News Innovators on the Frontline: Voice of San Diego

Posted on 24. Jul, 2009 by in New News Organization, News Ecosystem, Not-For-Profit

As metro newspapers have faced an ugly year of decline and collapse, media observers have pointed to a number of not-for-profit efforts around the country that might fill the void. The Voice of San Diego is a notable example of a new breed of news organizations already taking up the slack, which is more than simply a theoretical discussion since the Union-Tribune was recently sold and endured a hefty round of layoffs.

Voice of San Diego bannerThe Economist, in a story on the future of the news business, called Voice of San Diego a “small, scrappy news website,” praising them for covering “nitty-gritty issues such as water, crime and health care—the sort of stories that local newspapers used to cover extensively.” That coverage has included an award-winning series on local redevelopment projects gone wrong. Founded in 2004, the Voice now employs 11 reporters, supported by a combination of foundation support (including the Knight Foundation, which is also funding this project), individual donations, and advertising. Their readership has grown too, peaking this spring at just over 60,000 unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast. We spoke to Voice editor Andrew Donohue earlier this week.

Voice of San Diego Editor Andrew Donohue

Voice of San Diego Editor Andrew Donohue

What is the key to the success you guys have enjoyed that others coming behind should know?
I think a really important thing is to have people from outside of journalism on your board. There’s a natural tendency to try to put a bunch of journalists on your board, in actuality that’s what you know as a journalist. We have people who’ve run start ups, who’ve done venture capital, people who’ve had to know how to run smart agile and small companies and learned to adapt to changing technologies really quickly. That’s a huge plus for us. They challenge you to think in ways you probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Another one is to be incredibly focused on what you’re covering and to know you’re personality from the start. So many people, if they’ve come from a big newspaper, want to try to be everything to everybody. They want to be that general interest, department store kind of publication. Inevitably, if you start something like this you’re going to have a small staff and you need to be incredibly focused and just be the best at something rather than being okay at a lot of things.

When you know your personality you can make news decisions a lot easier. Everyday you have to balance what you cover and decide if you’re going to chase that story or ignore it, put your head down and keep going on a longer-term project that you know you have and that you know no one else has. Or are you going to be one of eight reporters at a press conference?

I’m glad you mentioned the importance of being focused. You’ve written about the luxury your reporters enjoy in not worrying about being a general-interest paper of record, that they “learn how to let the small stuff slide in order to go after the more ambitious stories.” But, what happens if the San Diego Union-Tribune folds? That would take away your ability to lean on that paper of record and go after the high-impact stories, right?
You’ve asked a question that we’ve thought through a hundred times. First, my hope would be that even if the UT did cease to exist, there still would be other publications to do that day-to-day coverage.

Second, I think a lot of that information is being distributed directly by a lot of these organizations now. You have the fire department and police department with their own Twitter feeds and websites. For a long time reporters have served as the police blotter and simply transcribed that back to the public. A lot of the time people don’t need a reporter translating that stuff. So I’m hoping that the barriers to distribution being lower some of this stuff can be communicated to people without a middleman. The idea is that we would be there to fact check and go after the more interesting and necessary stories in-depth.

There will be an ecosystem to replace a lot of that, but what you’re going to see are a lot more but smaller publications.

But, do you envision an expansion of the Voice of San Diego to take up some of that slack? Which gaps would you fill?
We’re envisioning that anyways. We think there is some really interesting and intelligent ways of doing arts and sports coverage that haven’t been done by traditional media through blogs and building communities around readers.

We would certainly like to have a dedicated investigative team. We wouldn’t mind doubling back on some of the things we already cover. We have one full-time political reporter and a region certainly needs more than just one of those. So we’d certainly double back on things like politics, education, housing, and the economy. There are a lot of things we still don’t cover like health care. We have a lot of business stories here that aren’t always told.

So, how do you plan to pay for that expansion and build something that is sustainable without relying on foundation support?
Knight has always been clear that they are not a long-term solution. But, if you look at public broadcasting they still do get funding from foundations. So, we believe we are sustainable. But we don’t ever want to have to rely on only one or two revenue streams.

We’re starting to dream up a lot of different ways to monetize different things. We’re laying the foundation for a syndication service. Another is an obituary section with different levels of service that you would pay different amounts for. We’re also looking at producing reports or content for people very specifically.

None of those are in play right now, as far as getting money, or have any of the rules built around them, but that’s what we’re incubating.

Can you tell me more about the syndication idea?
With the contraction of the last six months, not only in print but also in radio and television, we’ve seen a drastic increase in the desire to partner with us. At the start we were overjoyed to have a partnership with say the NBC affiliate because we had access to a whole new audience that we wanted to get to our site and to magnify the impact of our stories.

The more that that’s happened, the more people have asked us to partner, we’ve realized that the quid pro quo, the trade off, isn’t as great for us now that we’ve done a pretty good job of getting into those markets.

The trade-off for our content no longer is just publicity and we can’t continue providing free content to a bunch of for-profit companies without exploring a way to get some of that money back. Also, if there is going to be a void in the media world we also have an obligation as a non-profit to fill it with public service reporting and high quality news.

Also, part of our metamorphosis is understanding that we’re not a website. A website is the main way that we distribute our information right now, but that’s not in our mission and that’s not our identity. As soon as we’re okay with that, then we’re okay with syndicating our content and then we understand there’s a lot of ways to engage people. For some people that may be the website, for others that’s us putting on on a forum about housing or the economy or post-election analysis.

Those other outlets cut both ways. Yes, they’re great exposure and allow us to fundraise, but they also allow us to get our stories out.

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