Five years ago, frustration with the Union-Tribune’s coverage of the city prompted a local businessman, Buzz Woolley, to fund the launch of an online-only local news organization, Voice of San Diego. The dozen reporters who work out of its light-filled newsroom in a new Spanish mission-style building near San Diego Bay focus on local accountability journalism. The site has no recipes or movie reviews or sports. The young journalists, most of whom came from newspapers, do enterprise and investigative reporting about San Diego government, business, housing, education, health, environment, and other “key quality of life issues facing the region,” said executive editor Andrew Donohue. “We want to be best at covering a small number of things. We’re very disciplined about not trying to do everything.”
The blogosphere and older media have become increasingly symbiotic. They share audiences, and they mimic each other through evolving digital journalistic innovation.
Voice of San Diego’s impact has been disproportionate to its steadily growing but still relatively modest audience of fewer than 100,000 unique visitors a month. Its investigations of fraud in local economic development corporations, police misrepresentation of crime statistics, and the city’s troubled pension fund, among other subjects, have led to prosecutions, reforms, and the kind of national journalism awards—from Sigma Delta Chi and Investigative Reporters and Editors—typically given to newspapers. To increase their reach, Voice journalists appear regularly on the local NBC television station, the all-news commercial radio station, and the public radio station, giving those outlets reporting they otherwise would not have.
The current $1 million annual budget of the Voice of San Diego, which is a nonprofit, comes from donors like Woolley, from foundations, advertising, corporate sponsorships, and contributions from citizen “members,” like those who support local public radio and television and cultural institutions. “We don’t count on mass traffic, but rather a level of loyalty,” said Publisher Scott Lewis. “We’re seeking loyal people like those who give to the opera, museums or the orchestra because they believe they should be sustained.”
They rent newsroom space from one of their supporters, the San Diego Foundation, which, like hundreds of other community foundations around the country, is a collection of local family funds with a professional staff to offer advice to the donors of these funds. Lewis said the foundation recommends contributions to the Voice. At the same time, the national Knight Foundation has been encouraging such foundations to support news and information needs in their communities through a program of matching grants. Knight and the San Diego Foundation recently gave Voice of San Diego matching grants of $100,000 each to increase its coverage of local neighborhoods and communities “underserved” by other news media.
Across town, the San Diego News Network has launched a quite different, for-profit local news Web site that resembles the Union-Tribune newspaper’s Web site much more than it does Voice of San Diego. SDNN aggregates news and information from its own small reporting staff, freelancers, San Diego-area weekly community newspapers, radio, and television stations, and bloggers. It covers most of the subjects the newspaper does, from local events, business, and sports to entertainment, food, and travel, but with less independent reporting.
Local entrepreneurs Barbara Bry and her husband Neil Senturia, and former Union-Tribune Web site editor Chris Jennewein, have raised $2 million from local investors and want to create a network of similar sites in as many as forty cities; they hope to attract more advertisers and become profitable. Jennewein said that he expects cities like San Diego, which long had a single dominant newspaper, to spawn many kinds of news entities. “There’s going to be fragmentation,” he said. “It may be a good thing. We have to think of there being a new news ecosystem.”