Recently, I asked Andrew Donohue (pictured below), the executive editor of www.voiceofsandiego.org, to answer a few questions about what it's like running a website that's become a model for other news startups. He was more than willing. "I could go on all day." he wrote.
Since its launch a few years ago, Voice of San Diego has become a regular competitor in the San Diego media market, which includes the well-established San Diego Union-Tribune, a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper that reaches more than 315,000 people daily in print. Donohue says, however, that Voice isn't meant to be another news outlet like the U-T. "We don't cover something unless we can be the best at it or we can add something new and substantial," he writes. And with an editorial staff of fewer than 10 people, it's unlikely Voice could match the major daily newspaper if it wanted to.
Still, Donohue says readers, donors and journalists alike are starting to respond to the online format and in-depth coverage. Nationwide, people are calling to ask: How do we do something similar in our hometown? Among his advice: "We tell people to know their identity before they publish a single story," he says.
In 2006, Donohue, 29, won the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi award for online investigative reporting, which is given out annually by the Society of Professional Journalists, for a piece he did for Voice of San Diego.
Text & Ideas: What was the media landscape of San Diego like a few years ago when you decided the city could use another news outlet?
Andrew Donohue: The media landscape was the way it is and has been in most big cities in America -- barren. In the early 1990s, the Evening Tribune and the Union merged and the Los Angeles Times shut down its San Diego edition, so San Diego quickly went from three newspapers and heavy competition to a one-newspaper monopoly.
Text & Ideas: How did the decision come about to be a nonprofit?
Andrew Donohue: First, we don't need to worry ever about doing anything more than producing good journalism within our budget. Many of the newspapers you see today cutting jobs are still making money -- they're just not making as much as their investors or shareholders think they can make. Remove the profit motive, and you've got a fewer external pressures on the journalism you produce.
It also conveys to our readers what we believe journalism is: A public service, not an investment to make someone rich.
Text & Ideas: Whose idea was it specifically? And was there a model you followed? NPR? The Guardian? Mother Jones? It seems like those models wouldn't work because they're national publications, not local.
Andrew Donohue: Our founders Buzz Woolley and Neil Morgan decided on the nonprofit structure. There was no specific model that we followed. While there certainly are plenty of other nonprofits in the journalism world, there was nothing quite like we wanted to do -- exclusively local coverage and only online.
As such, we've been feeling our way around -- in the dark at times -- for our first three years to figure out just how this model looks, not just now but into the future. We've had to understand the appetite for a model like this in our community, from general readers, local groups, philanthropists, corporations and traditional advertisers.
We believe now we can borrow from the best of both worlds and create a wide, stable source of funding into the future. So we have a system that borrows heavily from the local public radio and television model in that we run a quarterly membership drive and we seek out grants, sponsorships and local philanthropists. But we also believe that online advertising revenue for news websites will only get stronger and we can count on that money to at least supplement our fundraising efforts.
Text & Ideas: In an era when journalists are held in lower general regard than in past decades, is it wise to rely on the public for the money you need to stay alive?
Andrew Donohue: We've had to slowly win the trust of every single one of our readers and contributors and keep working hard every day to grow that trust and widen it. We believe that the future of journalism -- and journalists for that matter -- is bright. If you treat your readers with respect and understand their capabilities and intellect, they will treat you well.
Text & Ideas: Are you saying the well-established news organizations don't treat their readers with respect and understanding?
Andrew Donohue: My experience is that brevity is so ingrained in the culture of some newspapers that there's a general belief that readers don't want long stories -- they want colorful graphs and 12-inch stories. I remember being told to essentially dumb-down a solid, in-depth story because people wouldn't want to read all that detail over their morning Cheerios.
There's always an assumption that they way you get the most people interested is by making the story broad and overly simple. I think that's getting worse and that by continuing these trends newspapers are risking losing their most loyal and important customers.
I always thought that was an assumption that needed to be challenged. And our experience here has proven that if you write the story well, you can actually get more people interested in the crucial topics in their community by giving them in-depth and engrossing stories that tell them why an issue is important.
Text & Ideas: An editorial published on your site in May mentioned that journalists and financial backers from across the U.S. have contacted Voice of San Diego for advice on starting something similar in their hometowns. What question are you asked most often? What advice do you give them?
Andrew Donohue: We get asked the most about finances and the influence our board of directors has on our coverage.
The latter is simple. I understand why people would be suspicious of editorial meddling from people on the board of a brand new, nonprofit newspaper. After all, they're putting in money and time to a brand new cause. It's natural -- and completely healthy -- for a journalist to be suspicious of the scenario. I had the same thoughts when we started. Who would start a nonprofit newspaper with their own money without wanting to get something in return?
But we've never had a problem in our three years with editorial meddling, either from our board or from donors. Our board tells us to go out and do outstanding enterprise and investigative journalism, and that's it. We're not told who and what we can and can't cover.
Now to the former. Lots of people are curious about how they can fund an online daily. Some have the money lined up from philanthropists and want to know more about our fund-raising and ad efforts.
Others just have an idea. The way we went may not be an option for everyone -- we had seed money from a philanthropist to get us up and going. But it's not as hard as you might think to get started. We spend almost every cent we have on reporters. There are institutions out there dedicated to handing out money to new, innovative journalism ideas. There are smart, wealthy and good-hearted people of all political stripes out in your community who'd like to see more from their newspaper. You can literally do so much with so little when you only need to pay web hosting fees and don't have to worry about paper, ink and delivery trucks.
And lastly, most of the time unsolicited, we tell people to know their identity before they publish a single story. It's easy to try to be everything to everybody and chase around the big daily story around town every day. But then you end up pleasing nobody, offering nothing different from what the rest of the media in your city is doing, and being a mile wide and an inch deep.
We don't cover something unless we can be the best at it or we can add something new and substantial. And it has to be local. That means being specialized to begin with and patiently growing over time. And it means resisting the temptation to weigh in on national or international subjects. When we first started, we largely focused on City Hall. But we did it better than anyone else. And when we freed up space in the budget, we looked at real estate. We got a little more money and moved on to public health and then public safety and then education. But we didn't dabble lightly in these things. We took them on once we had the resources to take them on seriously and successfully.
Text & Ideas: Joel Kramer, the former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says he used your publication as a model for his own journalism startup, MinnPost. There are differences, though. For one, MinnPost has a print edition. What made you decide to launch without one? And by doing so, are you neglecting people who don't have internet access?
Andrew Donohue: We felt strongly about being Internet only from the start. When we started, all signs where that journalism was headed quickly to the Internet. And those trends have only accelerated since then.
Newspapers spend anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of their budgets on the actual infrastructure of printing and delivering their news. Being online only, we are in the marvelous position of being able to spend nearly every cent we have on reporters and content.
Any other decisions we make about other ways to deliver our news will be made with an eye on what's ahead in the future.
And we understand that there is a perceived gap between those who are wired and those who aren't. But I see homeless people at my local library checking e-mail, so I think we've reached where anyone who wants to access the Internet can.
Text & Ideas: Judging by the photos on the 'About Us' section of the website, you seem to have a young staff. Is that intentional?
Andrew Donohue: Lots of big newspapers have artificial rules in place demanding that reporters have X years of daily experience and so forth. We don't have those rules. We just look for the most talented and promising reporters out there. So far, it's worked out that we've been fortunate enough to snare a group of young, up and coming star reporters.
Text & Ideas: As part of a non-traditional, online-only publication, what reaction do your reporters get from people who being interviewed for stories? Do they already know about Voice of San Diego, or does it still take some explaining?
Andrew Donohue: When we first started people weren't sure what to think, and neither were we. There was nothing out there to really compare ourselves to, so it felt weird saying we were a newspaper, but we weren't just some guys in our parents' basement with a computer either. But now we very rarely have to explain ourselves. And when we do, people get it.
The journalist as a middleman
December 26, 2007
Where do journalists fit in the information economy? Formerly, we were powerful gatekeepers to vast amounts of information. We decided what was important to readers and viewers. We put it in a way that everyone of a certain intellect could understand. And from time to time, we would ferret out new information though strong investigative work. Often, though, we were the aggregators of information, the middlemen.
On today's front page, the New York Times showed another kind of middleman. He was a professional letter writer from India named G. P. Sawant, who set up shop years ago inside the local post office and wrote letters for the illiterate. Customers would dictate what they wanted him to write, and Sawant would often write it in simpler, more concise ways.
"Now the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out," writes Anand Giridharadas in the Times. "In India, the world’s fastest-growing market for cellphones, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating intimacies to someone else."
Sound familiar? To many traditional journalists, it should. In today's global media economy, middlemen no longer have a place. Inefficiencies are being cut out. It's why the idea of "Bulletins and Brains," advocated last month by the Associated Press' Tom Curley, strikes me so well. "The bulletins are the first 150 words, getting the news out fast, in conversational radio fashion. The brains are the people who can add real value whether through perspective, deeper reporting or great writing. In short, we need talent, a lot of it and some of it very different," Curley said at a speech in New York. What he' saying is that every story should have a purpose beyond just providing the news.
This goes in hand with a job listing I saw today for a planned website called MainStreet.com. It will be a sister site to TheStreet.com, one of the many homes of financial pundit Jim Cramer. The job listing says the website will feature news "with a twist." It continues: "MainStreet.com will cover breaking news, including celebrity and entertainment news, as a means to get into personal finance." If gives the example of Jamie Lynn Spears, the teenage sister of Britney Spears who recently disclosed she is pregnant. How could you mix that celebrity dish with the world of finance? The job listing says the story would center around "preparing yourself financially to have and raise a child" when facing "an unplanned bun in the oven." In other words, two distant parts of the galaxy will meld to create a highly unusual but specialized news organization.
Whether MainStreet.com creates a black hole or supernova, we'll see. But it shows that journalists who are content to be professional letter writers may find themselves in the same place Sawant and his colleagues find themselves today: "at the base of a gnarled tree, under a tarpaulin mat that shields them from the ceaselessly defecating pigeons that flutter among the branches."
Sued by Apple, a young tech blogger folds
December 21, 2007
Showing just how vulnerable bloggers are in the world of business journalism, a college senior who ran a blog about Apple rumors will be shutting his site down after reaching a settlement with the computer company. Think Secret blogger Nick dePlume, whose real name is Nick Ciarelli, announced on his website yesterday that he would no longer be publishing. The settlement he and Apple reached was "amicable," he wrote.
In an interview, the college senior would not tell the New York Times whether he got paid by Apple to quit blogging. He added that he was pleased with the outcome. Apple had sued Ciarelli, saying he was publishing trade secrets, but two years ago the blogger had successfully gotten the lawsuit put on hold under a California first-amendment protection law.
Bloggers and media watchers alike reacted to the news of his website's shuttering. “It’s great for the individual critic to be paid to be quiet, but the public is worse off if we lose the ability to get more information in the marketplace of ideas,” Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, told the Times. Another website, paidContent.org had a wrap up of blogger reactions. As you can guess, most were disappointed with Ciarelli's announcement.
Think Secret had established itself as a site where people with news about Apple could go to leak it. Remaining on the site today are instructions for sending Ciarelli encrypted emails, leaving anonymous voicemail messages, and sending old-fashioned letters in the mail.
It's not clear what plans Ciarelli has now that he's done with his site, but the Times reports he is studying at Harvard and working at the school's Crimson newspaper, traditionally a position that can lead into good jobs in traditional media. Ciarelli wrote on his site yesterday, he would "now be able to move forward with my college studies and broader journalistic pursuits."
Questions for: The Politico's Bill Nichols
December 17, 2007
Why would someone leave a pretty good reporting job at the nation's biggest newspaper to join a startup niche news organization? "Adventure," says Bill Nichols, managing editor of The Politico. At the beginning of this year, Nichols (pictured below) left his cushy digs reporting at USA Today to take his current post at the Washington-based newspaper and website. The Politico has since become a force for breaking news in the capital and on the campaign trail.
In terms of business models, the publication straddles the line between the old ones and new. Founded in January by East Coast media mogul Robert Allbritton, The Politico is probably best known for its website, a colorful combination of political features, blogs, breaking news and video, all of which aesthetically looks a bit like Salon.com or similar online news pubs. But most of its revenue comes from its print edition, which is published at different frequencies depending on whether Congress is in session. In The Politico's case, its print edition serves the company really well because groups who want to lobby Congress are willing to spend big money on ads. In journalistic terms, that means more money for solid reporting.
Almost a year into it, Nichols tells me during an e-mail Q&A, he's glad he made the move. He's having fun. He's getting to try new things. In a way, he says, the experience has been like his wild days of college newspapering. And that's a good thing. "There's not a lot of fun being had in the MSM right now," he says.
Text & Ideas: You left the largest newspaper in the nation that has more than 2.2 million subscribers for a startup that reaches, according to its website, about 25,000 people in print. What made you decide to give up the big budget and recognition of USA Today for the untested Politico? Was it the title bump? The chance to be in charge?
Bill Nichols: I had a lot of mixed feelings and remain a huge fan of USA Today and the concept behind it. But at this point in my career, an adventure seemed like it would be fun, and it seemed like I was fast exiting the stage of my life when I could still responsibly have an adventure. I think for a lot of MSM journalists, there's also an almost irresistible urge to see what life on the Web is really like. It's been a great move; absolutely no regrets.
Text & Ideas: What advantages does an outlet like The Politico have over one like USA Today?
Bill Nichols: We're a startup, so we don't have the burden of institutional history that many of our competitors do, even a publication as young as USA Today. Which means, if we want to try something new, we just do it. We're also structured in a very entrepreneurial, non-bureaucratic way, so we don't have focus groups or corporate pow-wows to contend with. If we want to do something, we just do it. If it works, we keep doing it. If it doesn't, we don't do it again. I think that's a big advantage, given the speed with which the technology of the Web changes and the speed with which the news cycle now moves. We're a lean, mean fighting machine.
Text & Ideas: What disadvantages does it have? Smaller budget? Smaller staff?
Bill Nichols: There are definitely times that all of us who worked at bigger, more established places miss some of the creature comforts and the luxury of bigger numbers and more support. We certainly have people working an awful lot of hours. But those staff numbers are coming down throughout the MSM -- and we're proud at Politico that our owner, Allbritton Communications, has chosen the novel approach of actually spending money to improve the product, rather than retrenching. It takes courage to do that in the current environment.
Text & Ideas: With printed newspapers on the decline and the traditional advertising model seemingly broken, other new publications have chosen to be online-only. Why did The Politico decide to invest in a print edition?
Bill Nichols: Part of the reason is that the idea for Politico began as plan to put together a third Capitol Hill newspaper, then morphed into something much more ambitious. So the infrastructure for a newspaper was already in place. But the larger reason is we feel that print advertising can carry us through out early years, as the environment for on-line ads becomes more mature.
Text & Ideas: What were the early days like after the publication launched in January?
Bill Nichols: Imagine the wildest days at your college newspaper. I came in after the publication had actually launched, so I missed some of the most harrowing stretches of all-nighters and 20-hour days. But within that chaos was also a lot of fun -- which is one of the main reasons I got in this business in the first place. There's not a lot of fun being had in the MSM right now, and at Politico, we try to make that a priority. We don't want to be another insurance office.
Text & Ideas: What kind of response have you gotten from fellow journalists both inside and outside the Beltway since you started at The Politico?
Bill Nichols: We've really gotten great response. We feel like our voice has become part of the conversation within the world of Washington. And we've established partnerships with the four flagship papers in the early primary and caucus states -- New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina -- which has helped us establish the brand out in the country. Most, if not all, of our colleagues who thought we were crazy less than a year ago seem to have changed their tune.
Text & Ideas: The publication has been running for about 11 months now. What will it look like a year from today, and do you expect to have more competition?
Bill Nichols: We'll have more people and probably even more platforms; we've already begun establishing new projects that explore the intersection between Washington and Wall Street and the politics of Hollywood. As for competition, I hope we're cornering the market on smart and revelatory coverage of Congress, lobbying and the world of politics. If not, we welcome all comers who want to set up shop in our corner of the new media world.
Coming next week: Questions for Andrew Donohue, the executive editor of Voice of San Diego, a newspaper without the paper.
Text & Ideas launches today
December 14, 2007
Before I was in newspapers, I worked in the music business. The question of "What's next?" weighed heavily on me and the people I worked, talked and networked with. A right answer -- figuring out what people want to listen to -- could mean a big payday. A wrong one could mean cleaning out your bank account and handing it over to a tattooed rocker in an ill-named band.
Journalism generally isn't used to that sink-or-swim lifestyle. With journalists being laid off and newspapers shuttering, the industry is finding out pretty quick how it feels to have to kick its legs in the water. Gone are the days when news outlets can be all things to all people. Here now are the days when, like the concert business, journalists have to figure out what's next.
This blog aspires to be a chronicle of journalists trying to answer that question. It also intends to point journalists to exciting and innovative ideas happening on the web and in their industry.
This website has been in the testing phase before now. Today, consider it launched. I'll start off next Monday with a series of questions answered by Bill Nichols, the managing editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper and website The Politico, which was launched earlier this year.
Testing VUVOX; media-rich news may never be the same
December 12, 2007
Over the past couple days, I spent some time messing around with a little website called VUVOX (pronounced "view vox"). It's an exciting tool that makes it easy to create media-rich presentations using photos, videos and sound without having to learn Flash or purchase any software. The group that launched the site is marketing it to individuals as a way for people to express themselves -- should they have the inkling. But there is at least one strong feature that could allow media organizations to deliver news in a fresh and stimulating way.
Take a look at the example I created below during my fiddling. It's a slide show that gets all its content from Yahoo! News. The creators of VUVOX made it possible for these kinds of slide shows to tap into the kinds of feeds that most newspapers at TV stations have available on their websites already. They're called RSS feeds, or Really Simple Syndication. In this case, Yahoo's RSS feed works really well because most of its entries have a photo attached to them. Because this is a photo slide show, feeds that have only text are useless here.
With just a few clicks to set up, VUVOX snatches those photos from the feed, arranges them into a format of your choosing, and adds links to the story each photo is associated with. In theory, this slide show updates itself whenever the news organization updates its feed.
Right now, VUVOX is a neat toy. In practical terms, it's hard to imagine news organizations using it on a daily basis. But like other neat toys before it (YouTube, Twitter, etc.), this one brings a lot to the table. For one, it harnesses the power of RSS feeds like no other website I know. It's an example of the amazing potential these feeds have -- potential we probably don't even know yet. It's also stands as a strong message to news organizations that they should start tending of their news feeds as much as they do their websites. No longer are these feeds just going to be used as easy ways for busy people to read lots of news. They will be used to bring new readers and viewers in from out in the cold.
Crime news from Yahoo!
Desperate to change, newsrooms overwork their journalists
December 11, 2007
As traditional newsrooms become multimedia ones, journalists are working longer hours and enduring more stress than before. At least that's what a recent report by the UK's National Union of Journalists says. "Our evidence shows members are clearly greatly concerned about the effects of often ill-conceived multimedia plans on their working lives, on their health and safety and on the quality of the work they produce," according to the study, which was released last week.
Three quarters of the journalists who were surveyed said the race for newspapers and TV stations to catch up with the new media age was having some sort of adverse effect on their lives. The report put the blame squarely on bosses and executives who were caught off guard when their profits started to slide. "The real threat to quality comes not from technology, not from new media, not even from the 'citizen journalism'," the report states, "but from those who treat information and news as nothing more than a commodity, and journalists as the servants of corporate interests, not the public." It's a strongly-worded report from an organization that has a lot to gain from bashing management, but there appears to be some legitimate complaints throughout it.
My friend, the San Francisco-based journalist Khari Johnson, recently keyed me in to something I missed last month. It was a speech given in New York by Tom Curley, the head of the Associated Press. Curley is one of the few leaders of top-tier news organizations who, instead of bemoaning the changes in our industry, is excited about them. He gave the keynote speech Nov. 1 at a fund-raising dinner for a business and economics journalism fellowship at Columbia University.
"Young people the world over are hungry for news. They just don't prefer our traditional platforms and packaging," Curley said. "The irony...is that the news is hot, but the news business is not," he added.
Among Curley's ideas and perspectives: