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Job switch: nonprofit sites fill the news hole

Four years ago, the nonprofit news model was relatively groundbreaking when retired venture capitalist Buzz Woolley and former San Diego Union-Tribune metro editor Neil Morgan teamed up and launched the Voice of San Diego in 2005.

The two had decided that there was a need to fill the news hole left in the wake of dwindling news coverage as daily newspaper staffs continued to shrink, explained Voice of San Diego editor Andrew Donohue.

Job switch: nonprofit sites fill the news hole

Job switch: nonprofit sites fill the news hole

“After some study, they decided on what today seems like an obvious model, but at the time was quite revolutionary: an online only, nonprofit daily publication focusing only on San Diego-specific issues,” he said in an e-mail interview. It is this model that others have followed – gaining momentum as journalists from cities across the U.S. continue to reproduce this concept in increasing numbers.

For former Orange County Register reporter Norberto Santana Jr., it was like that episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy gets a job at a chocolate factory and can’t keep up with the pace of the conveyor belt, he said. Every layoff at the OC Register, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month, made Norberto’s job harder as he struggled to keep up with all the news happening within the community. Politicians and community members alike were asking him where the community coverage was going; what was going on in the media? “The newspapers are not being straightforward with the public by saying they can still do the watchdog role,” he said. “I was having to lie to these people.” Because the truth is that there just aren’t enough reporters to go around.

Fascinated with the idea of online news, Norberto took the community’s concerns to heart. The Voice of OC is set to launch in late December and is receiving startup funding from the Orange County Employees Association. Like the Voice of San Diego, it is a nonprofit investigative journalism news site that will join the ranks of similar enterprises that have popped up across the country, including MinnPost, ProPublica, Investigative Voice and the Seattle PostGlobe. “Communities are realizing that they can no longer let the newspaper carry on the torch of public service. The corporate sector that runs these newspapers is in dire straits,” said Santana, who will serve as editor of the site. “There are not enough reporters on the ground – I think it’s the same hunger in each community.”

Has the nonprofit trend become the new face of newspaper-type journalism? In a recent Content Bridges blog post, newspaper analyst Ken Doctor called it an “online news renaissance.” In the article, Doctor discussed the upcoming arrival of another nonprofit site that is expected to launch in early 2010. Although still unnamed, the project is currently called the Bay Area News Project and is being launched by Warren Hellman, cofounder of San Francisco-based private equity firm, Hellman & Friedman. According to articles in the New York Times and San Francisco Business Times, the nonprofit will produce news for multiple platforms and will be given an initial funding of $5 million – considered the most well funded project of its kind thus far – from the Hellman Family Foundation.

An article from Romenesko on Sept. 30 announced the imminent appearance of another nonprofit, expected to launch Nov. 3. The Texas Tribune will be led by CEO and editor in chief Evan Smith, who cofounded the project along with venture capitalist John Thornton and the former owner and editor of Texas Weekly, Ross Ramsey. Joining the staff are several journalists from some of Texas’ biggest news mediums, including Elise Hu, who left a position as a political reporter with Austin-based KVUE-TV. “Journalism is at a crossroads right now. We’re seeing not just survival of the fittest but a mutation of the species,” Hu told Romenesko. “I think the nonprofit model has just as good a shot as anything else.”

While good for the community, these news sites pose a potential threat to the daily newspaper, which is already facing rough times. “It’s a threat that some outlets like Hellman’s, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, etc. will simply bypass local newspapers and find ways to reach readers directly, and through other partners. Put another way: Downsized dailies have left themselves newly vulnerable, exposing their flanks. Their dominance, but in part on sheer size, is waning,” blogged Doctor.

Despite this, Santana believes that the newspaper will continue to survive. “I think some functions like investigative reporting are well-suited for the nonprofit in conjunction with the daily newspaper,” he said. Instead of being the competition, he suggests that nonprofit sites need to make sure they don’t duplicate what the newspaper does best like providing obituaries or sports coverage. “I think it’s most useful identifying holes in coverage,” he continued. “I think that is the best model – working side by side.”

— Katrina M. Randall

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