Wednesday, May 2, 2007 | Lately, it seems that not a week goes by when local news media professionals aren’t brought together in some type of forum to discuss the future of journalism.
The forums — whether on a local university campus or on public television — are an outgrowth of a national conversation.
As they watch the circulations of newspapers decline, many people have rationally begun to worry about the future of the news media. Even those who are sometimes frustrated with journalists recognize the importance of having a vibrant and dynamic press.
And so, many of these discussions about the future of the industry are burdened with profound worry.
But there’s something else happening, too. Veteran journalists and their financial backers from Baltimore, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Corpus Christi, Texas have all recently contacted voiceofsandiego.org asking about what we’ve done here.
Why call us? They are all considering starting their own version of what we’ve been doing. For two years, we’ve been pioneering a new media model and providing in-depth news coverage and fact-based commentary to a region with too few voices. There was a stigma about the credibility of Internet-based journalism. But we’ve held to traditional ethics and standards of journalism but in a new form.
We’ve had successes — and the people just starting out want to learn about them. We’ve made mistakes — and they want to learn from those as well.
A remarkable transformation in the delivery of local news is taking place. voiceofsandiego.org has provided a model for how to start an online daily news source that focuses on local news and commentary. It’s a model that’s beginning to gain the attention of the nation.
On April 12, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Foundation announced that it had given voiceofsandiego.org‘s Andrew Donohue one of journalism’s most prestigious awards for investigative journalism.
The New York Times called us “feisty.” And in December, Governing magazine credited voiceofsandiego.org with having “resuscitated not only news about government but also San Diego’s public conversation.”
Yes, there has been much natural consternation about the fate of the press in this country.
But many of the biggest worriers have gotten one thing seriously wrong: They have assumed that a drop in the circulation numbers for some newspapers was indicative of the public’s lack of interest in the stories that print newspapers have long felt obligated to write.
There are many questions worrying citizens: Does falling circulation at the Los Angeles Times mean that people are becoming less interested in investigative news? Did falling readership of the print edition of the The San Diego Union-Tribune mean that local in-depth news was no longer something people wanted to read?
The answer to both of these is a resounding “No!” While there is ample evidence of a decline in newspaper readership, there is no evidence that people are consuming less news.
In fact, there is ample proof that Americans have merely found more efficient ways to get the news they’re interested in.
In the new media world, local newspapers still try to include national and international news in their presentations. However, if you want to read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, you can easily get on a computer and find news stories published at the source in Israeli or Arab media.
Likewise, if you want to read about the Baltimore Orioles, instead of looking for the one or two lines the U-T might write about the team every day, you can log onto the Baltimore Sun, as if you were there.
There are fewer and fewer people subscribing to the U-T and other local papers but how many of the local daily newspaper’s readers subscribed simply to get what they couldn’t get elsewhere, like national, international and entertainment news and tidbits on their hometown team? And as the Internet started to give them opportunities to find better coverage of the issues they were interested in, why wouldn’t they have dropped the paper?
Similarly, a cultural change has taken place. Now that the newspaper is no longer the central distributor of all the written news a San Diegan can get, it has similarly lost its place as a fixture in the new generation’s household.
People are reading news, but fewer and fewer of them are reading newspapers.
Nationally, news websites of all kinds have popped up.
But for those concerned about local news in this country’s largest cities, there is a dearth of options. Consolidation gobbled up the old competitive newspaper business in recent decades, leaving most cities with only one choice. The local newspapers have websites but they’re still trying to decide whether they cover the world or the city they call home. And even today, 70 percent of a newspaper’s costs are related to production and distribution, according to a recent PBS documentary.
It was from this set of realities that voiceofsandiego.org sprung. Several months ago, we celebrated our second anniversary. Since we first put up our site in February 2005, more than 640 San Diegans have given donations and become members of voiceofsandiego.org.
Our dedicated young staff observed the start of our third year as quietly as old bay-front fishermen. It was an anniversary that skeptics had gambled we would never reach.
But we have brought San Diegans an independent online daily unburdened by thuds of heavy paper and smeary ink — one that can be updated every hour.
As we continue to handle the attention from people across the nation who are wondering how to solve the same problem with which we wrestle, we have not forgotten what our mission is: To provide San Diegans with in-depth news, fact-based commentary and continuous updates throughout the day of the narratives we introduce every time we publish.
This is still a work in progress. We started without committing ourselves to become something specific. As we’ve learned more about the power of the Internet — as we’ve become more technologically adept — we’ve innovated new features as rapidly as we could.
With your continuing support, feedback and participation, we’ll continue to try to turn this into an immeasurably valuable voice in the community.