a former inmate, who would have otherwise spent 25 years to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“That was time (the author) couldn’t be writing stories every week for the paper,” Redmond said. “Having those kinds of resources is really, really critical.”

Independent outlets are seeking new avenues of income, such as through public funding, to afford investigations. One option, panelists said, is to have more collaborations.

Whereas newsrooms have traditionally avoided sharing resources and sources among competitors, Terrazas, editor at El Tecolote, said he was open to it. He added that he’s seen more Bay Area outlets trying to collaborate.

“It can be messy because of discussions over who has editorial control and whatnot, but I do see that as a way to maximize all of our resources to be able to break stories such as these,” Terrazas said. “As our newsrooms continue to be defunded, I feel like that is one viable solution.”

Outlets have also used fellowships to fund in-depth reporting and investigations. In 2019, El Tecolote used the Juan Gonzales Fellowship to report on the 2020 Census.

At 48 Hills, a $10,000 fellowship enabled two interning journalists to report on how the 55 largest buildings in San Francisco avoided paying about $360 million in taxes through Prop. 13.

“Ten-thousand dollars for any organization would be a big deal,” Redmond said. “The idea that we could do this could be another model for the future, and we sure saved the city more than $10,000.”

While panelists entertained the idea of investigative journalism being publicly funded by San Francisco, Redmond and Kerr expressed concerns about public funding possibly being withheld in response to coverage critical of the city.

“Investigative reporting is often adversarial in a way,” Kerr said. “It’s going after the truth that powerful interests want to conceal. So it makes it hard to get support for investigative journalism because it’s not so friendly and enterprise. It’s the one that may bite the hand that will feed it.”

Kerr pointed to the attempt by Supervisors Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton to prevent the Marina Times from obtaining contracts to publish public notices due to the outlet’s critical coverage. He also spoke about how the city’s whistleblower program avoids revealing which departments are involved when whistleblowers’ complaints are substantiated.

“This is part of the wall of protectionism around the ‘City Family,’” he said. “All of these programs are empathetic toward city officials, and they’re not sympathetic toward whistleblowers, so everything is done in a way to sort of minimize the liability of the city, and unfortunately, they lose the trust of the whistleblowers.”

Additionally, the pandemic has slowed, if not completely restricted, access to different types of public records, which has made corroborating news tips more difficult, panelists said.

Some staffers overseeing public records aren’t in their offices — in one case, prompting the Federal Bureau of Prisons to tell 48 Hills that it should expect a 12-month wait time for a request because no one was present to dig up the records, Redmond said.

Government building closures have also restricted access to documents kept in the assessor-recorder’s office and the Department of Building Inspection.

Terrazas took frustration with the consequences of those barriers. 

“It’s not a well-kept secret anymore that the Latinx community in San Francisco is being hit especially hard by COVID-19,” Terrazas said. “So while you’re trying to access these records and as this can keeps getting kicked down the road, we have people that are suffering.”