By Jermaine Taylor
In San Diego, California, Scott Lewis believes he has seen the future of journalism. It’s local, and it’s non-profit. It’s also online. But, says Lewis, it’s still journalism.
“Nothing about online frees us from the ideals of journalism,” says Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. (www.voiceofsandiego.org)
Voice, a non-profit online newspaper website founded in 2004 by veteran San Diego Union-Tribune journalist Neil Morgan and venture capitalist Buzz Woolley, alongside other non-profit news sites such as ProPublica—an investigative news site edited by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger—has not only been changing the way many San Diegans get their news but has also been horning in on the almost monopolistic market share of readers enjoyed by the Union-Tribune and others. (ProPublica took home a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 when reporter Sheri Fink won the award for investigative reporting.)
While in San Diego recently to attend this year’s National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Annual Conference, I got an opportunity to speak to Lewis by phone and his excitement about the continued success of online ventures like Voice and others was palpable.“We’ve just had an incredible reaction here in San Diego,” he says.
And with good journalism ideally being concerned first and foremost with serving the public good, Lewis believe it’s critically important to stay in tune with the concerns of the local community. “You have to see what your community has, see what it needs. Reporters aren’t just writers,” says Lewis, “they’re community conveners.”
As the CEO overseeing Voice’s operations, Lewis prides himself on the site’s ability to tap a grassroots hunger for quality, oftentimes under-reported journalism. It’s all about the community, argues Lewis. “The hardest thing is distribution. Getting it out there. What’s nice is the web is so comparatively inexpensive.”
Lewis clearly has a sense of history, both in terms of where journalism is going and where it’s been. “It’s important,” he says, “to remember non-profit journalism has been around for some time in various forms.” Here he gives credit to a number of Voice’s predecessors, such as PBS and NPR. Voice, he says, has learned a great deal from what NPR and others have done over the years.
“One of the hardest things has been making journalists comfortable with the web,” Lewis says, pointing to one of the site’s other focuses: recruitment and training.
Like many news organizations, Voice recognizes the importance of social media. “We look for people who are interested in and aware of all the tools that are out there.”
Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, etc., he says, it’s vital for reporters to be literate in all forms of social media as a way to stay in step with the local community.
Speaking with a panel of presenters at NABJ, many saw ventures like Voice and ProPublica as overwhelmingly positive developments in journalism. The panel, in a workshop entitled “From Newsroom to Non-Profit,” featured several broadcast and print journalists turned public relations consultants for various non-profits and government agencies.
“There’s no difference between a for-profit and a non-profit,” says Terry Allen, moderator of the panel and Director of 1016 Media. “You both have to generate revenue.” However, while Lewis accepts the need to generate revenue as a vital part of Voice’s mission, he further adds that the site’s non-profit status actually allows it to draw from an even broader base of funders. “There has to be an obsession with diversifying your revenue sources, for sustainability but also for credibility.”
Kelly Williams, Director of Media and Public Relations for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, also sympathizes with the need to stay in touch with a grassroots reservoir of community support. “With [Big Brothers Big Sisters of America],” Williams says, “we have donors we’re trying to get interested in our cause.”
For Lewis and his Voice staff, that “cause” is quality journalism. So while evolving business models and new and improved methods for securing revenues and market share are always critical concerns for any organization, Lewis and others are always careful to remember that it’s ultimately the quality of stories that are covered about the communities they serve that will invariably assure their continued existence.
“Storytelling,” says Kayla Adams, Communications Community Director for March of Dimes, “is probably the most important skill you can bring to the non-profit world.”
Lewis is also careful to remind us that, non-profit or not, Voice practices the same brand of journalism as contemporaries such as the San Diego Union-Tribune. The “eternal verities” of journalism—reporting and writing—as CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Dean Stephen Shepard has called them, are indispensable for the high-caliber form of journalism that Voice endeavors to.
Lewis says he’s thrilled to see the attention non-profit news organizations like ProPublica have garnered for its investigative reporting. Indeed, it’s commonly accepted in newsrooms that investigative projects—long-considered some of the hardest and most costly to maintain—are the first to be cut from a paper’s budget. So Lewis prides himself on much of Voice’s investigative work to date, citing investigations by some of his reporters that revealed financial irregularities and conflicts of interest in local government.
The launch of The Texas Tribune in Texas and MinnPost in Minnesota—both patterned on the Voice paradigm—all bode well for the prospects of the non-profit model. (Both sites consulted extensively with Voice prior to and after their initial launch.)
Graydon Carter, the Canadian-born journalist and editor of Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair since 1992, in a March 28, 2010, OpEd in the magazine, wrote, “The fact is that people still want great, well-told tales. […] If print journalism’s business model is changing, our only move as editors is to double down on delivering what our readers have always wanted from us: compelling stories and iconic photographs. And it won’t matter if they’re read on a laptop, a cell phone, or on paper.”
Allen of 1016 Media also believes that format or platform is increasingly less important. “When you’re a journalist, you’re a journalist,” he says.
Indeed, Lewis sees a bright future for non-profits like Voice. But quality, he emphasizes time and again, is key. “If they focus on quality, I think they can make it happen.”
“I think every engine just needs a spark.”