Any San Diego journalist who wasn't clutching a notepad and thanking the ghost of I.F. Stone that he or she still had a salaried job must not have been paying attention last Friday. That was when the only journalism organization in town that had been growing in recent years laid off 30 percent of its editorial staff.
Voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news website that launched in 2005 and is funded through donations and grants, sent three journalists packing, along with its development director. One of the reporters laid off was Emily Alpert, who's easily the best education reporter in San Diego, if not beyond. The others were longtime photo editor Sam Hodgson and Adrian Florido, who covered neighborhoods.
“Last year, we raised more than $1.1 million and drew up a budget for 2011 at $1.2 million,” wrote CEO Scott Lewis and editor Andrew Donohue in a message on Voice's website. “We're projecting lower revenue for the coming year and set the budget at $1 million.”
It would be easy to criticize the personnel decisions made by Lewis and Donohue—and they have received some guff in comments on their site—but for us to do so here would mean telling them what they should have done instead, and we're just not going down that path.
But we certainly can lament the losses. We'd have considered Alpert indispensable. She's arguably Voice's best reporter and had built an impressive following among San Diegans interested in the way kids are being educated. She was extraordinarily thorough and seemingly fair to all sides amid an extremely tense political climate. Her coverage was must-read stuff for anyone who wanted to know what was really going on with San Diego schools. Lewis and Donohue have said in the past that Voice should focus on what it does very well or better than anyone else. Alpert fit that profile. News of her dismissal was shocking. Meanwhile, Florido wrote about low-income citizens on his neighborhoods beat, shedding light on the plight of people and communities who struggle without much political clout. His beat was unique in San Diego.
CityBeat writer Dave Maass put it this way: “Voice of San Diego essentially cut its heart out. Adrian, Emily and Sam were Voice's strongest journalists in terms of compassion, understanding and character.” What remains, Maass remarked, is “double-barrel reporting,” “cold data work” and “wry wonkage.”
Voice is now left with writers who cover City Hall, fine arts, the environment, the economy and the housing market, plus the popular and effective Fact Check service and the occasional in-depth investigation. Florido and Alpert were two of Voice's three most prolific writers (along with City Hall reporter Liam Dillon), so it's hard to be optimistic that Voice can grow its readership and, more importantly, its dues-paying membership with less content.
“We're not going to give you the hackneyed journalism line that we'll ‘do more with less,'” Lewis and Donohue wrote. “We are, however, taking this as an opportunity to go back to our roots and focus on impact.” How Voice does that will result from a critical set of decisions.
When Voice first launched, we worried that its funding would lose steam as donor fatigue set in and the novelty wore off. But it has grown, and the nonprofit's been able to add reporters and features even as for-profit news organizations have shrunk. Fueled largely by top-notch reporting on City Hall and education and some impactful investigations into San Diego's redevelopment agencies, Voice gave a moribund San Diego Union-Tribune a kick in the pants a few years back. Under new leadership starting in 2009, the U-T responded by stepping up its investgative reporting and seems to be moving with a new purpose.
However, local developer Doug Manchester bought the U-T last month, and his new CEO, John Lynch, has made alarming comments about how the paper will focus on the positive aspects of San Diego and be a cheerleader for projects such as a new stadium for the Chargers. In light of those remarks, no one really knows what to expect from the paper in terms of hard-news coverage.
That's why, even as we raise an eyebrow at last week's Voice layoffs, we genuinely hope that they were merely the result of overambitious budgeting last year and that the news site will rebound—because San Diego needs more, not less, journalism.
Editor's note: The original version of this editorial included the name of Voice's development director. We have removed her name at her request because her name doesn't add anything meaningful to the piece. It was included initially because we thought it respectful to name her.
Clarification: The original version of this editorial included the sentence, "Meanwhile, the development director's job was fund-raising, duties that now presumably land on Lewis' desk." Scott Lewis has informed us that in September, Voice hired Mary Walter-Brown for a "senior position," and she's now been promoted to vice president of advancement and engagement.
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