LION member spotlight: Escondido Grapevine

By Matt DeRienzo | Jun. 2, 2017

Dan Weisman

A Q&A with LION member Dan Weisman, publisher of the Escondido Grapevine in California.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

We launched the site in December 2015, covering the communities of Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, and surrounding areas in San Diego County. The site also provides secondary coverage for communities throughout North County San Diego, an area of one million people in the affluent suburbs north of the city of San Diego, since these areas are inter-related along with general politics and other issues.

This area once had a thriving print newspaper and media environment. The daily North County Times had a circulation of around 100,000 and competed vigorously with The San Diego Union Tribune, which also featured a substantial stand-alone North County product.

However, in the early 2000s, the media environment tightened considerably. Following several changes of ownership, an ultra-right wing real estate developer, Doug Manchester, bought the UT for its real estate holdings mainly and also to influence opinion. In September 2012, he bought the NC Times, then folded the newspaper, selling off its Escondido holdings to a charter school.

Practically overnight, the area went from one with a dynamic newspaper competition to one with no coverage at all. For example, not even counting editors, NC Times had 10-15 reporters specifically covering Escondido, San Marcos and Valley Center. The UT had 6-8. This immediately devolved to 2-3 UT reporters covering the area remotely and sporadically.

The coverage gap was immediate and extreme leaving a large area that once was oversaturated, if anything, with practically no coverage. The Escondido-San Marcos-Valley Center communities with about 200,000 people went from saturation coverage to zero coverage overnight.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

Oy vey! I began my career at the Clear Lake Daily Citizen in Houston mentored by Texas newspaper legend Lou Wortham, a former editor at the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post. We were located by the Johnson Space Center allowing me opportunities such as doing the first interview with astronaut Sally Ride and interviewing Tom Wolfe as he wrote The Right Stuff.

From there I went to the Arkansas Democrat — long story — where, among other assignments, I was assigned specifically to shadow-cover Bill Clinton during his term as governor. Later, I worked as an editor and reporter for the Longview (TX) Daily News, Albuquerque Journal, UPI covering the Louisiana Statehouse and Bogalusa (LA) Daily News. I also worked for the Suncoast News in the area north of Clearwater and was a Tampa correspondent for the St. Pete Times.

I had other jobs interspersed with my journalism career. I was an insurance investigator specializing in video surveillance in the New Orleans-Gulf Coast area and was associate curator and oral historian at the Tulane University Jazz Archive.

Returning full-time to journalism in the late 1990s, I covered the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, based at Elk Grove for the Sacramento Bee. I moved to Escondido to start the agriculture beat at North County Times, later editing the Rancho Santa Fe Record, Carmel Valley Leader and Valley Center Roadrunner.

While not a believer in press awards, which I rarely, if ever submit to, I did manage to win an investigative reporting award from the Florida Press Association, was part of a team that won investigative reporting awards at the Sacramento Bee, was named agriculture writer of the year in California by the California Farm Bureau and won the first place award for local news coverage for my Rancho Santa Fe work from the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

Lean and green. We began with myself handling editorial duties and a business associate, Shera Sandwell, who handled finances and advertising. The model was intended as a trailblazing exercise to help illustrate how to do local independent news.

We also linked in a monthly print edition and sponsorship opportunities that included membership allowing advertisers and supporters access to Shera’s exclusive San Marcos horse ranch and spa. Advertising consisted of print and online sidebar ads mainly.

Having been allowed the opportunity to be a fellow at the Knight Digital Media Center USC entrepreneurship program in 2010, I previously had begun a Ranch Santa Fe local journalism site during which I learned valuable aggregation techniques. These carried over to the Grapevine where I combined active aggregation practices with personal on-the-ground journalism to create coverage and a product appealing to the area.

This creates a multiplier effect where I grab content and work with others on an ad-hoc basis, supplementing this with my personal touch.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

There is no competition for what I’m doing. The San Diego newspaper assigns a few reporters sporadically to churn copy, but they re constrained by the old-school management hierarchy and don’t have the ability to revise quickly or address within the moment most stories. I am able to do this at will since I don’t have to run content through committees and hierarchies.

A few local sites exist, but they are substandard and no competition, generally run by non-journalists with no concept of news judgment or how to work dynamically with local content.

There are some very good sites within the region, and I strive to cooperate and work with those site and publishers frequently trading content and supplementing coverage with their partnerships. However, those sites are not competitors, but friendly collaborators. We all benefit as they share my content with a wider audience and I do the same for them.

5. What makes your site unique?

With all due respect to other publishers, my site strives to provide an intelligent and intellectual approach to covering communities. I have never been a fan of knee-jerk community coverage, the hyper-local ground-up approach putting forth as many names and committees as possible, chamber of commerce-type coverage. I strive to provide coverage with perspective and look beyond traditional dog bites man news for content that addresses community issues and sensibilities, but is not limited to mom-and-pop news.

Organizationally speaking, the site is unique in many ways. I take a large photo approach to the front page and organize it intelligently and fluently so the copy flows in a logical pattern. I try to make the presentation as attractive visually as possible. That coincides with providing readable, interesting perspectives to local news.

Whenever possible, I try to present stories with multiple graphics, links and video designed to allow people to flow rapidly through content with the choice of staying for a longer look at individual pieces of content or moving quickly through the home page and stories to see what’s new. I mix a static category approach on the home page with stories also rotating frequently through the CMS random mix features.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

I’ve pretty much done it my way from beginning to end. I knew the limitations of my personality and approach, relying on my own background and initiative rather than being a good mentor or collaborator, so understand the shortfalls of that approach. I was under no illusions about the difficulty in financing, so haven’t been surprised by its difficulty.

As for advice, I’d say do as I say not as I do in some respects. The key to a successful local operation is inclusion of as many people and community facets as possible thereby providing communities and the people within them a stake in the continued success of your operation.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

The coverage provided to the area is second to none, quite literally. It’s a source of pride having people visit the site and leave positive feedback about coverage they would never have access to with traditional media.

The independence of my effort is very heartening. After many years of having to listen to other editors, publishers and people signing my paycheck and yielding to them periodically when I knew they were ignorant and wrong, it’s great to do it my way and take the good or bad that comes with it.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Obviously, as we all do, the financial aspects of our situation is pre-eminent. It’s been a challenge finding a consistent advertising sales team. I’ve had a half-dozen using various methods and techniques, none of which has worked out.

The other struggle, frankly, is connecting the community. A lot of people want local coverage they can count on, but they look at the Internet as free stuff. They don’t look at community coverage as something they should support or be active within in order to continue the coverage. Guess that’s a roundabout way of saying people don’t understand generally that information doesn't simply fall from the sky, it takes concerted effort.

People not familiar with journalism or online presentation — i.e. 95 percent of our audience — don’t appreciate the need for making this a two-way street. They take quality coverage for granted and if it disappears, they look to whatever they can find and don’t go beyond that.

While aggregation and experience means I can do the work that a dozen print reporters used to do, I still need more of me’s to do the financial and backend work.

When I did the Rancho Santa Fe online effort, called Ah-Ha Rancho Santa Fe, I actually did the advertising sales and financial outreach fairly successfully. However, to do that meant I had to neglect the journalism.

Finally, I had to make a decision: Was I going to be a full-time advertising person and forget about journalism or do what I wanted to do when I began the project, quality community coverage? Couldn't do both, and since I came at this as a journalist wanting to do quality journalism, I went that way.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

Currently, I’m content with the model I’m doing at the moment; that is to say providing the kind of journalism I want to see in the community, putting it out there as a template and model for others to see and perhaps riff from toward their own success.

In a perfect world, I’d be able to find community partners and sponsors or grants to expand the effort beyond myself to a team of 5-6 reporters, bloggers and photographers, which would provide a multiplier effect and greatly enhance the coverage.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

I LOVE the concept and execution of the group and am proud to be a small part of the effort going forward.

America needs this organization to provide support and inspiration for the people and sites that represent the true future of journalism in our nation. We are the village that it takes to raise the information level on a local basis so people can appreciate and improve their communities.

LION represents our collective will and absolutely the future of journalism. As the dinosaur giant print media companies die off, local independent journalists and websites will prevail and provide communities with the news they can use on a local level to inform and influence their community identities.