But the membership model faces numerous challenges, chief among them whether even an ideal marketplace like San Diego, with its large population of affluent and news literate potential donors, can fund the kind of growth that has eluded Voice since its founding. Nine years after its launch, Voice’s newsroom has yet to break double digits (and most of its reporters have yet to turn 30), and its investigative capacity is hampered by the need to produce daily content for its website. Still, Voice’s near-decade of survival is a major achievement in its own right. It’s an organization that’s become skilled at learning lessons the hard way—with its membership efforts as the latest example. That’s just the kind of underdog story a bunch of San Diegans with a hundred bucks to spare might get behind.
Faced with layoffs and sinking finances, Voice of San Diego searched for answers and then hit on an idea. Why not ask the public to pull out their checkbooks and pitch in?
Voice’s journalism validates the national attention, but the key to its newsworthiness was always its business model—even before it had one. Voice’s funding for its first year of operation in came exclusively from a $354,399 gift from a local venture capitalist named Buzz Woolley, who had been so angered by the local press’ lax oversight of city government that he decided to found an alternative news outlet. Among other omissions, the daily San Diego Union-Tribune failed to uncover a pension crisis that nearly bankrupted the city. Lewis was only 29 when he and a former colleague named Andrew Donohue, who was 27, took the helm of the nascent venture in late 2005. In that first year the organization’s ambitions were more journalistic than financial. Woolley later told the people at Knight that it would not have made sense “to go around with hat in hand to raise money for something no one had ever done before.”
“There was never really any appropriate metric to gauge success,” Donohue, who left Voice in 2012 and is now a senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, told me. It wasn’t clear how many readers a niche local politics website should have in 2005. And it wasn’t even clear how many stories such a site should be producing, or when they would be published. The production schedule for the staff of four journalists resembled that of a newspaper, with a single batch of stories going live each morning. Lewis and Donohue were two twenty-somethings still a bit in disbelief that they were in charge of a nonprofit, enjoying the freedom of running a shop with a clear journalistic mission and ambitions but no heavy burden of expectation, occasionally holding push-up contests in the office. As Donohue put it, “There was no ‘let’s save journalism’ or anything like that. We were just trying to do some good stories that weren’t being done in San Diego.”
The Times story changed expectations considerably. Liam Dillon left the Naples Daily News in Florida to report on city hall for Voice that summer. When he arrived, he was surprised to see news outlets around the country writing “the exact same story, the exact same way, a year later.” For better and worse, Voice’s efforts were now scrutinized both nationally and locally as part of the broader effort to find a new model for local news. As the national attention made clear, Voice was expected to do more than supplement an underperforming news market. It had to find a way to be a pillar of that market, to engage and serve as a voice for a greater swath of the community, and to find a way to do this long-term. This was not the set of expectations that Voice had started out with. It was a set of expectations that essentially came down to money—the question of how to fund an organization of real size and longevity.
“We weren’t thoughtful about the future of long-term revenue,” Lewis told me. “We were getting grants whose life expectancy we didn’t understand.” Voice had used those grants—the most tangible upside of the national profile—to help fuel what Lewis counts as a major period of editorial success during which he and Donohue launched a series of new products that have been key to the organization’s survival, attracting loyal readers who could become potential members. A Morning Report email blast made the site’s content part of a core group of readers’ daily routine. And a partnership with the local NBC affiliate that had long served to get Voice’s reporters in front of a larger audience grew into a formal relationship that provided the NBC affiliate with frequent on-air content featuring Voice’s brand of accountability journalism, and Voice with a new revenue stream.