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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

A Changing Voice   

The Voice of San Diego, a pioneering local news Web site, plots a future without its editor. Thurs., May 10, 2012.

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      

The duo running the Voice of San Diego--a locally focused, nonprofit online news outlet that has served as a model for startups around the country--is drafting a battle plan for what the Voice will look like (sound like?) without its editor. Andrew Donohue is heading north for a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University during the 2012-13 academic year.

Donohue and CEO Scott Lewis were reporters in their twenties, working at the San Diego Daily Transcript, when they jumped on board the newly founded Voice of San Diego in 2005. The idea for the site came from philanthropist Buzz Woolley and longtime journalist Neil Morgan, who hired Donohue as the Voice's first reporter. Lewis joined shortly after, and the two took the reins in November 2005.

The journalism world was shifting rapidly, and they did their best to shift with it. The result is a well-regarded nonprofit delivering local news that packs a punch.

"A nonprofit model is unique," Lewis says. "It's not that it's holier-than-thou, but it is mission based."

Stressing accountability journalism, the Voice mostly stays away from breaking news, concentrating instead on enterprise reporting. It follows developments on such topics as local government, health, education, housing and technology.

Donohue and Lewis agree that finding as many sources of revenue as possible--from big donations to earned revenue--is key to keeping nonprofit news outlets healthy. The Voice has mix of contributions from big benefactors such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, board chairman Woolley and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs to a growing list of members and corporate sponsors.

"One of my frustrations with the crisis in news is that [news organizations] suffer without ever asking their communities to support them," Lewis says. "How do they know what the community's willing to support if they don't ask?"

The nonprofit model isn't new, Lewis says, pointing to NPR and PBS as precursors. Except those organizations are linked to expensive infrastructures. The Voice is simply a new iteration of those models, minus the high overhead.

"It's just journalists in a room with an Internet connection," Lewis says.

The goal from the start was to do good stories that have an impact and fill a reporting gap in San Diego. The Voice was founded on the idea that the existing media weren't doing a good enough job of investigative and accountability reporting on local issues, Donohue says.

"If we had some big goal of trying to be a model for something and trying to incorporate radio and TV and stuff, it probably wouldn't have happened," Donohue says. "We've always tried to do a good job of managing expectations. You do see some places step up and say they're going to try to revolutionize the world. As soon as you don't live up to that, you get it thrown back at you."

Two objectives continue to drive the site: one is to do investigative work that holds institutions and people accountable; the second is to educate the community and engage local residents in daily conversation about the news at hand.

The Voice leadership made the decision early on to focus only on things it knew it could do differently or better than other venues. Each piece should add value instead of rehashing the facts.

"That's the way a small organization has a bigger impact than its resources might justify," Lewis says. "If you're not trying to duplicate what anyone's doing, you might have a pretty profound effect."

But a budgetary crunch left the Voice with a $200,000 shortfall in its $1.2 million budget for 2012. As a result, the Voice cut three journalists--a quarter of its staff--in December. Despite the layoffs, the duo says they are optimistic about the health of the site and the direction it's taking.

"I wouldn't do this [leave for the fellowship] if I didn't think the Voice was in an incredibly strong spot," Donohue says. "We had layoffs in December, sort of our first real crisis. And I think we came out a lot stronger and focused and confident now."

The site has won numerous awards over the years, including from the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Donohue had no idea going in that the Voice would be such a success. Nor that leaving it would be so hard.

"Just to make that decision was an incredibly grueling and emotionally taxing one," Donohue says. "This place has been my life and has been the most fun and exciting and interesting job I've ever had. It's been far more than a job."

Donohue had his eye on a Knight Fellowship for a long time, he says. But he kept waiting for an ideal moment to step away from his work at the Voice. He wanted to make sure the site was stable and in a good place.

"We thought for the last seven years that we're six months away from reaching a plateau where we're going to be good," Donohue says. "But there's never going to be a perfect time."

Donohue, 33, and his wife are also expecting their first child in June, making this a year full of major life changes.

During his 10 months at Stanford, he hopes to bring to life a project he's had in mind for a couple of years. Essentially, he plans to create a one-person news organization built around a specific topic. The goal is to have it all very open and crowdsourced from the start. As the reporter learns, so will the audience.

Donohue is still exploring topics, which will rotate after a fixed period. For example, perhaps, two-year intervals on the food system, U.S. influence in Central America and environmental hazards.

"The point is that the readers start from the same point that you do," Donohue says. "It wouldn't be something that you start with as an expert."

Instead, the reporter would bring the readers along with him. The project would start off by saying "This is what I know already and this is why I'm interested in this." Ideally, audience members will provide input along the way, either sharing their knowledge or providing questions to be explored.

"This is what we've been working on the last seven years, how do you get people engaged in a community every day?" Donohue says. "We've been experimenting and failing and succeeding in all sorts of different ways of doing that storytelling and reporting. So it was just sort of a logical extension of what we're doing here."

The Knight Fellowship singles out people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and have proven themselves as innovators, says James Bettinger, director of the program.

Until about three years ago, it recruited mostly journalists from traditional news organizations. But in light of the rapidly evolving journalism landscape, the program made a conscious shift toward selecting journalists with experience or interest in emerging projects and up-and-coming ventures. In the land of Silicon Valley, innovation rules.

"We're really tickled about Andrew," Bettinger says. "We've had some people who were involved in new ventures before, but obviously the Voice of San Diego is one of the lead dogs in this movement."

The fellowship is comprised of three main components: working on the individual's proposal, auditing classes on a non-credit, non-degree basis and taking part in a series of seminars and workshops.

During the next couple of months, the Voice will focus on drafting a battle plan for running the operation without Donohue. "Andy and I have had a unique collaboration for so long that trying to replace that is probably not the plan," Lewis said. "We're not hiring another Andy."

Though the fellowship means that Donohue will relinquish his position at the Voice, the two are optimistic that they will reunite when he wraps up his year at Stanford, though nothing is definite.

"It's a powerful partnership and still is and will be," Lewis says. "It's a little shift is all."

"Scott keeps reminding people I'm not dying," Donohue says. "Thankfully, we've got really good communication devices now."

Part of the strength of their relationship comes from their ability to stop each other from making really bad decisions, Donohue says. "It's good to have a trusted friend who really can veto you in any way," he adds. "We both have very distinct strengths and weaknesses and play off each other well."

The two consciously redefine their roles each year to adapt to changes at the site, Lewis says. It's important to take advantage of each other's strengths, especially in a constantly changing industry.

Lewis adds, "Obviously, Andy and I, we've been collaborating on this project since 2005, so losing him, even if it's not a full loss, is a big deal."