Voice of San Diego. let go reporters Emily Alpert and Adrian Florido, photographer Sam Hodgson

The business of nonprofit news

Voice of San Diego chief Scott Lewis has taken heat for firing two journalists from the nonprofit online publication.
  • Voice of San Diego chief Scott Lewis has taken heat for firing two journalists from the nonprofit online publication.
  • Image by Alan Decker

Don’t ask Scott Lewis about the layoffs at Voice of San Diego. It’s not something the chief executive cares to discuss. Back in early December, the nonprofit news organization let go reporters Emily Alpert and Adrian Florido and photographer Sam Hodgson. The decision was not popular.

A December 14 editorial in CityBeat read, “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.’”

In comments on the Voice website, some readers called the decision “shocking” and “appalling,” saying it “weakens” the news outlet. Others rebuked the organization for not appealing to members and donors before the decision was made.

“Who wants to contribute $$ to some vague, fuzzy ‘goal’ when they have no idea where the $$ is going?” wrote one commenter. “It’s just psychologically easier to pony up the $$ for a person or specific cause rather than yet another general fundraiser.”

In early March, three months after the fact, it’s still a delicate issue.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision,” Lewis says now for the third time in ten minutes. “We grew and then had to settle into a smaller budget. It sucks. I’m a little sensitive about why we have to keep talking about it.”

We’re in his glass-walled office in Point Loma. Lewis has moved his chair out from behind the desk. He leans back in it with his legs crossed.

He won’t tell me how the organization decided on the particulars of the layoffs, only that they came as a result of end-of-year budget talks in which Voice decreased its $1.2 million budget by $200,000. He does, however, say that in addition to letting go three employees (along with an unnamed development director), Voice also cut travel and employee education budgets.

“We specifically chose to protect employee pay and benefits, though,” he says.

Lewis doesn’t hesitate to confirm his already public $85,000 salary, but he will not comment on any other salaries.

In some fundraising campaigns, the Voice of San Diego has allowed donors to choose what their donation funds: arts, education, technology, and so on. When I ask if appealing to donors was ever on the table as a way to avoid the layoffs, even with a decreased budget, Lewis says no.

“I’m not going to ever hold a gun to someone’s head and say, ‘You’ve got to give us money or we’re going to have to let some people go,’” he says.

On the Voice of San Diego website, the nonprofit explains that it is “run like a business. We must keep a strict eye on expenses, be innovative and work hard to raise money from a variety of sources.…”

In the current model, Lewis informs me, foundations/grants and major donors account for approximately 35 and 30 percent of the budget, respectively. The remaining 35 percent is split among members, media partners, and corporate sponsors. In the near future, however, the organization would like to shift those numbers around.

“I’ll be frank,” Lewis says, “we’ve survived and thrived based on spontaneous acts of heroism in the past, and now we’re turning that into a more professional business model of prosperity and actual metrics and goals.”

He leans forward and relaxes visibly as the conversation moves on from the layoffs to the future of the organization. Though he’s still tight-lipped about details, he tells me that the future they’re trying to build “isn’t about readership, it’s about membership.”

Last fall, Voice hired Mary Walter-Brown, former producer at NBC San Diego, as vice president and then later added “of advancement and engagement” to her title.

Her job, Lewis says, is “professionalizing and formalizing our strategies for each one of those [revenue streams].”

Currently, the Voice of San Diego has 11,000 active contacts, of which 7016 receive their morning report each day. Others receive the arts report and/or the best of the week report. As of today, they have 1716 members, or donors, who give under $5000, and Lewis says they’re looking to increase that number “exponentially.”

“The average donation we get is $100. So, if we’re able to build eventually to 10,000 members, that’s $1 million,” he says. “We have a $1 million budget, and KPBS raises through the same sort of formula about $25 million a year, so we think it shouldn’t be that difficult for an organization like ours to build up to a $2 million or $3 million budget.”

Lewis estimates that Voice of San Diego spends 5 or 6 percent of its budget on its website, a number much lower than other nonprofit news organizations. And one of the challenges he faces is that no standard has been set for what these numbers should be.

“If you run a hotel, you can open up a book, and it’ll say what hotels all across the country spent on linens, right? And it’ll give you a number per room how much that should cost. But there’s nothing like that for nonprofit news,” he says.

As much as Lewis would like to stop talking about the layoffs, they were only the beginning of a transition that, three months later, the organization has still not completed.

“There are conversations going today, tomorrow, about branding efforts and about exact targets we’re going to set and what kind of projections we can realistically hit now that we’re formalizing,” he says.

The Voice of San Diego will communicate “a whole new message” about its future plans and strategies sometime this spring, Lewis says. Though he feels optimistic about the organization’s future, he also admits, “It’s scary. It’s hard to build something new, and especially when everybody’s criticizing.”

He takes solace in the fact that his former employees have fared well in the wake of the layoffs. Emily Alpert and Adrian Florido landed jobs at the LA Times and KPBS, respectively. And, in the last two months, Sam Hodgson has shot for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times as a freelance photographer. Hodgson also continues to freelance for Voice of San Diego.

Of his layoff, Hodgson wrote in an email, “I’m not one to dwell on things that are outside of my control. So, I immediately took the change as an opportunity for me to start my own business and to keep growing as a photographer.”

Lewis says he’s grateful that each of those let go has been gracious and forgiving.

“To see them succeed, and to see them treat the situation with grace…,” he begins but doesn’t complete his thought.

Instead, he stills his frame and inhales deeply.

“We have to make these decisions, and you have to try interesting things,” he says after a minute, “and you have to fail sometimes. I’m just trying to learn from it.”

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Man, VoSD is really desperate for attention: they did a Reader interview. Not that I don't love Reader: I do. The Reader is all that San Diegans have to get the real story. Period. But there is almost no recognition by Lewis et al. of the Reader's many excellent reports by Reader journalists.

VoSD definitely isn't about readership. Glad that Lewis admitted that! Reading VoSD is like reading the news from the high school principal: so what? All that VoSD does is find straw dogs to whip, and feel-good reports to print, to show how life inside the glass-walled offices of city hall are something to which the VoSD staff has access. Real issues, really important actions that are occurring daily inside city hall, are totally ignored. Or are falsely represented, in a good light, when in fact they are very dark. The only use VoSD's FREE online-only rag serves is to monitor hints at what to expect from city hall as the next move against the people. Because VoSD knows.

good story Elizabeth, from a scratch to grangrene , news of our world is shutting down...

Alpert's stories were excellent, I often read them as source material.... thanks, susan

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