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Online news sites come of age in the new world of journalism

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By Andrea Siedsma

As American newspapers become casualties of a fickle economy, new digital media has begun to transform the way news and information is delivered to the masses. Newspapers are by no means a dead industry (at least not yet) but there is a new crop of kids on the block who are making their mark in the new world of journalism. The Internet and new digital media have made communication between the reader and the media easier than ever before, fueling the recent growth and popularity of online-only news sites.
One of the pioneers of this Web-based community journalism movement is voiceofsandiego.org, one of the first online-only publications of its kind. Launched in 2005, voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit, created a big following almost immediately with its in-depth political coverage.
“Our founders saw there was a need to have more in-depth and public service-oriented investigative reporting,” said Andy Donohue, Voice of San Diego editor. “We are focused on trying to fill the gaps that were vacated by existing media. That’s not to say there wasn’t some of that being done at the (San Diego) Union-Tribune.  No major metropolitan area can be served by just one publication. Our founders saw for the first time a real opportunity to create a new publication without having to break through many different barriers.”
Voiceofsandiego.org, created and originally funded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Buzz Woolley, began with a staff of four. A key person in Woolley’s decision to launch Voice was local veteran journalist and former longtime Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan, who had recently been fired from the U-T.
Donohue said that Morgan’s credentials helped make the launch of Voice a success. The online publication now has 14 people on staff. Although the publication is best known for its local political coverage, the site now has in-depth stories on a variety of subjects, including education, housing, the environment, economy, public safety and community-specific news.
Voice, which has a $1 million annual budget, is funded through donors, such as Woolley, the San Diego Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Legler Benbough Foundation and through membership donations. In a push to bring rich multimedia to its readers, as well as to spread its stories to a vast audience, Voice has partnerships with KOGO radio and NBC.
Voiceofsandiego.org is one of a handful of online news sites in San Diego vying for a piece of the local media pie, including the San Diego News Network and SanDiegoNewsroom.com. Another site, Sandiego.com, has also begun offering more local news coverage. Donohue said there is plenty of room for growth in the local online media market.
“I always bristle when people think just because we’re doing journalism we are competitive. The more reporters out there the better. Just knowing there are other reporters out there working hard and working for the best stories is going to serve San Diego.”
Donohue and his colleagues at the other local news sites contend that the market in San Diego is ripe for such online publications. First of all, they say, there is only one daily newspaper in town (The San Diego Union-Tribune), which cannot serve all the people all of the time. Residents are also hungry for more in-depth coverage of the issues and topics that are most relevant and important to them and their neighbors.
“Even at its peak the Union-Tribune was never an incredibly strong newspaper, so the market here was open,” Donohue said. “That window was opened a little sooner than it was in most metropolitan areas.”
Donohue also pointed out that people in San Diego, an innovation hub, are generally more open to savvy, Web and multimedia rich news content. That innovation, coupled with a local open journalism market, has made it fairly easy for the Voice of San Diego to create a strong loyal following.
“The Web is the most competitive and free market in history. So if you’re good, people will show up and read. If you’re not, people don’t ever come back,” Donohue said. “Before, all of the news distribution was consolidated into one newspaper in San Diego. That meant that one paper had to try to fit a bunch of general interest issues in one bundle — the sports scores, the crossword puzzle, classifieds, sports and album reviews. That doesn’t translate over to the Web. We don’t need to put wire copy up of what’s happening in Afghanistan. We know that somebody has that page bookmarked on The New York Times Website, which can do that better than we can. We have to focus on what’s unique and original and adds value and is different than anyone else.”
Voice of San Diego’s model has caught on, not only in the San Diego market, but also across the United States as citizens become starved for more meaningful local news.  Other online news sites – such as Minnpost.com in Minneapolis, the St. Louis Beacon, and the Texas Tribune – have tapped into the expertise of Donohue and his Voice staff, who has shared ideas with them.
Donohue said one of the reasons online news publications have become so popular and in demand is because of their ability to create more interaction and dialogue with the community than traditional newspapers can.
“We focus on where can we make the biggest impact and tell the important stories that aren’t being told. For science, for example, we recognized that there was this gulf between old and new San Diego – the Downtown culture and the new science and innovation economy in the northern stretches of the city never communicated. We wanted to facilitate that dialogue between city and science leaders.
“Accountability reporting is also a strong point of ours,” he added. “We want to write those stories that make you understand your neighbors better. We have all recognized that journalism is no longer a one-way conversation. It’s no longer about reporters going into a room and coming back and telling their readers what  happened and forming an opinion for them.”
This innovative journalism medium has also spawned a new breed of journalists who not only can investigate and write a good story but who can also take photos and shoot and edit video. So says Barbara Bry and associate publisher of San Diego News Network (SDNN.com), which officially launched in April 2009.  SDNN was started by Bry and her entrepreneur husband Neil Senturia, who serves as CEO. Bry and Senturia provided the original funding and have raised additional money.
SDNN’s Web-savvy journalists are supplemented by a group of regular contributors, editors, columnists and freelance writers. Content also comes from media partners (community newspapers, radio and TV), third party content such as City News Service, and from users. SDNN has a staff of eight full-time journalists and a total of 21 employees. The site is free to users, and revenues come from online advertising and sponsorships. Advertisers include Sempra, Cox, La Jolla Playhouse, and Mission Federal Credit Union. Bry did not disclose the annual budget.
How does SDNN separate itself from other local online news sites? Bry answered, “We have an attitude that’s optimistic and curious. We’re also open to allowing a wide range of opinion on the site, and we try to present all points of view. For example, we might have a column by (local businessman and former mayoral candidate) Steve Francis on why marijuana should not be legalized and another column the next day on why it should be. That is a hot topic right now.”
Bry and company created SDNN.com because “we believed there was an opportunity to create the local news room of the future. We knew that many people in town wanted another option for local news and information, including sports and art and entertainment, and lifestyle coverage. If you want national or international news you have choices of a lot of sites — CNN, The New York Times or the BBC. We felt there was an opportunity to compete on a local level to provide San Diegans with a new source of local news and information with a new business model.”
SDNN is spreading its new model across Southern California. The site has launched an online version in southwest Riverside (SWRNN.com) and a third will be launched in Orange County in February. SDNN, which has created its own proprietary online technology, has several new features in the works. The site will be launching an online community calendar and separate sections for the environment, military, education, crime, night life, Mexico, military, theaters, movies and Artist of the Month.
“It is interesting that in this corner of the United States we are seeing some of the most innovative journalism,” Bry added.
Virtual journalism is indeed the wave of the media future and San Diego will continue to be a leader in this new market. David King, founder of SanDiegoNewsRoom.com, said San Diego’s prominence in this space is due to the confluence of the decline of local media and the government on a local, state and national level.
“This meltdown has created a giant public gasp and outrage of  ‘what’s going on’ and ‘how did all of this happen?’” said King, a local lawyer and founder of The King Law Group. “At the local level I think the meltdown of the San Diego city budget was the impetus of Voice of San Diego. You can combine that with the unfortunate decline of newspapers, which are going online because the business model is not penciling out. We see the decline in the amount of content newspapers are generating so there is a void to fill.”
San Diegans are beginning to find their ways to these local websites, according to Quantcast.com, a measurement service that helps quantify the characteristics of digital audiences.  According to Quantcast, Voice of San Diego and SDNN have nearly the same number of visits per month, both just shy of 300,000, but Voice had the lead in page views, 596,000 to 458,000 in a recent 30-day survey.  Visitors to Voice view an average of 6.4 pages per visit compared to 2.4 at SDNN. Voice also leads in the number of visits a viewer makes per month to their respective sites; 2.9 visits to Voice versus 1.5 to SDNN.  San Diego Newsroom has scored much lower on the Quantcast readings, averaging approximately 3,000 visitors per month.
King launched SanDiegoNewsRoom in June 2008, beginning with a daily News Flash summary of pertinent local government and political news. The site now includes original content from local experts on an array of subjects, including politics, business, environmental resources and development. SanDiegoNewsRoom.com also includes comprehensive news feeds from various sources.
“We’re looking to provide more meaningful content on relevant subjects such as water supply, development, energy and transportation,” King said. “We try to avoid social issues. People don’t need to read an article to know what they think about same sex marriage — that just increases the temperature but it doesn’t really escalate the dialogue. Even if it’s less sizzle on our Website we’re not going for scandals or social issues. We’re trying to provide useful content for people to have better information to make more informed decisions.”
Like its local online media counterparts, SanDiegoNewsRoom.com has partnerships with local community papers to make sure it is reaching out to all citizens. “For example, we want to make sure that projects within each community get the attention they deserve from community members, whether it’s parking meters or a new condominium project,” King said.  “There’s no substitute for the big paper in town, but in the long run people are going to wake up one morning and the Chargers are going to be gone and the Union-Tribune will be gone. Will the online news sites be enough to replace the existing newspaper? We’ll see how all that works out.” z

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