San Diego, brace yourself: There's a new kid on the news block, and it's a website called San Diego News Network (SDNN). Its mission: Revolutionize the news industry. Let no one accuse its backers of small-time thinking.
Nationally, newspapers have been buckling under the strain of, initially, the Internet and, more recently, the economic crisis. They've been shrinking their newsrooms and, on occasion, going out of business entirely. Locally, the San Diego Union-Tribune has had three buy-outs in the last two years, plus layoffs, and the paper is up for sale. The industry is desperate to figure out how to fund news-gathering operations.
But one thing that's becoming increasingly clear is that the future is online, not in print. For eight years, Ron James ran the Union-Tribune's semi-independent website, SignOnSanDiego.com. Among his more prominent achievements was the creation of SignOn Radio, a weekly podcast featuring the U-T's reporters and editors. But as the U-T reorganized itself, editor Karin Winner decided to integrate the website more with the paper. In the process, she told James to hit the bricks.
But James has never been one to sit around waiting for good news. He started his career in the 1980s making multimedia CD-ROMS and later built websites for Time Warner Cable's DiscoverSD.com and San Diego Magazine. Within months of his firing, he was back on his feet, pitching his idea for SDNN to anyone who'd listen. Journalist and entrepreneur Barbara Bry listened, as did her husband, entrepreneur Neil Senturia. The couple has earned millions forming and then selling technology businesses and decided to become investors in James' vision. The trio devised a plan to bring SDNN to life, with Bry as associate publisher, Senturia as CEO and James as publisher and executive editor. By the end of March (delayed from the original March 18 launch date), SDNN will begin its journey to what James hopes will eventually be the go-to news source for all San Diegans. If it happens to crush SignonSandiego.com along the way, well, that's probably fine, too.
James wouldn't talk to CityBeat—he said he was too busy preparing a test launch of the site expected to happen Wednesday, March 11—but Bry did.
“Any time you start a company, you have to be scared,” she said. “We're aware of the economic realities, but we think online advertising is the place to be.”
The foundation of SDNN will be content provided by partner news organizations from around the region. Local community and ethnic newspapers, plus 1090 XX Sports Radio and Channel 6 San Diego will contribute content. (James also approached CityBeat, but the paper won't be taking part.) In exchange for free podcasts, video and stories, SDNN gives its partners increased exposure and a percentage of ad revenues. As Dex Allen, CEO and chairman of California Communications, which runs three North County community newspapers, put it, “The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.”
To accomplish another part of its mission—providing local news at the neighborhood level—Bry said SDNN has contracted with freelancers to cover neighborhoods where they have no media partner. At the other end of the spectrum, she also said they'll subscribe to The Associated Press for national and international news.
In a system with news coming from all directions, the backbone of SDNN will be its content-area editors. Staff editors will manage sections on sports, lifestyles, politics and business, but SDNN has also recruited contractors to manage other sections.
Former KPBS TV reporter Rebecca Tolin* is contracting with the site to manage the environment section. In addition to sifting through content from media partners, she's begun recruiting volunteer journalists to provide insights for a blog she'll manage, and she expects to be writing, as well.
“It requires a full-time commitment,” Tolin told CityBeat. “I'm an independent contractor. I get paid based on a revenue share.”
Traditionally, freelance editors and journalists negotiate a straight-up fee for service, and the freelancer gets paid regardless of the popularity of their product. But SDNN will have a crew of writers and editors whose salary will depend on the value of the ads sold into their section. If a section is popular, the ad salespeople can charge more for those ads, and the editors make more money. Editors get an even better percentage for ads sold on stories they've written themselves.
Though the editors won't be selling the ads, CityBeat asked Tolin if money will motivate her story selection. Will she aim for stories that are popular rather than important?
“My hope is that it will balance itself out,” she said. “I think, honestly, just as a journalist, I'm not thinking in those terms—what kind of stories will get a lot of hits. I'm thinking in terms of what kind of stories do I want to see that I haven't seen covered?”
Tolin joins a team of veteran journalists including former KPBS theater critic Pat Launer and former Union-Tribune staffers Mary James (Ron's wife), Ruth McKinnie Braun and Valerie Scher. Not everyone will be paid based on ad revenue, though. Local political blogger Pat Flannery will be writing one piece of political analysis per week on a flat-fee basis, but he said he wouldn't mind getting paid based on popularity.
“As a general principal, it's a great way to create a meritocracy in the journalist profession, with the market being the decider,” Flannery told CityBeat.
But the market SDNN enters is challenging, to say the least. After all, what does the site in James' crosshairs think of all this hullabaloo?
“Online news is already tremendously competitive, making developing and monetizing an audience challenging, especially for a new player,” said Mark Davis, who manages SignOnSanDiego.com. “SignOn provides comprehensive and diverse news and information to and from San Diego County, a model which will be difficult to replicate.”Another potential competitor, voiceofsandiego.org, is actually excited to see more journalists taking the field.
“We're trying to do two different things,” CEO Scott Lewis said, referring to voiceofsandiego.org's investigative and local-government focuses. “In fact, we were formed to make sure there were more people covering San Diego. If they do that, in a weird way that's part of our mission.”
But competition isn't SDNN's only problem. The most successful websites today have been specialists: ESPN.com (sports), Politico.com (national politics) and even voiceofsandiego.org (local politics) have all made it because of their clear identities and missions.
“Typically, with the more general websites, you're collecting an audience that's scattered,” said Rick Edmonds, an expert on media business with the Poynter Institute. “I don't think they're wildly attractive to advertisers, who tend to be a conservative bunch.”
Others were even less optimistic.
“Great journalistic institutions are not able to attract sufficient advertising to their online sites,” Conrad Fink, a University of Georgia professor specializing in newspaper management, told CityBeat. “And I see no possibility of a new-media approach that finds the kind of advertising support needed.”
And everything at SDNN relies on advertising. Whereas staff at traditional media outlets aren't directly and immediately impacted by sales downturns, at SDNN, there's no protection between journalists and the bumpy road.
Bry wouldn't say how they're doing on ad sales.
“Right now, we're doing a lot of preliminary calls, we're building a real sales team,” she said.
But in a media world where most media organizations are struggling, there's a sense of optimism about SDNN, or at least hope that they're paving the way for a possible future. Even Fink is hoping he's wrong.
“This is one of the more energetic efforts that I‘ve seen in quite some time,” he said.
* Tolin has written freelance stories for CityBeat.