Four years ago Monday morning, Voice of OC went live.
The premise remains simple.
Faced with a continued decay of civic coverage from mainstream media outlets besieged by budget cuts, local communities can better hold their own government leaders accountable by ensuring robust city hall coverage through a public trust.
Over the past decade, more than 75 independent, nonprofit investigative news agencies have sprouted across America with the aim of providing hard-nosed, real-time coverage of the civic issues that matter most.
ProPublica remains the best known and most successful nonprofit newsroom in the nation, already being recognized with several Pulitzer Prizes and a multimillion dollar budget.
In Orange County, Voice of OC was launched by a group of local investigative journalists and attorneys in the spring of 2010 around the idea that great civic coverage — combining the best of the CSPAN and "60 Minutes" approaches — produces the best policy outcomes for residents.
It’s an idea that first found a receptive ear at the local labor union, the Orange County Employees Association, a seed funder that has since become a regular contributor.
Since then, a host of foundations such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, the Orange County Community Foundation and The California Endowment have joined in the effort to support tough investigative journalism at the local level.
In addition to foundation support and private donors like Board Chairman Wylie Aitken, Voice of OC also has garnered multiple awards from the Orange County Press Club and attracted solid media partners such as PBS SoCaL, the Associated Press and the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
The Voice of OC newsroom stands for professional and probing coverage — featuring institutional knowledge and perspective — at the local level that is provided through a cost-effective, nonprofit model deploying investigative reporters across the region on a daily basis with an eye toward exposes on local government and politics.
Voice of OC’s newsroom also focuses intensively on community health, in essence asking the question, what produces healthier neighborhoods?
Whether it’s delving into urban bicycle safety or covering mismanagement at large public health agencies such as CalOptima, Voice of OC reporters and editors have honed a specialty over the past four years holding the largest countywide agencies transparent, accountable and responsive on the toughest social service and health care issues.
In addition, the newsroom now features a vibrant youth media program with a special focus on central Orange County. And the Opinion page now features nearly 40 community leaders and activists who collectively make up the Community Editorial Board, many of whom regularly write Op-Eds on local issues and help host discussion forums.
The idea remains to offer residents as much useable information about their local city halls as they get about their local professional sports franchise, with the aim of fueling participation and debate.
Whether it’s jockeying over the future of Orange County’s fairgrounds, government outsourcing, public pensions, stadium and convention center expansions, government whistle blowers, district elections in Anaheim or Santa Ana’s future, all sides have come to expect impactful coverage from the Voice of OC newsroom.
Our online readership has more than doubled in the last year, climbing to nearly 60,000 unique visitors a month — enough to fill Angel Stadium.
We’re even more popular on social media with a 146-percent growth in Facebook fans over the last year.
Yet it’s not just how many people are reading the exposes but who.
According to our own web records, the FBI checks our site several times each week.
Indeed, computers from the FBI’s criminal justice information system represent one of our biggest institutional jumps in readership — up 513 percent from last year.
Readership from the California State Senate also grew by just over 500 percent.
According to our web data, other large growth in readership came from UC Irvine and Chapman University, along with the Orange County Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Justice, Orange County Superior Court and the county governments of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino.
Voice of OC coverage attracts a variety of reactions from across the political spectrum.
"It's a breath of fresh air to have an online newspaper that investigates local events," said Democratic state Sen. Lou Correa, especially in "this era of budget cuts, in this era of newspapers going out of business" and with cuts "devastating" investigative news resources.
"I think it's critical for democracy, critical for the policy makers," Correa said.
Orange County Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson, a Republican, said he is often frustrated by manufactured “gotcha” stories from local media and appreciates more heft as a policy maker.
“I love it when you guys are digging in and getting the stories nobody else has the time to get,” Nelson said.
“I like when there’s more analysis. You guys get good info because you’re around. People run into you guys; you’re around.”
County Supervisor John Moorlach said he isn’t always a fan of Voice of OC coverage but appreciates the model.
The investigative newsroom “has provided their unique journalistic flair. With a no-fear attitude, it has done a good job of branding itself and has developed a reputation as a no-holds-barred reporting entity,” Moorlach said.
Moorlach — a Republican best known for predicting the 1994 Orange County municipal bankruptcy — wished the newsroom well on its anniversary, saying “as they strive for excellence, for unbiased coverage, and for a devotion to the Journalist’s Creed, may they have many more years as a leader in this new journalistic format.”
City leaders also said the Voice of OC model has had a real impact on Santa Ana.
“It has made city politics, city issues, into water-cooler conversation,” said Santa Ana City Councilman Sal Tinajero, an Orange County Democrat who also leads a debate team at Fullerton Union High School.
Tinajero says he appreciates the Voice of OC model, because it highlights that “major events are what you see the minute you open your door outside your house.”
And that approach has made a real difference in changing City Hall, he added.
“What the Voice [of OC] did is create a more transparent system,” Tinajero said. “It forced cities to be more transparent, because if you weren’t, they were going to call you on it. It forces our government agencies to be more transparent and to really re-think what procedures they're going to use to make sure there’s fairness.”
Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides, a Democrat who ran for mayor in 2012, agreed that the agency’s coverage has been impactful.
“Honestly, it keeps us on our toes,” Benavides said. "Sometimes it is a little nerve-racking. We know we’re already under the microscope, but when there’s a reporting agency who makes it their mission to scrutinize even more what local government and elected [officials] are doing, it gives us reason for pause and worry a bit what might be reported on individuals and our city.
"But at the end of a day, when I’m looking at it impartially and not from a personal perspective, there’s a public gain in knowing there are reporters looking into what we're doing.”
“I think I'll enjoy it more when I’m not a public official,” Benavides said.
If you want to support the mission of Voice of OC and help keep your local government accountable, click here to join the numerous foundations and individuals who have already made a charitable contribution.