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COMMENTARY: ON THE MEDIA

At Voice of San Diego, a newsroom flourishes

The nonprofit news site shows how investigative journalism can be done for relatively cheap. They're even having fun.

February 15, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

The Voice of San Diego office has the trappings of many newsrooms -- messy desks, glowing computers, journalists hunched over phones. But something about the mood seems a little off.

Where's the anxiety? Why isn't anyone trolling those websites that obsess about the latest layoffs in the news business? Where are the sidelong glances when someone gets stuck too long in the editor's office?

All of that was missing when I visited the Voice of San Diego ( www.voiceofsandiego.org), which in just four years has unearthed a nice batch of political scandals, shown how investigative journalism can be done on the relative cheap and, yes, put a bounce in the step of one corner of the Fourth Estate.

With several big-city dailies facing closure and the cover of Time last week pondering the fate of the American newspaper, I listened to young Voice of San Diego journalists talk about their work with words like "exhilarating," "fulfilling" and "fun." My tiny, ink-sotted heart soared.

The lessons out of the sunny offices on Point Loma appear to be these: A local news site can flourish on charitable donations. It helps to have one big benefactor to get things started. It makes more sense to cover a few topics well, rather than a lot poorly.

Voice of San Diego's nonprofit model won't be the answer for the future of American journalism, but it's probably one of them.

It all got started back in 2004 with local businessman Buzz Woolley's frustration that not enough was being written about San Diego's sometimes clownish city government, which, among other things, almost bankrupted the city by mucking up the pension system.

Woolley, who made his money in real estate and technology, got to talking about alternatives with Neil Morgan, a columnist and former editor with the city's dominant paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"We just needed more quality investigative journalism," Woolley said. "When there are more views, it's good for the public."

Woolley gave $355,000 in start-up money and something else as important -- a license to his news employees to do as they saw fit.

"I really think a story could go after his best friend and Buzz would be fine with it, if the facts were there," said Barbara Bry, a former newspaperwoman and entrepreneur who helped start the site.

Bry helped hire two journalists who'd worked for the business-oriented Daily Transcript in San Diego, Scott Lewis and Andrew Donohue; they now run Voice as chief executive and editor, respectively.

The website made its biggest splash last year with investigations that helped force out the leaders of two city redevelopment agencies.

It also exposed the police chief for crowing about public safety when statistics showed increases in crime. And it profiled an alleged reformer who hobbled three charter schools.

Because it doesn't have to print newspapers, Voice of San Diego puts the majority of its $825,000 annual budget into salaries for its 11 journalists, who make from $35,000 to roughly $70,000 and focus on government, education, law enforcement, real estate and science.

It's up to the Union-Tribune to give the comprehensive view of California's second-largest city -- with coverage of the arts, sports and other topics Voice barely touches. And the U-T has its own investigative triumphs, most notably the Pulitzer it won for exposing the bribery scandal that sent former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison.

Still, Voice of San Diego has become a "must read" for civic movers and shakers and a regular stop for those -- like the New York Times and Japan's Kyodo News -- searching for journalism's next big thing.

The site's local audience is relatively small, from 50,000 to 70,000 unique monthly visitors, but growing. (That compares with 1 million or more who visit the U-T website each month.)

Donohue, 30, laughed as he noted that he just went to a doctor who had never heard of the site.

"We have fun and we're important," said Lewis, 32, "but we're not an institution in town yet."

Woolley, 71, has given $1.3 million over five years and would like to reduce his contribution (which amounted to 30% of last year's budget) to avoid a perception that one individual holds too great a sway.

Voice has lured more foundation money and brought on a contract rainmaker to increase business sponsorships, which made up about 10% of last year's budget.

The recent Time essay recommended that newspapers no longer give away their news for free, instead imposing micro-payments not unlike what iTunes has done in the music business. That set off a lively online debate with counter-options galore, including a website that would raise funds collectively -- a la National Public Radio -- for newspapers, and a call to refocus on print editions, which, though beleaguered, still bring in 90% of advertising revenue at most papers.

The debate will not be settled soon. But Joel Kramer, editor of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, is among those making a compelling case for not leaving journalism solely to the vagaries of the business world.

"Serious journalism is a community asset," Kramer wrote in a recent New York Times online forum, "not just a consumer good and people (and foundations) should support it, as they support museums."

Donohue's eyes glow as he talks about how far billionaire Warren Buffett, a noted journalism fan, could carry the nonprofit press.

"He could put one of these [sites] in every major city and have an endowment to keep them going," the editor said.

Partner Lewis nodded in agreement: "I hope and believe there are more Buzz Woolleys out there."

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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