In August 2009, back when conferences on the future of American journalism were still urgent but no longer novel, a former city hall reporter named Scott Lewis sat on a roundtable at The Aspen Institute with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then-Google Vice President of Search Marissa Mayer, and Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen. Lewis had forgotten his sport coat but managed to buy one in town before greeting the eminences and settling in for the discussion, which focused on new models for local reporting. It had taken the collapse of the newspaper industry and the loss of more than 16,000 journalism jobs to make the health of local journalism a subject of national relevance, but now it was being discussed at the most elite levels of wealth and power.
The crowd in Aspen believed Lewis might offer a way forward. At 32, he was the CEO of Voice of San Diego, one of the first digital nonprofit local news organizations in the country. Voice was launched in 2005, when newspapers were still strong, to augment what its founders viewed as underperforming local media. As the recession hit and newsroom layoffs mounted, the innovative local experiment became a potential solution to a national panic. In 2008, Voice broke a story about a corrupt redevelopment agency that led to criminal charges against one developer. A few months later, The New York Times ran a front-page story about the small digital operation that was driving coverage of San Diego as the newspaper model collapsed.
The Times story instantly made Voice a fixture of the national conversation, and Lewis and his staff were recruited into the effort to find new models for local reporting in communities throughout the country. “We were this digital operation that was doing the kind of investigative work that everybody was worried might disappear,” Lewis told me. “We just fit everybody’s narrative about what was going on.”
Voice was an early champion of the idea that local accountability reporting might be best achieved with a nonprofit model. It has been a close partner with foundations like Knight as they seek to build replicable models for nonprofit local journalism, receiving numerous grants over the years with the hope that what works to sustain their reporting in San Diego might work elsewhere.
More than five years after it first entered the national spotlight, a stretch that’s included both triumphs and struggles, Voice is in the news once again, this time for championing the membership model as the best way forward for nonprofit local journalism. Memberships are the latest buzz across many swaths of online news, both national and local, for-profit and nonprofit. On the national level, for-profit operations like Slate and Talking Points Memo entice members with perks such as exclusive content and the opportunity to interact with reporters in online forums. On the local nonprofit level, memberships offer readers a chance to be part of the club sustaining a news operation for the good of the larger community, and work to cultivate a sense of intimacy through in-person interaction with reporters and member-exclusive community events.
Since 2012, Voice has billed itself as a “member-based news organization.” Once focused almost exclusively on attracting five and six-figure contributions from foundations and high-dollar donors, Voice now invests considerable effort in getting San Diegans to chip in anywhere from $20 to $1000+ annually to support its reporting. The average donation is about $100. Two years into the program, memberships account for about 15 percent of Voice’s annual revenue, earning the organization about $200,000 in 2013.
That is a meaningful amount for a small news operation, but Voice has bigger plans. Lewis and his staff say that membership isn’t just one more piece of the revenue pie for struggling nonprofits, but will be the growth engine for their finances and the key to their relationship with San Diego residents. Earlier this year, Voice and MinnPost, another leading local news nonprofit, received a $1.2 million grant from the Knight Foundation with the goal of tripling their membership rolls by the end of 2016. Knight hopes the program will prove that memberships and small donations should be an area of focus for local news nonprofits in other communities.