“I got the website I wanted, I got the money I wanted, I got the staff I wanted,” Lewis told me. “I’ve got no more excuses. I’m really excited to see how it works.”
As the San Diego nonprofit site marks its 10th anniversary today with the launch of a redesigned website and a new editorial structure, Lewis said the pieces are in place for the site to see sustained growth in the coming months. After an earlier redesign didn’t work out as well as hoped, Voice is betting on membership as the key lever to sustainability — and restructuring its work to get there.
Lewis announced the changes in a post on Voice of San Diego site last November, outlining “a new process, a new deadline system, new editorial meetings and a new approach” that might not be noticeable to readers at first, but are central to rethinking how the nonprofit does its journalism, he said.Though some of the editorial tweaks may be subtle to casual readers, what they’ll notice right away is the new website, which features a new color scheme and replaces a version of the site that Voice of San Diego unveiled with fanfare in May 2013.
This is the first time Voice had a funded effort to complete its redesign. Last year, Voice brought in $1.68 million in revenue, a 27 percent increase from 2013. And that revenue growth allowed the site to pursue the redesign and restructuring projects, Lewis said.
In March, Knight Foundation awarded a joint $1.2 million grant to Voice and MinnPost, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, to improve their customer management systems to better allow them to attract and retain members.
Voice of San Diego’s new site adds new pages and features while improving on things that didn’t exactly work right on the old site. There are now fewer stories displayed on the site’s homepage, and Lewis said the homepage “is mostly a poster to get people to sign up for our morning report [newsletter] and another feature to follow better storylines.”
In its last redesign, Voice of San Diego added in a Circa-like feature that let users follow certain notifications and they could receive notifications each time they visited the site. That functionality didn’t work as well as the site would’ve liked, and in the redesign users will now be able to get a daily email summing up the coverage on the topics they’re following.
Voice of San Diego has also added a “my account” page to let members see their donation history, make new donations, and get information about upcoming events.
“At the heart of it is to get more people to engage with us with their information so we can get them into the pipeline for potential membership,” Lewis said of the redesign.
Between August 1, 2013 and the end of 2014, Voice was able to convert 799 of its morning newsletter subscribers into paid members. And 45 percent of those signed up for the email newsletter and joined the membership program did so on the same day; many of them doing so at members-only events held by the site, Mary Walter-Brown, Voice’s publisher, said in an email.
“We’re doing a pretty good job of converting new subscribers,” she said. “And [that] makes it even more important for us to continue to build a database of new readers who can be conditioned to join early on.”
Voice now has about 1,970 members, and Lewis said his goal is to end 2015 with 3,000 members.
“I want to get to the bigger numbers, the 5,000 member numbers,” he continued. “I don’t want to just say someday on that.”
He continued: “It’s just a new type of pressure that I’ve felt. Okay, I got everything I wanted. I got to hire a few new reporters and a digital manager. I got this new site. I feel like in the spotlight now to really deliver.”
One key part of delivering will be getting the technology right. Helping to manage the effort for Voice was Steve Bjorg, the cofounder of a San Diego tech startup. Bjorg has donated $10,000 to Voice, but about a year ago he decided he wanted to get more involved so he began volunteering as the site’s technical adviser, working out of Voice’s office for a few hours every other week.
Bjorg told me his goal was to help manage Voice’s digital assets while also helping to balance and help prioritize what the Voice team wanted with the new site and what the contractor building it said was possible.
“I wanted to make sure the things I cared about in technology were in a more manageable state,” Bjorg said. “They don’t have somebody on staff who is directly responsible. They are a very small organization, as you know, so I thought this could set them up for more success down the road if some of these little things, which might not seem like big items, get looked at, taken care of, and just aligned better.”
Beyond the revamped website and new staffers, Voice needs to deliver strong journalism to continue to attract and retain readers and members. And it feels that the new editorial processes that it’s implementing alongside the new site are key to ensuring its reporting remains fresh and relevant.
The goal of the new editorial processes is to avoid having to scramble for stories to fill the site while allowing reporters to pursue stories they’re passionate about by creating a more effective planning process to give staffers the time and resources to pursue those meaningful investigative stories.
To help implement the changes, Lewis’ title was changed to CEO/editor-in-chief in order to have more of a direct role overseeing the editorial side while Walter-Brown, formerly the site’s vice president of advancement & engagement, was promoted to COO/publisher to directly oversee the business operations.
Central to the new structure is a Wednesday meeting — called, of all things, the A1 meeting — where the site’s editors will discuss what the reporters are working on and then will plan out their next week of coverage while beginning to think about what’s on the horizon in the weeks after that. Editors will then meet with individual reporters to discuss their stories. Voice is also introducing a monthly all-staff meeting where reporters and editors can pitch stories.
This being the news business, Lewis stressed flexibility to allow Voice to deal with breaking news. But he said the site has been easing itself into its new routine for the past month or so in advance of the launch. And while the staff has still been rushing to cover stories through the transition period, Lewis said he expects things to settle down after the relaunch.
With the extended editorial cycle, Voice hopes to schedule series or stories around a certain theme to carry each week. This focus will extend beyond just the main Voice site but to other partnerships it has as well, like its podcast and a regular segment it produces for the local NBC affiliate. And managing editor Sara Libby is also overseeing the development of a new Sunday product that will wrap up the week of news in San Diego.
“At the heart of it is the goal to produce a good show every week,” Lewis said. “I keep using the word show on purpose because I want it to feel like it’s 60 Minutes, or it’s This American Life, or it’s something along the lines of us thinking every week what have we developed as far as stories, and then what’s the best way to deploy it next week.”
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