MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Last week, one of investigative journalism's most prestigious national awards went to a small, local news site called voiceofsandiego.org. The nonprofit news organization only publishes online. It was honored by the group Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, for groundbreaking work uncovering the misuse of city funds. While many other newsrooms are making cuts or shutting down entirely, the Voice of San Diego is in the midst of expanding.
Reporter Alex Cohen has more.
ANDREW DONAHUE: (Unintelligible) news over the weekend. I was all fired up that (unintelligible).
ALEX COHEN: Andrew Donohue is not your typical newsroom boss. The handsome 30- year-old looks more like a surfer than a seasoned newsman. Just a few years ago, he was teaching English in Costa Rica. But today, as he meets with his staff, a team of just 10 people, it's clear Donohue has the natural instincts of an executive editor.
NORRIS: Well, I don't want to be pushing a story where there's...
DONOHUE: Well, but I think there's a story, but you don't just wrap it around the court case.
COHEN: Voiceofsandiego.org focuses on stories that have a direct impact on the residents of California's second biggest city, very local stories about politics, housing, education and science. Scott Lewis is the site's chief executive and political blogger.
SCOTT LEWIS: We made a determination a long time ago that we wouldn't cover anything unless we could do it better than anyone else, or unless nobody else was doing that.
COHEN: The site started four years ago with an initial investment of $355,000 from a local retired venture capitalist. Now, they also rely on donations from visitors to the site, much like contributions listeners make to public radio stations. Along with sponsors and grants from a local foundation, they're expanding their budget this year to a million dollars.
Editor Andrew Donohue says their online only format with no page minimums or time slots to fill gives them the freedom to do in-depth reporting.
DONOHUE: If I know that my two reporters are off working on a story that's going to be a massive blockbuster, I'm okay living with a lesser amount of stories every day.
COHEN: That's how they were able to work on the stories earning them the Investigative Reporting Award. The series focused on the head of the city's redevelopment agency.
DONOHUE: And this was a - basically a woman who was taking public money and just putting it directly in her pocket without anybody knowing about it.
COHEN: Their series came from a tip that went to every news outlet in San Diego, but no one else pursued the lead with as much diligence. The Voice of San Diego spent months digging through city budgets and comparing them with public tax returns. They discovered the agency's director had paid herself and her staff more than a million dollars in hidden bonuses and extra compensation. CEO Scott Lewis.
LEWIS: The moment the story came out, a couple of hours later, the mayor issues a memo that says, I read the voiceofsandiego.org's story. You have until the end of the day to respond to some very serious questions that I have about this.
COHEN: The redevelopment agency director was later fired. Such journalistic triumphs have inspired other entrepreneurial journalists to start their own online newsrooms. Already, similar models exist in places like the Twin Cities and St. Louis.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: These Web-based organizations are, I think, filling a very important niche.
COHEN: Geneva Overholser heads the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.
OVERHOLSER: Many of them are focusing on digging investigative reporting, kind of watchdog reporting. And to me, that is probably the single most important thing they could focus on.
COHEN: But would they - I mean, they may spell...
Back at the Voice of San Diego newsroom, Andrew Donohue couldn't agree more.
DONOHUE: We don't worry about having a reporter covering the weather. Somebody else already does that. We don't need to have somebody covering the panda birth at the zoo because all the three TV stations are all over that.
COHEN: As for their future, CEO Scott Lewis realizes these are grim times for journalists, but he remains hopeful.
LEWIS: There are so many people so worried about what's happening right now, and rather than being part of the solution, some of them are just hoping that it becomes okay, that the newspapers survive. I think a lot of people need to realize that that might not happen.
COHEN: And for those who'd like to become what Lewis calls part of the solution, Voice of San Diego is hiring. They're currently looking for an editor and will soon be posting a new reporter position.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.
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