If you’re not a big fan of online news media, you probably haven’t heard that our own Voice of San Diego just turned five years old. In an age where we read about the dinosaurs of the old media dying daily, our home town of San Diego hosts one of the bright shining lights of what many consider the future of news reportage.
The Voice is a non-profit organization, meaning that, like National Public Radio, they’d like users to “join” by mailing in annual donations. But the access to the site is free and they have a few angels, foundation support and some advertising that helps pay the bills. The business model they’ve chosen has resonated nationally and similar operations have sprung up in places like Minnesota, St. Louis, Texas and even a school news site over at Lincoln High School. Old time news organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times have published wistfully glowing reviews of its operation.
What the Voice has successfully achieved over its first five years is a reputation for doggedly digging the public record for actual facts combined with skillfully executed interviews that give its reporting a sense of depth and credibility not often found in today’s world of repackaged links, sound bites and (not-so) hidden agendas. The organization’s coverage of issues like education and the local housing market is second to none, despite the fact that it operates with a much smaller staff and budget that its commercial competitors. And its daily news brief (email subscription here) provides enough local breaking news to satisfy even a news junkie like myself. (I still read the Union-Tribune so you don’t have to–those of you that follow this blog know about my regular rants about just how bad they are at playing big city newspaper.)
Lest you be worried that this article, too, is just another garrulous accolade to their editorial excellence, the Voice does have its limitations. Back in the heyday of old school journalism there was an ongoing discussion amongst practitioners and pundits about the quality of their craft. One side in this debate argued that readers were only motivated to buy newspapers by salacious stories, i.e., sex and scandal.
The other side posited that newspapers that had the “best interests” of the community at heart would win out in the long run because they appealed to people’s loftier concerns. The reality was that most publishers played both sides of this game, running a mix of stories. This argument continues today on the internet with tabloid sites like TMZ competing with more issue/opinion focused sites like MotherJones. As was true back at the zenith of dead-tree publishing, the TMZ’s of the world are running up huge readership numbers, while their counterparts claim more influence among important audiences. And most sites are playing both sides of this street. You need look no further than HuffingtonPost, (disclosure: I contribute to HuffPo on occasion) which started up as a beacon for liberal truthiness and now features stories with headlines like “Rihanna Shows One Leg, Breast” for proof of this point.
So the problem as I see it with the Voice of San Diego as I see it is that, in its quest for editorial excellence, is that the site lacks “soul”. How an organization that was–in part—founded by former U-T columnist Neil Morgan lacks a voice of moral/parental/what’s-in- the-best-interests-of-our-town authority lacks a viewpoint (or even, god forbid, several viewpoints) is beyond me. And I’m sorry, guys over at the Voice, wonky humor doesn’t equal soul. I do “get it” that your passion is in the hunt (for news). I don’t think you need to wear your heart on your sleeve, but I do think that you need to funk it up a bit.
Last week I attended the Voice’s fifth anniversary party, held in one of the soulless public spaces set aside for such things in the development over at Liberty Station. The perimeter of the cavernous space was decked out with show-and-tell displays designed to let us party-goers know about all the wonderful things that are going on at Voice of San Diego. There was food, a giant screen at the end of the hall featuring slides about the Voice and even a few short speeches. The wonky youthfulness of the thirty-somethings that dominate the working innards at the Voice stood in sharp contrast to the average age of most of the attendees, who I assumed were financial contributors.
The party was a perfect example of both what’s right and wrong with the Voice. I assume that the donors felt appreciated by the media minions who glad-handed anything and anybody that looked important. (I know, I know, saying “thank you” IS important, but doing it mass quantities does look a little silly to the casual observer.) But the closest thing to partying that occurred that evening was when one guest who didn’t quite seem to fit the donor profile attempted to eat the pool stones that were artlessly displayed around the navel oranges that were apparently stand-ins for centerpieces on the table.
They “forgot” to play music (gypsy kings style, guaranteed not to offend) for much of the time. The friggin’ frozen drink machine (they’d promised 150 free margaritas) failed to function. And when they went to give the speeches, a few folding chairs were hastily pulled together to serve as a stage. Fortunately, none of the speakers fell off.
I think that the wonks running the Voice (and they are uniformly nice people) have a sense of what they’re missing as a platform, and they have a plan to address to it. But this plan needs h-e-l-p, as in yours.
Over the next few days the Voice will be launching something they call the People’s Post. It’s supposed to be an opportunity for the community to add to their platform. I, for one, have volunteered my services, writing about things that I don’t usually post about around here: The Craft Food movement in San Diego. (You’ll have to tune in next week to see what I mean.) So what better place in San Diego could there be to “funk up” our veritable Voice than Ocean Beach? I mean if we ain’t got the funk. It ain’t happening! So click on over and check it out. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it says it’s the letters page. Let’s help some wonks break out of their comfort zones.