The Chauncey Bailey Project has been billed as a rare show of professional solidarity in response to the death of a journalist in the line of duty. The project, named for the Oakland Post editor shot on Aug. 2, allegedly by a handyman for Your Black Muslim Bakery, comprises an impressive array of talent joining forces to investigate the circumstances around Bailey's killing, supposedly putting collaboration before competition. It includes local journalism-school programs, media nonprofits, broadcast outlets, and the Bay Area News Group, which owns the Oakland Tribune, The Contra Costa Times, and the San Jose Mercury News.
But the spirit of collaboration has been sullied somewhat by the refusal of the region's biggest daily to participate, and also by the failure of project organizers to invite a local newsweekly that was first to investigate the group Bailey was writing about.
Right before the Bailey Project unveiled its initial stories two weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicle ran its own three-day series examining Bailey's murder and the Bey family, the clan that runs Your Black Muslim Bakery. While that may not sound very collegial, Stephen Proctor, the Chron's deputy managing editor for news, defends his paper's decision to go solo, arguing that fighting for scoops will make for better journalism. "Competition is good for getting to the truth," he says.
Proctor adds that by the time the Chron heard from a Bailey Project rep in mid-September, his reporters had been working on their own investigation for several weeks, since Bailey's murder was a big local story. (An interesting aside: Proctor was invited by Bailey Project coordinator Robert Rosenthal, the Chron's former managing editor, who resigned earlier this year.)
While a couple of participants privately groused about the Chron's decision to do its own thing, Sandy Close, the executive director of New America Media who got the Bailey Project off the ground, says it doesn't bother her. She says she thought the Chron series did a good job developing a narrative and ultimately helped shine a bigger spotlight on the story.
Maybe it's not unexpected that the Chron, which considers itself the region's top news dog, would insist on forging ahead alone. Perhaps more curious was the failure of project organizers to invite the East Bay Express before the joint effort's official launch two weeks ago. (The SF Weekly also didn't get a call.)
Five years ago, the Express ran a series of groundbreaking articles going where no other Bay Area news organization would go, examining the nefarious dealings of the Bey family and its leader, the late Yusuf Bey. The reporter of those stories, Chris Thompson, had to go into hiding for a while after receiving death threats.
Stephen Buel, the Express' editor (and my former boss), heard that one of the news outlets in the Bailey Project had a beef with his paper. But he says Close recently assured him that no one meant to snub the Express. "It's definitely odd that the one newspaper that owned the story of Your Black Muslim Bakery wasn't invited to participate in this project until after it was formally announced," he says. "Sandy Close told me that was an unintentional oversight, and I take her word for that."
A contrite Close told the SF Weekly much the same thing, saying there was no conscious effort to exclude anyone. She says that after Bailey's murder she sent out an e-mail to colleagues to meet and talk. From there, momentum increased for a collaboration, although "it grew kind of organically, without any centralized direction."
"There was no entrance requirement," she added. "It was come one, come all."
Buel has nonetheless declined Close's belated invitation, and says the Express will pursue the story on its own. In fact, just last week the paper had its own scoop about members of the Bey family possibly engaging in real-estate fraud. (Maybe more competition is a good thing.)
The Bailey Project is reminiscent of the Arizona Project, in which a collective of reporters descended on the desert state after Arizona Republic writer Don Bolles was killed in 1976 while working on investigative stories on organized crime and real-estate fraud. The Arizona Project wound up being fraught with professional discord. (Sound familiar?) Although the project produced more than 40 stories, the Arizona Republic ironically refused to print them, citing legal concerns, and the Washington Post and The New York Times declined to participate. Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national nonprofit that provides resources for investigative journalists, hoped to continue this type of team approach, but it's never happened again — until now.