California Watch website

It could be a scene right out of any decent movie about newspapers: veteran reporters and editors sit around a big table and bounce around news ideas.

“It gives me chills,” one of the top editors says about a pending news investigation.

“The reporting is so amazing,” responds another.

A movie set? No.  A memory from long ago when newspapers actually had the funds to do in-depth reporting? No.

It’s actually a description of a scenario that happened recently in a modern loft office on Center Street in Berkeley, just a stone’s throw from the university.

The meeting was held at California Watch, a new subsidiary of the Center for Investigative Reporting, one of the country’s oldest nonprofit news organizations. California Watch, started in mid-2009, is a new type of news organization. Its small cadre of reporters investigate issues, but instead of just publishing  the findings in one news outlet, the reports are distributed to newspapers, radio stations, television outlets, and websites around the state. Recent California Watch stories have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Local, the Orange County Register, and KQED.

California Watch is part of “an emerging ecosystem of investigative reporting,” according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

In the past five years, the newspaper industry has cut $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity, according to this article. To fill some of that gap, foundations and philanthropists have poured about $143 million into non-profit news organizations. Since this is just a small percentage of what has been lost, the question remains how much these new organization will be in filling in the gaps.

It’s a large question, and one that can’t be answered just yet. But the article is an interesting peek into one organization that is already making a difference.

Here is just a taste of what is happening in that loft on Center Street:

“Mark Katches was very busy. On his screen was a 147-inch story that he was cutting to a six-inch box that The Fresno Bee had agreed to run, though the Bee would refer readers to the California Watch Web site to see a full multimedia package. The stories were based on a four-month investigation by reporter Erica Perez about public university buildings in California that are judged to be dangerous to occupy in an earthquake. Next up was re-editing the story to a fifty-inch version to send over for a look-see to The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, the Torrance Daily Breeze, and others. Nearly all the papers wanted a few graphs up high about the campus buildings in their circulation areas, and Katches knew from previous collaborations that a few editors would have good suggestions for tweaking the lede or tightening the nut graph. It’s not edit-by-committee, he said; it’s more like “a collective brain.”

Read more here.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...