SAN DIEGO — Over the last two years, some of this city’s darkest secrets have been dragged into the light — city officials with conflicts of interest and hidden pay raises, affordable housing that was not affordable, misleading crime statistics.
Investigations ensued. The chiefs of two redevelopment agencies were forced out. One of them faces criminal charges. Yet the main revelations came not from any of San Diego’s television and radio stations or its dominant newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, but from a handful of young journalists at a nonprofit Web site run out of a converted military base far from downtown’s glass towers — a site that did not exist four years ago.
As America’s newspapers shrink and shed staff, and broadcast news outlets sink in the ratings, a new kind of Web-based news operation has arisen in several cities, forcing the papers to follow the stories they uncover.
Here it is VoiceofSanDiego.org, offering a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists — the province of the traditional media, but at a much lower cost of doing business. Since it began in 2005, similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago. More are on the way.
Their news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting stand out in an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.
The fledgling movement has reached a sufficient critical mass, its founders think, so they plan to form an association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for singly. And hardly a week goes by without a call from journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets.
“Voice is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, ‘This is the future of journalism.’ ”
That is a subject of hot debate among people who closely follow the newspaper industry. Publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, but online advertising is not robust enough to sustain a newsroom.
And so financially, VoiceofSan Diego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising.
New nonprofits without a specific geographic focus also have sprung up to fill other niches, like ProPublica, devoted to investigative journalism, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which looks into problems around the world. A similar group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, dates back three decades.
But some experts question whether a large part of the news business can survive on what is essentially charity, and whether it is wise to lean too heavily on the whims of a few moneyed benefactors.
“These are some of the big questions about the future of the business,” said Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Nonprofit news online “has to be explored and experimented with, but it has to overcome the hurdle of proving it can support a big news staff. Even the most well-funded of these sites are a far cry in resources from a city newspaper.”
The people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many, and they have a complex relationship with traditional media. The say that the deterioration of those media has created an opening for new sources of news, as well as a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.
“No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers,” said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. “We can’t be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people.”
Those people are almost all young, some of them refugees from older media. The executive editors, Mr. Donohue, 30, and Scott Lewis, 32, each had a few years of experience at small papers before abandoning newsprint. So far, their audience is tiny, about 18,000 monthly unique visitors, according to Quantcast, a media measurement service.
The biggest of the new nonprofit news sites, MinnPost in the Twin Cities and the St. Louis Beacon, can top 200,000 visitors in a month, but even that is a fraction of the Internet readership for the local newspapers.
VoiceofSanDiego’s site looks much like any newspaper’s, frequently updated with breaking news and organized around broad topics: government and politics, housing, economics, the environment, schools and science. It has few graphics, but plenty of photography and, through a partnership with a local TV station, some video.
But it is, of necessity, thin — strictly local, selective in what it covers and with none of the wire service articles that plump up most news sites.
VoiceofSanDiego grew out of a string of spectacular municipal scandals. City councilmen took bribes from a strip club owner, a mishandled pension fund drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy and city officials illegally covered up the crisis, to name a few.
A semiretired local businessman, Buzz Woolley, watched the parade of revelations, fraud charges and criminal convictions, seething with frustration. He was particularly incensed that the pension debacle had developed over several years, more or less in plain sight, but had received little news coverage.
“I kept thinking, ‘Who’s paying attention?’ ” Mr. Woolley recalled. “Why don’t we hear about this stuff before it becomes a disaster?’ ”
In 2004, his conversations with a veteran columnist, Neil Morgan, who had been fired by The Union-Tribune, led to the creation of VoiceofSanDiego, with Mr. Woolley as president, chief executive and, at first, chief financial backer.
Most of this new breed of news sites have a whiff of scruffy insurgency, but MinnPost, based in Minneapolis, resembles the middle-age establishment. Its founder and chief executive, Joel Kramer, has been the editor and publisher of The Star Tribune, of Minneapolis, and its top editors are refugees from that paper or its rival, The Pioneer Press in St. Paul.
MinnPost is rich compared with its peers — with a $1.5 million bankroll from Mr. Kramer and several others when it started last year, and a $1.3 million annual budget — and it has been more aggressive about selling ads and getting readers to donate.
The full-time editors and reporters earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, Mr. Kramer said — a living wage, but less than they would make at the competing papers. MinnPost has just five full-time employees, but it uses more than 40 paid freelance contributors, allowing it to do frequent reporting on areas like the arts and sports.
If MinnPost is the establishment, The New Haven Independent is a guerrilla team. It has no office, and holds its meetings in a coffee shop. The founder and editor, Paul Bass, who spent most of his career at an alternative weekly, works from home or, occasionally, borrows a desk at a local Spanish-language newspaper.
In addition to state and city affairs, The Independent covers small-bore local news, lately doing a series of articles on people who face the loss of their homes to foreclosure.
With a budget of just $200,000, it has a small staff — some are paid less than $30,000 — and a small corps of freelancers and volunteer contributors. It does not sell ads, which Mr. Bass says would be impractical.
“There’s room for a whole range of approaches, and we’re living proof that you can do meaningful journalism very cheaply,” Mr. Bass said.
Crosscut.com, a local news site in Seattle, does reporting and commentary of its own, but also aggregates articles from other news sources. It began last year as a business, but is changing to nonprofit status.
VoiceofSanDiego took yet another approach, hiring a crew of young, hungry, full-time journalists, paying them salaries comparable to what they would make at large newspapers and relying less on freelancers. Mr. Donohue and Mr. Lewis earned $60,000 to $70,000 last year, according to the VoiceofSan Diego I.R.S. filings.
On a budget under $800,000 this year — almost $200,000 more than last year — everyone does double duty. Mr. Lewis writes a political column, and Mr. Donohue works on investigative articles. But the operation is growing and Mr. Woolley says he has become convinced that the nonprofit model has the best chance of survival.
“Information is now a public service as much as it’s a commodity,” he said. “It should be thought of the same way as education, health care. It’s one of the things you need to operate a civil society, and the market isn’t doing it very well.”