Newsroom veterans debut a new online voice in San Diego

After 50 years’ work at various incarnations of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Neil Morgan got an unexpected present on his 80th birthday: a 30-day termination notice.

But he was not ready for retirement and neither was Buzz Woolley, a retired venture capitalist who thought that San Diego readers would miss Morgan’s voice. Over lunch several days later, they discussed the idea of launching a news website to cover what they thought mainstream media was ignoring or overlooking in the community. Another phone call brought on board Barbara Bry, a former L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee reporter who’d just helped take public.

Together, they launched, a nonprofit site whose mission is in part, to “encourage civic participation through an interactive forum that offers diverse perspective,” and to “provide courageous reporting on a region not fully understood or reported by existing media.”

Now, three months after launch, Morgan said he believes Voice of San Diego has already achieved its objective to offer diverse voices.

“It has actually provided a very distinctive, fresh, enlightened voice to the people who care about this community. They’ve latched onto it as a progressive and forward-looking, unlike some existing media,” he said, explaining, “I think a whole lot of people feel that the Tribune has had a very conservative base and that its view of the community is obsolete.”

Morgan now works as the senior writer on Voice of San Diego’s staff, where he is featured as a regular contributor.

“I do personal columns and modes of what I did for 50 years at the paper,” said Morgan. “I also use all my years and sources and contacts to get some stories that we lead the community with.”

Bry serves as the editor and CEO of Voice of San Diego.

“Online news is not selling flowers but at least I had helped put together a website. I understood about marketing on the Internet,” she said, sitting in the conference room of the 750 square foot office space her staff is quickly outgrowing.

Although Woolley initially thought about creating Voice of San Diego as a print publication, Bry said the decision to publish exclusively online was easy to make.

“Number one newspaper readership is declining and number two the cost of printing and distribution is is much bigger than what we’re spending.”

Voice of San Diego considers itself “interactive,” but it does not host blogs on its site.

“I think all of us at Voice agree that blogging has a reputation that is quite different from disciplined news coverage,” said Morgan. “I think the egalitarian nature of the blogging means everyone has an equal voice, and that’s fine for a basis of founding a democracy but it’s lousy in terms of getting proper news coverage.”

Adds Bry, “We shied away from doing a blog because I’m worried that it will be taken over on a fringe element by one side or another.”

Instead, their version of interactivity funnels through two sections. Voice publishes 99 percent of (edited) letters to the editor, and it invites experts in the community to write free for a “Contributing Voices” section. The current list speaks to the site’s influential audience: it includes a litany of Ph.D’s in multiple fields, as well as business and social leaders.

“These are experts in their field who can chime in with authority on something. Whereas maybe if something in their field topic would come up, we’d have to go send a reporter out, and we can’t do that right now,” said staff writer Evan McLaughlin.

McLaughlin, whose official title is staff editor but whose duties seem to function more like a city desk editor, had multiple job offers upon his recent graduation from the University of California at San Diego, where he served as editor-in-chief of the UCSD Guardian. He chose Voice, in part, because of “San Jose Mercury News,” said McLaughlin. “He stopped that right when I took this job, which kind of made my decision a little easier. I’m with him on everything from citizen journalism to how old and crusty newspapers are getting– and they’re frankly a little arrogant also.”

Bry also had to search to find political reporter Andrew Donahue, who after breaking stories about the stories on the city’s early pension-underfunding for the San Diego Daily Transcript, had ventured off on a year long stint to Costa Rica. Donahue said he believes absolutely he is in competition with the San Diego Union Tribune. He said his goal is to scoop them once a week when possible.

“We’re trying to go after the stuff that isn’t being covered at all- what that is we’re still trying to figure out. Right now there’s lots going on in our city government so it’s a great opportunity for us,” he said. “Maybe that’s something we’ll look back on and say (the site’s initial success) wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Lately Voice’s attention and readership has been boosted by in-depth coverage of San Diego’s mayoral election. And Bry said she is considering expanding a dialog between candidates and readers during the month leading up to the July 26 election.

Yet, local media reaction to Voice’s launch has been mixed.

Sign On San Diego, the online presence of the San Diego Union Tribune, doesn’t view Voice of San Diego as a potential usurper of their readership. Robert Hawkins, Sign On San Diego’s morning editor, said he thinks the sites serve different purposes.

“There’s a feeling of no competition whatsoever,” he said. “The point of their site is to create a dialog and discussion about San Diego, and our interests are both commercial and journalistic in informing people of San Diego.”

Hawkins added, “I worked for Neil Morgan, who I have nothing but the highest estimation for. If they can inspire people to take a stake in the future of San Diego, that’s a terrific thing.”

But alternative weeklies haven’t been as complimentary.

A columnist who pens under the name “Ms. Beak” for San Diego CityBeat welcomes an alternative voice in the community.

“I think their mission is to provide an outlet for people who don’t think the local daily newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, provides much of an outlet. A lot of people agree with them,” she said in an e-mail interview.

But she isn’t about to endorse Voice’s content, either.

“The jury is still out. I think a lot of it is fairly mainstream. They want to be seen as serious and thoughtful, which can also translate to boring and unremarkable. I have yet to see one article that made me stop what I was doing and rush to the site to read it.”

Jim Holman, editor of the San Diego Reader, said that although he has not actually read the Voice of San Diego’s content, he thinks that without blogging, the site will have a difficult time attracting the targeted online audience.

“Neil Morgan- he’s not young and hip. That’s all that’s relevant here,” said Holman. “He has a lot of respect in the community, but not with the younger set. They don’t have those people that are doing cool blogging stuff on the web.”

But in a recent column, Ms. Beak criticized Voice’s content for being too green.

“According to the bios on the site, there are only two reporters with any depth of journalistic experience, which is going to make it tough to ‘be a credible source for relevant news and information,'” Ms. Beak wrote. “Many of the stories so far have the faint ring of a social-studies term paper.”

Bry, however, is proud of her recruitment effort. The staff is not without talent, she said, and they’ve earned the fellowships, awards and bylines to prove it. Bry, who earned her reporting chops at the Sacramento Bee for 18 months before moving onto the L.A. Times, said she expects most of the younger staff will move on after a few years of experience at Voice.

Non-profit news

Although the site will sell advertising space, (which Bry compares with the way a museum sells items in its gift shop) its nonprofit status seems to go hand in hand with its mission to remain nonpartisan and independent. The nonprofit news model seems to appeal to other parts of the nation as well. Though grants, the Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism established J-Lab, an institution which “helps news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.”

It recently awarded 10 “New Voices” grants as part of a pioneering program to seed innovative news ventures. Voice of San Diego did not qualify because they had already launched, but Executive Director Jan Schafer said J-Lab received 243 applicants, who had to qualify as either nonprofit or educational/institutional during the 10-week window that submissions were accepted.

“What we saw in our new voices proposals a great deal of concern from communities, some geographic, some ethnic, some small, that they were not being covered adequately by mainstream media. We saw a real passion by the people who were saying if they’re not going to cover us, we’re going to cover ourselves.”

Schafer also said nonprofit media outlets can become competitive in big markets.

“I have become a big fan of the Gotham Gazette, run by the Citizen’s Union (Foundation of the City of New York.) And I think they cover news in New York City, especially elections, as well as better than The New York Times or News Day. So, I think there’s potential for good journalism there.”

Beyond the next few years, Bry said the future of the site isn’t certain. Will Voice of San Diego be regarded as a well-funded anomaly or one of the early pioneers in a nonprofit news revolution?

J-Lab’s Schafer said the question applies to larger media organizations, who may eventually catch on, as well.

“What if citizens were shareholders and you bought a share in the paper, and in return you got participatory opportunities, like to produce content or sit on the advisory board,” said Schafer. “It’s an untested model so I don’t think we know the answer to that. But there’s also nothing that says citizens don’t want progressive reporting.”

About Sarah Colombo

Sarah is a recent graduate of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where she obtained a Master of Arts in journalism. She served as the managing editor of OJR's news blog during the 2004-2005 academic year. She has also been published in a variety of online and print publications, including the Daily Breeze and Premiere magazine. Her professional interests include cultural affairs reporting, arts and entertainment and anything multimedia related.