Well-known news sites to use Knight money to deepen reporting

Four poster children for the community online news movement plan to use new cash infusions from the Knight Foundation to strengthen reporting resources on their hometown sites.

The Knight Foundation, journalism’s biggest funder of digital innovation, announced it was giving $390,000 to the Voice of San Diego, the St. Louis Beacon, MinnPost and ChiTown Daily News. All are non-profits, and the first three represent some of the most ambitious efforts to marshal community news reporting solely on the Web.

By relying on major gifts and foundation money, the sites are trying to create large enough audiences to sustain themselves – through advertising and/or continued philanthropy – when the initial funding peels away. Other, mostly smaller, online news startups are trying to build businesses from the ground up by relying on advertising alone.

OJR took fresh looks at the Voice of San Diego, Minn Post and ChiTown Daily News early this fall, and the New York Times followed suit last month with a front-page story on the muckraking San Diego site. “There hasn’t been a day go by since then that I haven’t had some follow-up from that story,” said co-executive editor Scott Lewis. Many inquiries have come from job-seekers or news entrepreneurs hoping to replicate the “Voice” in their own hometowns, he said.

Lewis said its $100,000 Knight grant would be used to start a free-lance operation to supplement its stable of about 10 full-time reporters and editors. The two main areas will be science and technology, which already are highlighted on the site, and the federal government’s involvement with San Diego. The latter focus may partially fill a void created by the year-end closing of the Washington bureau of San Diego’s daily newspaper, the Union-Tribune. Lewis said the focus initially will be on border issues and the area’s big military operations.

Lewis and co-leader Andrew Donohue also hope to benefit from another Knight initiative exploring how civic foundations might rally to the cause of independent online news. Knight has pledged $24 million in matching funds, over five years, to push the idea that community foundations could take a leading role in helping ensure local news needs. Knight is expected to make announcements about the program in early January.

The Voice of San Diego and the other four sites represent a hybrid business model in which they seek the support of foundations, philanthropists, advertisers and NPR-style member-donors. Lewis said his site’s budget projections are on track this year, despite the down economy.

Here’s how the other three sites say they’ll use their Knight money:

ChiTown Daily News – Editor Geoff Dougherty said his $100,000 Knight grant would go toward hiring four full-time reporters to cover local issues. He plans to expand coverage of higher education and public housing, and begin new beats on public health and labor. A separate $50,000 grant from the Abra Prentice Foundation will also go toward those reporting efforts.

St. Louis Beacon — Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the Beacon’s editor, said Knight’s $90,000 grant would go for two or three new hires who would focus on “the nexus of the economy, politics and health care.”

MinnPost – CEO and editor Joel Kramer said its $100,000 grant would finance additional reporters placed on retainers. Kramer told Knight that the funds might deepen coverage from Washington or on local business and government, but that actual use will depend on circumstances – including “finding the right talent within our price range.”

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.