The change in format at Voice of San Diego has shifted its place in the San Diego news media marketplace. The site has gone from an online version of a newspaper, in which it generally followed the traditional path of publishing content written by its own journalists following certain editorial standards, to a social media site where content can now come from anyone, anywhere, with any level of expertise on any subject, in the manner of Facebook.

The change has resulted in a VOSD that is now as much a generic platform hosting any and all conversation and commentary, as it is a branded producer of its own commentary, advancing its own point of view. The combination is revealing.

On the one hand, it reminds us VOSD exists for far more fundamental reasons than its stated mission of increasing civic participation and conducting investigative journalism.  It provides an outlet for issues and ideas that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. The new social media features mean more ideas will get heard.

It doesn’t take much to see what justifies undertaking such a project. Because of its narrow economy and small number of entrenched interests, San Diego’s most powerful sometime strangle public debate on subjects contrary to their beliefs.

Other times, because of the city’s conservatism, people resist new ideas. When we read in U-T San Diego or hear someone say at a public forum, “What about the word ‘no’ do you not understand?” or “You don’t belong here,” we are not witnessing a culture seeking open debate.

VOSD levels the playing field between these interests and others by ensuring an outlet exists for all ideas worth considering. This is not to say all ideas are persuasive, only that an outlet exists for their presentation. This, incidentally, is democracy in action, and the easiest reason to give money to VOSD.

On the other hand, the more VOSD becomes a Facebook-like social media platform, the less it retains its own voice. This detracts from a local media marketplace already bereft of new and competitive professionally produced ideas, and editorialists producing, or at least attempting to produce, well thought-out perspectives on important issues.

Most importantly, it intensifies a glaring problem: no local, print-based media outlet is challenging the power the U-T has over forming our civic discourse. This is a pernicious issue since only about between about 11 and 17 percent of San Diegans over age 18 actually buy the newspaper depending on the day, meaning its influence is vastly disproportionate to its real size.  (In March, it was reported that the U-T’s average weekday circulation was about 251,000, and on Sunday, about 410,000. U.S. Census numbers from 2010 showed 2.37 million people 18 years and older living in the county.)

Curiously, VOSD just launched a series asking what thwarts innovation in San Diego. One possibility is the U-T’s domination of our civic discourse. Something should be done about it, for the more narrow and insular the public marketplace for ideas, the less stimulation and inspiration available to foster the invention that leads to innovation.

It had been my belief, and it appears the belief of others who’ve posted here over time, that VOSD was going to fill the gap for audiences bored, disinterested or frustrated with San Diego’s most expected and provincial civic and cultural plotlines. But the new move to social media, reflective of their real mission, makes clear VOSD is not going to fully do this, as adding amateur or sporadic voices is not a complete answer to the problem I outlined above.

The move does not satisfy the market. And one exists for smartly conceived and regularly published writing mirroring the beliefs and interests of audiences looking for more challenging and informative reading, or left nonplussed by the staunch partisanship on display in the U-T.

Hopefully, some enterprising journalists or publisher will see this and create a new venture to satisfy these underserved needs. Especially, when considering the old VOSD successfully demonstrated that worthwhile online journalism can capture an audience upwards of 90,000 people a month (depending on when and who measured it) for as little cost as $1 million a year.

An audience is waiting.

Bob Stein lives in University City.

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