Those products helped increase Voice’s relevance, but revenues were heading in the opposite direction. In 2010, what was supposed to be a five-year grant from a local community foundation ended after two years. By the end of 2011, Voice still hadn’t managed to make up for the lost revenue, and Lewis and Donohue were forced to layoff two of their seven reporters, as well as the site’s only photographer. Around the same time, a local real estate developer named Doug Manchester bought the Union-Tribune. The New York Times would later accuse Manchester of using the paper as “a brochure for his various interests,” both political and financial.

It was a confluence that underscored Voice’s importance, and its fragility. Voice’s readership realized that, as Lewis put it, there wasn’t “a magic funding source” keeping the organization afloat. And the staff at Voice recognized that they hadn’t done a particularly good job of making readers aware of how they could help—and that giving readers a clear way to support the organization was key to their survival. As Dillon put it, “Any illusions about money not being something that we should all be concerned about were shattered.”

In a way, the layoffs were the birthing pains of Voice’s membership program. The idea was in the works before the layoffs, but that difficult period underscores the program’s logic: People who care about a news organization might appreciate the chance to further its efforts, and should be asked to do so long before things get desperate. As Lewis says frequently on the conference circuit, “Overwhelmingly [our donors] don’t say they give us money, they say they pay for a service they feel that they owe money for. One of the things I’m most frustrated with is newspapers that say people won’t pay for the service they provide, when in fact they’ve never asked.”

In September 2011, Lewis hired Mary Walter-Brown, a former San Diego TV news producer, as Voice’s first VP of advancement and engagement. Walter-Brown had spent nearly a decade working in marketing for nonprofits after leaving journalism, and was tasked with raising awareness of Voice’s mission in San Diego while also bringing a workable long-term strategy to its finances.

In a sense, Walter-Brown’s job was to find a way to translate Voice’s relevance to San Diegans into actual earned revenue, a job that began with educating readers about the organization’s structure and needs. A survey she conducted of the site’s readers found that even some of the site’s most frequent readers were unaware that Voice was a nonprofit accepting donations. In the past, those readers who had donated in small amounts had been labeled members, but there was no clear idea of what being a “member” of Voice of San Diego meant. In retrospect, this was a profound oversight. Why be a member of something you don’t understand?

She began to define member benefits, the most fundamental of which was simply the label “member,” a label donors now would lose if they didn’t re-up every year. Beyond that, member benefits included admission to live events, from topical discussions on San Diego’s education system or police department to more entertainment-oriented affairs like an arts and culture presentation (complete with alcohol sponsor) called Meeting of the Minds. The process of defining what the member experience should be reshaped Voice’s identity. Just as any major story produced by Voice is a part of its identity, so too were these events. At its heart, the membership program is about making a connection with readers that’s emotional as well as financial.

Seeking that more intimate connection with a core group of consumers has also shaped the site’s coverage. Making local readers feel that you’re their news organization means covering the sorts of stories they feel are most important—and the growth of the membership model depends on serving that role for as many readers as possible. This is why Voice’s expansion plans prioritize coverage of new topics and new parts of San Diego County over deepening resources and investigative capacity for city hall and other areas the site already covers. It’s notable that while membership models have made strides in funding daily accountability reporting, major philanthropy remains the most feasible funding source for deep investigative coverage. Dillon describes the effort to produce daily content and pursue long-term investigative projects with a small staff as a “constant battle,” and it’s a battle the growth of the membership program is not poised to alleviate. Lewis acknowledged to me, “to get the number of people we need into the fold, we’re going to have to cover more things. We’re going to have to reach more people, basically.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.