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When did voiceofsandiego.org start?

In 2004, when the Union-Tribune unceremoniously dismissed longtime columnist and editor Neil Morgan, he and entrepreneur Buzz Woolley began discussing the launch of a digital news effort. They felt the region desperately needed more reporting, analysis and journalistic competition.

It’s important to remember that this wasn’t in response to trouble in the newspaper industry. Newspaper companies were selling for hundreds of millions of dollars and were fat with real estate ads.

The organization was incorporated in late 2004 and it began posting news at www.voiceofsandiego.org on February 9, 2005.

What is the mission?

To consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region. To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

Why a nonprofit 501c3 organization?

Woolley hired a consultant in 2004 who helped him decide it would be very difficult to make a profit or return shareholder value to investors if he and Morgan would have set it up as a for-profit. He believed that, like public broadcasters, a nonprofit charter would allow the news service created to focus on a mission.

He also believed that, as a nonprofit, it would actually be open to far more sources of revenue than any of the news models that were around in 2004. A nonprofit can get donor and corporate support. It can sell services and receive foundation support. This variety would ultimately provide strength, the board of directors believed.

That doesn’t mean it’s not run like a business. We must keep a strict eye on expenses, be innovative and work hard to raise money from a variety of sources — and we must respond to market forces. It just means that any “profit” is being reinvested into the operation and its mission rather than distributed to shareholders. And it means that we must consistently refer to the mission when deciding what to cover.

Can I see your IRS Form 990 and start-up documents?

Yes. Our most recent is here. It usually takes several months to process the 990 after the year is complete since the tax filing deadline for non-profits is May 15th, one month after most corporate and public tax filing deadlines.

How is it funded?

Woolley put up the initial start-up capital of $350,000 and insisted that, over time, VOSD diversify its sources of revenue. Not only was that crucial for growth, but also for credibility.

We now have five sources of revenue.

Major donors, who contribute $5,000 or more.

Member donors, who contribute from $10 up to $5,000.

Foundation grants, from private foundations such as the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Legler Benbough Foundation, Panta Rhea, the Ottaway Foundation and others along with public foundations like the San Diego Foundation.

Corporate and organizational sponsorship and advertising.

Content services/syndication.

In 2008, we raised a total of $839,000. In 2009, a disastrous year for the national and local economy, our revenue increased 14.5 percent to $961,000. Though we had projected raising more than $1 million at the start of the year, we kept our expenses as low as possible and only spent a total of $940,000 for the year.

Woolley continues to support VOSD. In 2009, we received about $200,000 from him; $100,000 as a personal donation and $100,000 from his advised fund at The San Diego Foundation.

What are content services?

We know we’re not always the best distributors of our staff’s excellent work. Through partnerships with old and new media companies, we believe we can earn up to 10 percent of 2010’s revenue by providing content to those who can use it to engage their own users, viewers or readers.

Is voiceofsandiego.org sustainable?

Good question. We believe sustainability is achieved through diversity of revenue sources. In other words if we have as many different types of revenue and as many different actual sources within those types, we will be viable into the long term.

So what is this ideal level of diversity? We’re not sure yet, but major private foundation support should probably not make up more than 20 percent of our revenue since grants are generally not renewed year after year. Cultivating community foundation support and major donors who give in the $50,000 to $100,000 range annually could provide support in the 30 to 40 percent range. General membership and corporate sponsorships could each grow to 20 percent of revenue.

What we will continue to do then is raise foundation and major donor support to further increase our capacity and our ability to cover more and more issues. This will continue to help us engage more people and further develop those more renewable sources of revenue, which include annual membership contributions, corporate sponsorships and content services.

So is voiceofsandiego.org sustainable? Yes, we think so. Do we have challenges? Yes, but they’re no more profound or exotic than any other media company right now. The world is changing and we believe only with extremely low costs, an intense focus on quality and mission, and consistent innovation will we be able to survive it.

To this end, we have spent the absolute minimum on our own technological infrastructure and website. By investing everything we possibly can into talented researchers and writers, we’ve been able to demonstrate an outsized impact compared to costs. And that then is the ultimate point. At a budget of $1 million or so, you can do a lot.

That is not, comparatively, a lot of money for a nonprofit operation with this much scope. With this same basic focus on diversity of revenue, museums, cultural institutions, public broadcasters and others raise quite a bit more every year and we believe we can build toward a $2 million or $3 million budget within the next couple of years.

What are your editorial biases?

Our mission includes the sentence: To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

In that sense, we do believe that there is such a thing as progress and that everything can always be better. It is a belief that by knowing our community better, San Diego residents will be able to make better decisions about it. It doesn’t mean we are the only ones pursuing this effort. It just means that’s the end toward which we are contributing as much as we can.

It is a belief that things are not perfect now in this region. We can have better infrastructure, a healthier environment, a better education system, a responsive, efficient and transparent government, a better understanding of our neighborhoods’ challenges, a thriving economy and an ever-improving quality of life. If anything, this is our bias.

But we have supporters who are liberal, progressive, libertarian, conservative and some who dabble in all of the above. They each have good ideas about how to contribute to progress.

We are fiercely nonpartisan. In fact, we believe that much of local politics is much more about reform versus status quo rather than Democrat versus Republican. We do not endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

What influence do donors and sponsors have over your editorial decisions?

Our board of directors discusses and approves our budget and the salaries of the CEO and editor. With its budgetary authority, it decides what positions we can fund and helps us decide what areas to expand into or where we should invest more or less.

They are not aware before publication of what stories we are pursuing and we’ve yet to experience any significant pressure from a financial supporter before a story or project is completed (or after). But like our thousands of readers, our donors have complimented efforts they liked and criticized efforts they didn’t.

Our most significant financial supporter, founder and chairman Buzz Woolley, has had one refrain for us more than any other: “Be more controversial.” He, for instance, helps fund the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College and Rose produced this report, which was the basis for our major project about the county’s social services. Now, Woolley might have preferred all kinds of different outcomes from that investment, perhaps even a different topic area or investigation, but Rose, voiceofsandiego.org and the reporters and editors who worked on the project had total control over how it came out.

If it ever got extremely uncomfortable with a financial supporter, we may be forced to ask them to stop supporting the service or, worse, we might actually return their contribution. This makes pursuit of a very diverse base of financial support all the more imperative.

Do you have an ethics and corrections policy?

Glad you asked. Yes, we do. It’s right here.

How many people actually read voiceofsandiego.org?

Good question.

We have three main sources of information on this.

One is our Google Analytics measurements. We have code on our site, like most sites do, that tracks our visits.

Here is one of the many charts this shows us. This is the measurement of absolute unique visitors to our site, according to Google Analytics.

According to Google: Unique Visitors represents the number of unduplicated (counted only once) visitors to your website over the course of a specified time period. A Unique Visitor is determined using cookies.

That chart shows the 30 days from May 23 through June 22, 2010 and more than 170,000 unique visitors came in that period. There appears to have been a significant uptick because the whole month of May saw a bit more than 133,000 unique visitors.

Our other main source of this particular measurement is Quantcast, which is public and you can watch us here all you want. We also have internal stats provided by our content management system.

You can see that, like most websites, our traffic drops dramatically on the weekends. This is part of the reason we don’t publish much on the weekends. Though we have seen an uptick even in our weekend traffic.

The total numbers of unique visitors and page views are important to many media companies because they sell advertising based on a simple formula: cost-per-thousand impressions. An impression is when an ad comes up on your screen. In other words, an online news operation will do what it can to increase the number of impressions available so they can offer more to advertisers and if they fill up their inventory of ad spaces, they can increase the cost.

This is problematic in the news world because, unfortunately for all of us, there are literally billions of websites who want to host an advertiser’s banner. That makes the inventory for ads almost infinite.

And so, the force of supply and demand comes into play. Because there are so many places to put an ad online, its cost has gone down. Some say that advertising space is now being priced correctly for the first time in history. But this is bad news for news organizations with high costs — costs that were built up in a time when print ads made so much more money.

Still, online news operations are consistently pushing harder and harder to increase their page views and unique visitor numbers. Like circulation counts of the past, they believe these numbers show advertisers how popular their service is and therefore that it is the place to put your message. Unfortunately, this calculation, carried over to the news business, can translate into editorial decisions that wouldn’t necessarily be consistent with a mission like ours.

For instance, a long, important investigative report might get far fewer page views than news that Ms. California had produced a pornographic video many years ago. But our mission forces us to pursue the investigative report. That doesn’t make us more holy or perfect than another organization.

So these measurements are not a big deal for us. Our sustainability is built on our ability to convince local residents to turn to us for quality news and investigations. And we believe that they’ll support the service they appreciate. We also believe that corporations will support it and want to be associated with supporting it, if it’s seen as a service that people value. What we are seeking, then, is a measure of our loyal readers — the people who don’t just drop by but who come in regularly.

We don’t yet have a good metric for this. Google offers some indications but it is not ideal. We have asked many around the country for help in coming up with a good metric for this.

We have other measurements that help with this. For instance, we now (as of June 22, 2010) have 1,103 people who have donated to support this service. If we are like other nonprofit news sources, and 10 percent of our loyal readers give us money, that would indicate we have a loyal readership of more than 10,000. That’s much lower than the 132,000 who come to our site in a month but might be closer to our true loyal visitor total.

As of June 22, 2010, we had 5,231 subscribers to the daily Morning Report. This number fluctuates quite a bit as new subscribers sign up but others change their emails or move, etc.

Finally, as of June 22, 2010, we had 2,375 registered users on the site — people who have provided their full names in order to comment on the site. We are working to verify their contact information and real names to count them as real residents of this virtual community.

If you have suggestions on how to calculate loyal users of our site, please share them.

How many reporters and staff do you have?

We currently have a staff of 15 employees.

We have six enterprise beat reporters, an arts blogger, a photo editor and web editor. We also have an investigative fellow, a rotating one-year position for a recent college graduate. Our engagement editor works to engage San Diegans in our content and organize community members to contribute content.

On the business side, we have a development director and director of membership.

The CEO and the editor run the organization together and both report to the board.

Do you use freelancers?

Yes. We have a strong stable of reliable and talented freelancers we rely on for stories, analysis and ideas. They are a very important part of what we do. Right now, about 10 percent of our editorial budget is devoted to freelance pay.

How do you decide what to cover?

We don’t try to be everything to everybody. We don’t think we’re the only place you’re going to get news today. We know that in today’s world users have plenty of places to turn for national and international coverage, and there are other publications in San Diego doing work that we don’t need to chase after or replicate. Those are all just a mouse click away.

That’s why we follow a simple maxim: We don’t do a story unless we think we can do it better than anyone else or no one else is covering it. What does that mean? We work hard to add value to everything we do, offering unique coverage that can’t be found anywhere else. We don’t follow the pack and try not to offer the same headlines that everyone else is offering.

That’s why you don’t see us try to cover every story. Instead, we invest our time in tracking down the most meaningful San Diego stories and the stories that aren’t being done.

We choose our areas of coverage carefully, asking ourselves the following questions: What isn’t being covered well by the local media? Does it align with our mission?

Do you have citizen journalists?

We are not an experiment of citizen journalism. We are a news organization staffed by professional journalists and we rely on them for nearly all of our content.

However, we do believe strongly in engaging our users and involving them in the journalistic process, from start to finish. We are constantly seeking a conversation with them, allowing users to put us to use to chase down their questions and tips, asking them questions, putting them to work through crowdsourcing, and hopefully making them as much a part of the process as possible.

Where do you get your story ideas?

We follow a very bottom-up structure for story ideas. Our reporters are expected to be the absolute experts in their beat areas. As such, our stories are very much driven by what the reporters and their sources are seeing on the ground. Each Monday morning, we get together and pitch the story ideas of the week.

We look for stories with the greatest impact. We look for originality. We want to make sure the story hasn’t already been done. And we want to make sure it connects with the community.

After that, our journalists are pushed to write with authority, context and creativity.

What are you finding to be the best way to tell a story on the web? Is long-form journalism dead? How multi-media centric are you?

With each story, we assess the best way to tell it. Is it a long-term project? A running investigation? A serial narrative told in blog form? Tweets? Do we just take a picture and write one paragraph and let our users take it from there? Do we involve the crowd right from the start or do we wait until we have something bigger?

What’s clear is that there is no best way to tell a story. But we have so many new and exciting ways to do it. What’s also clear is that long-form journalism isn’t dead on the web. It just needs to be written well. And the lack of length limits on the web shouldn’t be an excuse for undisciplined writing.

We do multi-media, yes. But we also recognize that we’re not professional videographers or producers and our resources can best be spent doing what we do best: Reporting and telling stories through text or photographs. We use partnerships with professional media organizations to do much of our multi-media work, letting them do what they do best with what we do best.

You have decided not to allow anonymous commenting on the site. Why?

Since 2006, we have wrestled with what to do about interactivity and commenting on the website. On the one hand, we immediately saw the value in the news becoming more than a one-way conversation. On the other hand, we have a very high standard for when we decide to let people anonymously comment in our stories.

We almost never allow anonymous sources to express opinions in stories, so why would we let them attach those comments immediately after the story? So we opened up comments, in 2006, on just our opinion stories and blogs. Our news stories remained closed to comments.

That is, until December 2009. With a redesign of the website, we opened up commenting on all stories but we asked readers to provide their full name and contact information we could confirm.

This is the same standard newspapers have used for years to verify letters to the editor. This is intended to elevate the discussion and to protect people who are willing to give their names and opinions from anonymous attacks, which will encourage them to keep participating.

How big to you aspire to be? What does voiceofsandiego.org look like in 5-10 years?

The truth is we don’t know how large of a news organization this model ultimately supports. There are few if any models for us to follow. We are simply following the wave of the community and where it takes us we don’t exactly know.

We do know the impact we’ve been able to make at our current size. We are prepared for the future and look forward to it.

Summer Polacek

Summer Polacek was formerly the Development Manager at Voice of San Diego.

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