Voice Growing Fainter?
Numbers have taken a free-fall to 20,000–25,000
The beginnings were auspicious enough — and Voice of San Diego garnered copious praise from various media-watchers who anointed it as a model for the news-diggers of the digital age. Bankrolled largely by Buzz Woolley — a local real estate and technology magnate — “the Voice” was launched in February 2005 as an online-only source for San Diego news. Seeking to position itself as the local portal for stories that “go unreported,” the Voice boasts that — as a privately funded, not-for-profit enterprise — it can provide tough, hard-hitting investigative reporting on local stories (e.g., political scandals) that other San Diego media might shy away from.
When reporter Will Carless uncovered the chicanery within the San Diego Southeastern Economic Development Corporation in 2008, the Voice’s fortunes appeared on the rise. Acting on a tip provided by (some have speculated) councilman Jim Madaffer, the Voice received plaudits aplenty when it trained the spotlight on SEDC president Carolyn Smith. Due in no small part to the reportage, the self-dealing Smith — whose lavish and illegal salary caused an uproar around town — was canned after 14 years at the unsteady helm.
Eventually, star muckraker Carless left to freelance in Indonesia. In the wake of his departure, some readers had begun to characterize the Voice’s news coverage as a bit “soft”; however, as recently as October of 2009, the site had reported a strong upsurge in visits. (According to online media-tracking service Quantcast, voiceofsandiego.org went from an average of 40,000 or so visits per month in late September to 100,000 by early to mid November.)
But recent weeks have seen a third major redesign of the website and, along with it, a precipitous drop in visitors; having peaked in mid November, the numbers have since taken a free-fall to 20,000–25,000 per month.
What gives? Voice editor Scott Lewis might have provided some clues on December 6 via a breezy, colloquial piece in which he laid out, for the Voice faithful, his explanation for recent changes to the site. Among other things, Lewis discussed the rationale — or lack thereof — behind the Voice’s policy of limiting comments by readers.
Until the latest makeover, which was completed December 2, the site had permitted readers to post comments (anonymously and otherwise) — but only on op-ed pieces, never on straight news stories. Lewis stated that all Voice articles were now to be fair game — but that anonymous posts would be verboten. The decision to implement the new ID-shackled give-and-take stems from a Sunday brunch that Lewis enjoyed with the brain trust of MinnPost.com, an operation with which he is enamored.
Impressed with the Minnesotans, who’ve never allowed their posters anonymity, the Voice brass has implemented a registration system: no ID — no comment. By aping the MinnPost “verification” strictures, Lewis hopes to avoid “forums [that] turn into something resembling more of a bathroom wall than a civil congress.”
Civil or not, however, attendance at the Voice congress seems to be dwindling these days. For his part, Lewis seemed unconcerned when I spoke with him in late December. Although he conceded that the website redesign has caused broken legacy links and other expected disruptions, he attributed much of the recent dip to seasonal fluctuations, explaining, “December is always a rough month.” Sounding an upbeat note, he expects a resurgence as 2010 commences. “We had a fantastic day yesterday and we already have 1700 fans on Facebook.”
Weather Balloons and Street Flares
Channel 10 wants to reassure you that the UFO you saw early on New Year’s Day wasn’t extraterrestrial in origin but simply the brainchild of El Cajon trickster Todd Fassler. Channel 6 and Signonsandiego also propose an earthly cause for the light show, but offer instead a “Chinese sky lantern” theory behind the glowing holiday array.
Channel 10’s Hal Clement cheerfully kicked off their on-air coverage by crowing, “Mystery solved.” But on the 10news.com message board, things seemed a bit murkier. One commenter, comparing the attribution to the much-maligned Roswell, New Mexico, “weather balloon” theory, noted, “Strange how the news never had the guy explain how he got the flared powered balloons to stay in triangular formation.”
A doubting poster on Signonsandiego’s board cited the altitude, speed, and maneuverability of the objects as reasons to question the lantern theory.
In all fairness, Channel 10’s Allison Ash — “acting on a tip” — did interview Fassler, who “explained how he creates the hovering lights with weather balloons and street flares.” For its part, Channel 6, whose phones were “ringing off the hook” with sightings of “a triangle of red lights,” reported in its online account that the sky-watchers’ descriptions “sounded identical” to the objects that, in the station’s prior news stories, had “turned out to be Chinese sky lanterns.”
To its credit, Signonsandiego, was slightly more circumspect, stating that the best of photos sent to them by viewers “would appear to indicate” the lights came from the lanterns. Despite writing, somewhat cryptically, “Sometimes strange lights in the sky are just that,” reporter Andrew Kleske quoted a San Carlos woman who — after a bit of internet research on the popular, Chinese paper contraptions — was somewhat skeptical of the lantern explanation.
As for Todd Fassler — whose “confession” was readily accepted by Channel 10 — he told Allison Ash that in addition to being fun, his hobby “gives you guys a job.” [None of the above reporters were available for comment.]
Advocacy or Sloppy Reporting?
No One Favors Drunk Driving
The headline “Despite Deaths, DUI Arrests Skyrocket” implies cause-and-effect. Reporting on the 798 San Diego area drunk-driving arrests during the last two weeks of 2009, nbcsandiego.com noted that there were nearly twice as many of the hapless handcuffed as there had been during the same period in 2008.
But why would fatal auto accidents — commonplace in San Diego County regardless of the booze factor — decrease the number of local busts of motorists deemed under the sway of John Barleycorn? The coverage not only failed to make a case for the conclusion, it unwittingly offered a convincing and contradictory theory by quoting a spokesman for the local authorities who cited the yearly “crackdown” as the reason for the increase.