< The Still Small Voice

Transcript

Friday, November 21, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
So if Bloomberg is counting on pure capitalism to support new models for reporting, other news outlets are relying on your generosity. Small, Web only, not for profit newsrooms, recently profiled in The New York Times, are springing up around the country and scooping much larger dailies.

Take, for example, Voiceofsandiego.org, which has a staff of just 10 but has managed in just a few years to uncover a series of local government scandals. Executive editor Scott Lewis says that San Diego used to be a three newspaper town, but now, with only The Union Tribune surviving, there’s a reporting void to fill. Scott, welcome to the show.
SCOTT LEWIS:
Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Luckily for you, there is a deep vein of corruption running through [LAUGHING] city government.
SCOTT LEWIS:
[LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:
And fairly early on, you hit the mother lode. Can you tell me about the Redevelopment Authority story?
SCOTT LEWIS:
California has a pretty ambitious redevelopment law that allows cities to invest tax money back into the community. And one of the agencies in charge of this area was the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation in the southeast part of San Diego, which is traditionally a community that’s struggled.

And, you know, over a course of two years, basically, we did some major investigations. And finally this summer we pulled out a story about how the person in charge was actually giving a clandestine system of bonuses to her and her top staff, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And since then, the person in charge has been ousted, the second in charge has been ousted, the whole board has been reformed. And now there’s a grand jury that we just discovered is investigating from D.C., actually, from the Justice Department.
BOB GARFIELD:
What effect did that have on your traffic?
SCOTT LEWIS:
We go through periods where our traffic goes up and plateaus and then goes up again and plateaus, and that was one of the points where it went up.
BOB GARFIELD:
And what effect did it have on how quickly people returned your reporters’ calls?
SCOTT LEWIS:
[LAUGHS] I think what it did was show what power we could have as far as our investigative prowess. The very moment that that story came out, the mayor issued a memo where he said, I read Thevoiceofsandiego.org’s story today. You have some serious questions to answer. Answer them within this certain period of time. And that forced the local newspaper, The Union Tribune, to respond as well. That forced the local TV stations to mobilize.

Our goal isn't to get readers. Our goal is to get these stories out, and, you know, obviously we need readers to do that. But if somebody takes our stories and puts them on the local radio station or on the TV station or whatnot, that’s what differentiates us as a non profit from a for profit.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, many have suggested that the only future for daily newspapers is not as for profit businesses but as a kind of equivalent to public broadcasting, where they have many revenue sources and are deemed community services that everybody has a stake in.

Do you see yourself as the leading edge of the future of daily journalism?
SCOTT LEWIS:
Yeah, we're trying to blaze that trail right now. You know, information is a public service, and we've been lucky in many ways for decades, even centuries, to have it subsidized by advertising, by people who wanted to get their message in the middle of whatever public service was being performed.

But that’s gone. When was the last time you looked at page A 7 of a major daily newspaper and said, wow, those are some great tires, I need to go buy those tires? It’s just not happening as much.

And so our purpose was to try to salvage the public service that was in journalism and do it more efficiently by taking out the printing costs of the newspaper and then also focusing in on a mission; that we were going to cover the things that really matter — the government, and hold the government accountable.

And, you know, we're not going to spend a lot of effort just telling the stories that get us the hits that we're going to tell the stories that fulfill that mission.
BOB GARFIELD:
I want to ask you one last thing. Local journalism, cultural and public affairs — now, a lot of people are going to be fighting for that territory, whether it’s the existing daily newspaper, the alt weekly, the public radio station, the local TV stations —everybody is going to be fighting for the same space.

Do you view yourself in competition with San Diego’s public radio station, with The Union Tribune, with the alt weekly? I mean, are you hoping to somehow carve out the whole market for yourself?
SCOTT LEWIS:
No. You know, one of the things that’s kind of scary is that we were hired to sort of help fill this gap between the needs of the community and what was being provided, and so we have been kind of overwhelmed by the fact that that gap has grown.

You know, The Union Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize not too long ago, and the person who won it has just been let go and is working for a [LAUGHS] non profit, actually, The ProPublica in Manhattan.

But we don't look at the demise of newspapers with at all any kind of glee. What we're doing is trying to provide a model for how a community can respond. And around the country, you know, Minnesota and Chicago and New Haven and St. Louis, they're all seeing the same thing, and turning to non profit online journalism as an answer.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, Scott, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
SCOTT LEWIS:
Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Scott Lewis is executive editor of Voiceofsandiego.org.