To mark the relaunch of the Editors Weblog, the World Editors Forum is running a special series entitled "Doing More with Less." The series highlights major trends that editors-in-chief are using to steer their newsrooms through the difficult economic climate. The seventh in the series takes a look at non-profit investigative journalism site VoiceOfSanDiego.org.
As newspapers make cuts to survive and concentrate their efforts, one of the first areas to suffer is the time- and resources- consuming field of investigative journalism. And that is where the VoiceOfSanDiego.org has stepped in; a non-profit, online-only publication focussing on quality investigative reporting for the San Diego area. The Editors Weblog spoke to Executive Editor Andrew Donahue and housing and economy reporter Kelly Bennett about their mission.
"If there is one storyline that sums up why we exist, it is because investigative journalism on a very local level isn't being done." Andrew Donohue was clear about the role of VOSD: to fill the gaping hole in "in-depth analytical accountability journalism, the public service arm of a newspaper," that has emerged in recent years in other communities as well as in San Diego.
Donohue believes that "so many newspapers are cutting back to such extreme levels that there is no way that they are getting the investigative news that they deserve and need." The problem is most severe in American cities, where for many years there has been just one newspaper with something of a monopoly on providing information, so if that paper stops launching investigations, then who will take its place? Investigative journalism has a vital role to play in local societies, exposing wrongs and pushing for change. Bennett pointed out another important element to consider: its value as a deterrent against potential corruption. She sees this as a safeguard for society, it is about "developing that reputation that there are people looking, sending a message to people in power."
"If there is one storyline that sums up why we exist, it is because investigative journalism on a very local level isn't being done."
Balancing site readability and impact
VOSD reporters are assigned to specific beats, a concept borrowed from traditional publications. Donohue explained that the VOSD journalists were constantly trying to balance the two crucial elements of their job: to keep the website lively and updated, but also to commit time to investigative reporting that can have a significant impact. Such reporting is undoubtedly time intensive if it is to be done thoroughly, which it is at VOSD. Staff are encouraged to meet with any relevant sources and to always do public records requests and fight "really hard" for documents. Bennett explained that the very nature of investigative journalism means that you never really know how a project is going to turn out, so it can be difficult to allocate appropriate resources.
Donohue pointed out one major project, 'Redevelopment gone wrong' which has been an inspiration to him and his staff. VOSD launched three different areas of investigation into public agency the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., and over the course of a number of years "exposed a wide range of conflicts of interest, fraud and other sorts of misbehaviour." The publication's work has led to FBI and criminal federal grand jury investigation, the board of the agency has been completely revamped and the president has been forced to resign. Donohue is proud of the depth of coverage produced, of VOSD's determination to keep sticking with the story, and of course of the impact. "It can be very disheartening and very frustrating if you spend 6 months on a project and nothing actually changes," he explained. So "watching the impact of this story has been inspiring for us as journalists."
VOSD has a more flexible working environment than many traditional publications. Donohue explained that as long as reporters are "producing the quality of journalism that we require," they are free to work from the office or at home, and can choose their hours. They have also tried to "eliminate the idea of deadlines altogether," explained Donohue: stories go up on the site when they are ready. Reporters are always free to propose their own stories, they are not necessarily assigned by editors. "We are firm believers in the idea that ideas bubble up from reporters' beats," added Donohue. "I would be a fool if I thought that I knew more than my reporters about their beats"
Staff: traditional experience and new blood
VOSD's eleven staff are a mixture of experienced journalists who have worked in newspapers for many years, and people fresh out of college who have never reported full time before. Donohue explained that both "offer really valuable perspectives," although those who had been at traditional newspapers longer found it harder to adapt to work at VOSD. "It's fascinating to watch" the process, Donohue commented. Bennett described how staff often discuss the "rules" of traditional newspapers and decide which ones they should follow.
Non-profit allows for total focus on story impact
Both Donohue and Bennett were very positive about the advantages offered by VOSD's non-profit status. Most crucial is the simple fact that they do not have to make anyone any money; rather just make enough to support the organisation. This means, as Donohue explained, that "you measure success differently." Papers which are desperately seeking every hit they can get on their website risk cheapening their news, or moving away from their core focus. "We know what we could put on our site to get more hits," stressed Donohue, "but it would lessen the impact of our stories." The unique aspect of a non-profit, Donohue explained, is that "ultimately our success is judged by the impact of our stories: What have our stories done?" And this impact, evidently, is what is most important to investigative journalism. Bennett added that for her, "there has been some major value in being able to tell people that you are writing the story independently. For me the non-profit, independent aspect of VOSD has been part of the justification for reporting the way I do."
"Ultimately as non-profit our success is judged by the impact of our stories: What have our stories done?"
Donor money does not buy influence
One potential problem with privately funded non-profits is that those who fund them could try to influence the news that comes out of them. Donohue was clear that this has not been a problem at VOSD. "We have made it very clear that your money does not buy you influence," he clarified. "We draw the lines, and as long as we draw them clearly and boldly then there aren't problems." He explained that he himself had been sceptical of donors' motives when he first started working with VOSD, but that he had quickly come to understand that investigative journalism at its heart is a "public service institution," and that many funders were large philanthropic organisations who frequently give grants to all sorts of organisations. A recent donor was the Knight Foundation; others are local foundations that work on quality of life issues, others are "prominent citizens," or members of the community who give smaller amounts. A total of 750 people have given money.
Multimedia and reader interaction
One of the great advantages of being online-only is the potential for multimedia. As Bennett pointed out, if a newspaper promotes a multimedia package to accompany a story, there will be so many steps to take to actually access it that few readers will, while as online, it is right there. She accompanies some stories with video, audio or slideshows when she feels it would add to them. Her monthly feature "People at work," which looks at a San Diego resident through the lens of their job, often includes a multimedia feature. Another benefit of working online is the possibility to interact with readers. VOSD allows comments on its opinion pieces and opinion blogs, but not on news stories or news blogs, as Donohue believes that they should "let the news stand by itself," and they do not have sufficient resources to carry out the necessary moderation of the comments. Reporters also interact in different ways with their audience, using blog postings to solicit thoughts, ideas and comments for stories, which Donohue described as "a great source of information." A regular feature called 'The People's Reporter' is very popular. Readers can send in tips and questions and a reporter will spend a day responding on a blog, and "it has led to great discussion and some more long-term stories, Donohue explained.
Competing with traditional media?
Donohue described VOSD's relationship with local paper the San Diego Union-Tribune. He was adamant that VOSD is more than just an alternative voice to supplement the Tribune's coverage, but also not a direct competitor overall. However within VOSD's chosen field of quality of life issues, the site does compete: "we always want to have the best stories and have them first." And Donohue hopes that the people of San Diego benefit from this lack of monopoly, as "the more competition there is in the media, the better it is for everybody and the better the community is served."
Is this the future for local news?
VOSD's coverage is firmly local, and focussed very much on quality of life issues. Donohue believes that the model works, and plans to continue along the same lines, although he sees it as one of many that will be tried in upcoming years. The non-profit model may well have to be used more: "at least until news orgs find a way to make this thing work financially, it will have to be done philanthropically." He sees a future in which publications become more specialised, and in which people look to many different sources for different types of news. Most crucial is the fact that people try to come up with new ideas and carry them out, as "the thing that has been missing from journalism and the thing that has got us to this point is a lack of innovation and lack of entrepreneurial spirit."
"One thing we've learnt is that the gap we were created to fill keeps just keeps getting bigger"
And the future for VOSD?
For VOSD, Donohue hopes to grow, and eventually become "a very robust news organization, that serves almost as the metro section of a what a daily paper used to be." Maybe it will not become huge in terms of numbers, as Donohue is aware that the current model may not necessarily support a much larger staff, and "there is something to be said for being a quick, lean and efficient organisation." But as "one thing we've learnt is that the gap we were created to fill keeps just keeps getting bigger," VOSD will strive to keep up with filling that gap, and keep looking for more gaps that the traditional media is leaving behind. It may well not be a model that works everywhere, but VOSD's commitment and success show that it can work, and should be taken seriously by communities whose newspapers have lost their public service arm.