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.