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Meeting with Andrew Donohue
Civic Caucus, 8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Andrew Donohue, co-executive editor, voiceofsandiego.org
Present: Verne Johnson, chair; Chuck
Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by phone), and Wayne Popham (by phone)
A. Context of the meeting: The Civic
Caucus has been holding periodic sessions on the future of the media in
the Twin Cities area and Minnesota. We've learned about new online efforts
from Mary Turck of the Twin Cities Daily Planet and from Joel Kramer, who
is planning MinnPost.com. Today we're learning about a similar effort in
the San Diego, CA area that has been in existence for two years.
B. Introduction --Verne and Paul
introduced Andrew Donohue, co-executive editor of voiceofsandiego.org. He
has won local and national awards for investigative reporting, feature
writing and breaking news. Most recently, his reporting on a dysfunctional
affordable housing program won the national Society of Professional
Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting online. A
native of Milwaukee, WI, Donohue, 29, is a graduate of the University of
Minnesota and interned with the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis
Star Tribune's Washington, D.C. bureau during the 2000 elections.
C. Comment and discussion --During
Donohue's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Conditions leading to the start of
voiceofsandiego.org --San Diego has experienced serious loss of
news coverage in recent years with the merger of the San Diego Union and
the Evening Tribune. Further, the Los Angeles Times discontinued its San
Diego edition. In 2004 the city had some political crises that weren't
well covered by the Union Tribune. One of its most well-known journalists,
columnist Neil Morgan, was fired. He got together with Buzz Woolley,
president of the Girard Foundation, a private family foundation in the San
Diego area specializing in K-12 education. Morgan and Woolley hired a
consultant who helped them look at several models, print, online, profit
and non-profit. They settled on establishing an online, non profit
2. Breadth of news coverage --Donohue
said that staff is very focused and disciplined in dealing with a few
areas very well and resisting the temptation to jump around and cover
every possible topic. The voiceofsandiego.org concentrates on government,
housing, environment, economics, education and sports in the San Diego
region. After starting with a staff of two reporters at the outset two
years ago, the staff now has eight journalists -- two editors, five beat
reporters and a multimedia/photo editor. Reporters are assigned specific
beats. The city of San Diego makes up a very large portion of the region,
so anything outside the city itself is evaluated very closely.
In response to a question Donohue said voiceofsandiego.org does not cover
the Legislature nor suburban news. In a state as large as California, with
the state capitol in Sacramento, it probably is a different situation than
in Minnesota where the capitol is located in the state's one major metro
Depending upon availability of resources, at some point
voiceofsandiego.org might cover the capitol, he said.
No one takes voiceofsandiego.org as his or her only news source. Virtually
100 percent of the audience also gets a daily paper.
3. Not a news aggregator --It was
noted that many online news sites are aggregators, providing numerous
links to other news sites. Donohue said voiceofsandiego.org does not
function as an aggregator. Almost everything at its site is generated by
its own staff. The only exception is opinion pieces by outsiders on its
4. No "citizen" journalism --Donohue
said voiceofsandiego.org believes very strongly in maintaining a high
standard of quality in its news, prepared by professional journalists. It
is that high standard of quality that distinguishes voiceofsandiego.com,
and Donohue doesn't want to compromise by utilizing volunteer journalists
along the lines of omynews.com, a successful online new site based in
5. Interest in public insight journalism at MPR
--Donohue said Minnesota is fortunate to have such an
outstanding organization as Minnesota Public Radio. He said he would like
to learn more about how MPR uses citizens as sources for ideas--but not
for writing--with its public insight journalism project.
6. Much more reader participation online --Donohue
has been impressed that so many people feel free to send emails to
voiceofsandiego.org when they read a story of real interest to them. When
he worked at newspapers, he rarely got emails about the stories.
7. No fees charged --In response to a
question Donohue said all access to voiceofsandiego.org is free. He noted
that the New York Times has stopped charging for online access and he
thinks fees will go by the wayside at the Wall Street Journal, too.
Revenue comes from about 700 contributors, with approximately one-half of
the revenue coming from significant gifts from philanthropists. A small
amount comes from advertising, he said.
8. A six-day-a-week schedule --Every
day, six days a week, at 6 p.m. the new edition of voiceofsandiego.org is
placed online. However, the latest news is constantly updated at the top
of the website every day, in a section identified as "This just in". At
the bottom of the website visitors can access the last four stories
prepared in each area of emphasis, irrespective of whether the stories are
the latest for that day.
9. Nature of the voiceofsandiego.org audience --The
audience represents heavily educated and involved people in the community,
probably not unlike the MPR audience in Minnesota. It's not a particularly
young audience; most are in their 50s, he said. The website includes
results of a subscriber survey in February 2007 that indicated 8 percent
were between 19 and 24; 15 percent, 25-34; 40 percent, 35-54, and 37
percent, 55 and up. The survey revealed one-half had post-baccalaureate
10. Size of the audience --On a
typical day about 14,000 different individuals visit the site, with each
visitor spending an average of about 12 minutes at the site. Weekly, about
45,000 different individuals visit the site. The number of visits goes in
spurts, depending upon whether a good story is available, when "the number
of hits goes crazy". Certain stories will attract responses from
throughout the nation. Interestingly, he knows that a few addicts are at
the website almost constantly during the day.
Although the website is not given credit, Donohue knows that the Union
Tribune picks up ideas for its own stories.
11. Nature of the reporting staff --Donohue
likes young, hungry, talented, ambitious people who are recently out of
college. They need the oversight of an editor, but they have lots of
enthusiasm. Each reporter is expected to produce an average of three
larger stories a week plus two stories in the "this just in" category. The
site has lost only two reporters in two years, one of whom went back to
school. In discussion it was noted that some other start-up websites are
relying more on veteran reporters who were laid off from shrinking
12. Local coverage is critical --The
Union Tribune largely is made up of wire copy from national stories. You
can get the best national material out of the New York Times, he said.
What you need from a local outlet is good local coverage, and that is what
has been missing in the printed press in San Diego. He senses that already
the voiceofsandiego.org has stimulated the Union Tribune to do more
13. Absence of a younger generation of readers --The
voiceofsandiego.org doesn't make a special effort to attract younger
people. People of Donohue's age (29) aren't reading the news; it's the
reality of the market, he said. Voiceofsandiego.org readers are people who
are really engaged in the community.
14. Always a need for the product --Commenting
on an observation that the decline of the daily newspaper is inevitable,
Donohue replied that there'll always be a need for high quality
investigative journalism, even though the method of delivery might change
from print to electronic.
15. For-profit versus non-profit --Traditional
newspapers have lost their civic soul to new owners who aren't satisfied
unless they reap 15 percent to 25 percent profit every year. He wishes
that the newspapers would revert back to local ownership, which would be
willing to accept a smaller margin. The on-line non-profit approach seems
essential now to get sufficient revenue.
16. Non-political approach --Donohue
clarified that voiceofsandiego.org does not endorse ballot
questions or candidates. It must protect its status as a charitable,
17. Other start-ups --Donohue said he
is aware of the Joel Kramer effort in Minnesota and also another one in
St. Louis scheduled to start in December. Another start-up in New Haven
has a more ideological bent. An article in Governing magazine in 2006
highlighted new news-related websites, he said.
18. Summing up --Asked for closing
comments, Donohue emphasized again the importance of focusing on a few
areas and covering them well, rather than being superficial. The quality
of reporting by voiceofsandiego.org has made the difference, he said.
People will read longer stories that provide thorough, intelligent
19. Thanks --On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Donohue for meeting with us today.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.