The police chief's rosy crime statistics were a lie, it turned out. The councilman who urged water conservation was discovered to use 80,000 gallons a month at his home, more than five of his colleagues put together. And the school board president, according to an investigation, spent a full third of his time out of town and out of touch.
The Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit online media outlet, doesn't have enough journalists to field a softball team. Yet it has managed to take on the powerful with the panache of a scrappy big-city paper.
The success of the tightly focused Voice, which relies on donors, offers a ray of hope for a troubled industry. Plagued by shrinking circulations and advertising, newspapers are shedding staff and downsizing their offerings. Even the pages have gotten smaller.
By contrast, several nonprofit newspapers – though rare and often tiny – have sprung up in recent years both online and in print, funded largely by foundations and individual donors.
The strategy of nonprofits like the Voice "may be one of the ways to preserve the integrity of journalism," says Mr. Nelson.
Young, eager, and serious
"We were created to fill a gap" in news coverage, says Scott Lewis, executive editor of the three-year-old Voice of San Diego. "I don't think that we realized how quickly that gap would grow."
The Web daily, which has won numerous awards in its short existence, now plans to expand its staff of eight reporters and editors. Most are in their 20s, which Andrew Donohue, another executive editor, attributes to modest salary levels and to a desire to hire young, eager reporters who won't get a second glance from big-league newspapers. But new hires will be more experienced, he suggests.
The Voice's coverage tends to be earnest and serious, focusing on growth, housing, and politics, over the traditional newspaper fare of parades, house fires, and high school football games. It emphasizes "what people need to know the most, instead of the headlines and photos that will get the most hits," says Mr. Donohue.
Its readership is still fledgling. The website attracts 17,000 visitors daily, compared with the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has a paid weekday circulation of 278,379 and had 1.2 million online visitors in December, according to industry statistics.
Despite the still small numbers, donors to the Voice – which include a local steakhouse and a credit union – continue to support it to the tune of about $600,000 a year.
Funding journalism to help democracy
Nonprofit newspapers are not new – long-standing ones include The Christian Science Monitor and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. But the Internet, by doing away with massive printing costs, may make it easier for them.
Voice of San Diego has influenced newspaper projects in towns such as St. Louis; New Haven, Conn.; and Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, the nonprofit MinnPost launched print and online editions last November. It's staffed by longtime journalists and has a large stable of freelancers who used to work for major local dailies.
There's freedom in not having to worry about making every possible reader happy, says managing editor Roger Buoen, formerly with the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. In his previous job, his bosses were preoccupied with attracting "readers who don't read the paper," he says. "If you had complicated stories, there were a few strikes against them off the bat."
At MinnPost, he says, "the focus is on things that a segment of the readership is interested in," such as government and high-brow culture.
Meanwhile, in New York, a new nonprofit investigative-journalism organization is hiring about 25 full-time journalists to look at "people and institutions in our society that have power and have abused it, or have been entrusted with the public trust and have not lived up to it," says its general manager Richard Tofel.
The project will help stave off the newspaper decline that threatens "a real loss to the health of our democracy," said Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts and a member of ProPublica's board of directors in a statement reflecting the motives of many philanthropists who are funding such ventures.
While free of commercial pressures, nonprofit newspapers still face challenges.
They are not immune to the conflicts of interest that plague all news operations. Some, like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, accept advertising, an all-too-frequent source of pressure. And unless they get permanent funding – some donors promise multiple year grants – they will struggle to keep the cash coming in.
"Whether it's a sustainable business model or not is a good question," acknowledges Mr. Buoen.
Mr. Lewis is optimistic. Philanthropists, he says, "are realizing that one way to make the community better is to support media."