Jeff Smith noon, March 8
SDNN Was Effervescent Until Drop Dead Day
San Diego News Network, the local online news operation that had raised $3.18 million from investors, and was talking of an expansion to 40 markets and a possible stock offering, was bullish just about to the day (May 28) when free lancers, who supply almost all the content, were told they were through June 1. Staffers got similar news. The publication had nearly gone under a year earlier, and had slashed pay. Then Gary Jacobs, scion of the Qualcomm fortune, put an estimated $1 million in the pot; he is owner of the Lake Elsinore minor league baseball team, which the SDNN counterpart Southwest Riverside News Network covered extensively. The other outlet was in Orange County; it recently closed abruptly after only four months.
But right up to the May 28 bombshell, SDNN staffers were hearing glowing reports. On May 5, Managing Editor Eric Yates had staffers come to a meeting for a pep talk. Yates said in an email after the gathering, "SDNN has decided to take an 'edgier' approach...it just means a general attitude of confidence, humor, irreverence, wittiness, fun and at times, even brashness. Don't [be] afraid to make your point a strong(er) one in opinion pieces." On May 7, he asked staffers if they wanted business cards made for them. On May 10, Yates set up a photographer to take photos of the writers. On May 21, Yates raved about the new La Jolla/Del Mar newspaper that SDNN was launching in conjunction with the LA Times. "It looks fantastic!" he wrote as he instructed contributors how to prepare copy for both online and print. On May 16, chief executive Neil Senturia bragged to the staff, "We are about to enter a fascinating period in our company...we are going to see if the 'new paradigm' is a marriage of web and print....we get a shot at greatness, we get to take a shot at the UT...the sun has not set on this little adventure, in fact it is blindingly bright...my last piece of advice, though -- be sure to use some sunscreen."
"I was led to believe that things with SDNN were going very well," says Margo Schwab, editor of www.TheSocialDiary.com and former society reporter for SDNN. "As I was having my headshot taken a few weeks ago per their request, SDNN rolled out their first two print editions, and now before a holiday weekend, I am notified that June 1st marks the 'cease and desist working' date for us independent contractors."
"This has happened before. Neil will say one thing publicly but privately you know it is not as rosy as what he is making it out to be," says William Yelles, former managing editor of SDNN. Some think SDNN may have resembled a Potemkin Village all along; it was never what it was made out to be, and was being prettified for the public offering and/or sale of the enterprise.
The writers are laid off as of June 1. I don't know what the publication will look like tomorrow, although there may be a backlog of material that can be used. I have looked at today's edition and can find no mention of the May 28 mass firing. SDNN says its mission is "to become the most trusted, respected and valuable source of news and information about San Diego." Neither Senturia nor his assistant Nicole Rockstead responded to messages on their cell phones.