Santana: Voice of OC Donors Help Young Journalists Fuel Change

When we first launched Voice of OC nearly a decade ago, we assured our donors that a big part of our mission as a nonprofit news agency would be to train local apprentice journalists on the skills needed to cover public agencies.

Our aim would be to offer young journalists a reliable way to practice an accountability trade, which could then be applied out in our broader industry as apprentices graduated from VOC and moved out into the broader journalism industry.

Meet Thy Vo, the new Investigative Reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, covering the County of Santa Clara.

Voice of OC donors have made a huge difference in her life as well as those of countless other young journalists who have interned and worked at Voice of OC over the past decade seeking to learn a trade and make a difference.

This week, I’d like our readers to consider joining the ranks of our donors as part of our annual fundraiser, which ends at the end of the month. We are super close to meeting our fundraising goal and just a few new donors could help put us over the top.

Thanks to the national nonprofit journalism fundraising challenge called Newsmatch, all donations up to $1,000 will be matched until Dec. 31. You can donate here to help us keep training smart, tough and ethical reporters, with strong fundamental accountability reporting skills.

Thy was one of our first interns, who actually found us while interning at the Orange County Register and covering the City of Costa Mesa in 2012. The next summer when she took her summer break from her studies at Haverford College in Philadelphia, she came back to Voice of OC and dived right into civic coverage in her own backyard.

From her start as an intern back in 2013, she excelled at diving into tough topics and was unafraid of asking difficult questions, much less dealing with unsettling answers.

She made a difference here in Orange County.

As an intern, she raised troubling questions about doctors working with the county health care agency taking speaking fees from pharmaceutical corporations, publishing a series that would eventually prompt the departure of a leading CalOptima psychiatrist, Dr. Clayton Chow.

Later, as a staff writer in 2014, she would go on to detail a number of questionable practices in the City of Garden Grove, including nepotism in city hiring – which prompted reform – and the questionable hiring of the mayor’s son in the local fire department.

After Thy Vo, the city hall culture of City of Garden Grove changed, for the better.

With more attention on city administration, a longtime mayor was challenged and lost. Longtime city administrators stepped aside. New faces came onto the political scene.

In Westminster, Thy’s reporting challenged entrenched city leadership on openness around police records – leading the way with the Voice of OC lawsuit against the City of Westminster, challenging whether a police chief’s claim – choc full of corruption allegations against city officials – was a public record.

After we won more than $120,000 in legal fees, we found out that it was indeed public.

People in Westminster got to see what their government is really all about because Thy Vo stepped up. Her efforts aided every city resident in forcing city leaders to confront not only the police chief’s allegations but doing business in a transparent manner.

In addition to these kinds of investigative exposes, Thy also made a big difference last year when the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney came under scrutiny for their illegal use of jail house informants against people incarcerated in Orange County jails, heading up our coverage of the court deliberations on the issue.

This past year, Thy also led our coverage of the court deliberations over illegal recording of jail inmate phone conversations by a contractor working with the Sheriff’s Department.

I could fill five columns with stories about Thy’s scoops working with Voice of OC and it’s a deep honor to have watched her launch her career here in Orange County.

The San Jose Mercury News is very lucky.

She really cares about people and the power of journalism to change lives.

Thy made a big difference across Orange County, a place she has deep connections to having grown up in Anaheim and graduated from its public school system. She also has strong ties to Orange County’s Vietnamese community and really helped our newsroom nurture great relationships with local activists and residents based around strong reporting.

We’re all very proud to have worked with Thy and feel a deep sense of pride that she joins Adam Elmahrek, now an Investigative Reporter at the Los Angeles Times, as the second VOC alumni to transition into a large Metropolitan newspaper.

We have many more reporters like them to train.

If you look behind Thy’s shoulder in the photo on the right, in the background you’ll see the face of Brandon Pho – currently studying at Cal State Fullerton – as the latest apprentice reporter honing his skills on a VOC internship.

Pho, who did a spectacular job helping us cover Orange County’s historic Election Night, just this last week covered the City of Orange council meeting where tensions spilled over regarding a special election.

He joins our current staff writer Spencer Custodio and Elmahrek as the latest Cal State Fullerton Titans to hone their trade in our newsroom.

And sitting across from Thy at the table is also Nick Gerda, a UC Irvine graduate and our first intern – who has changed homelessness policies across Orange County with his tenacious coverage of the issue as our county beat reporter.

Our hope is to keep the Voice of OC newsroom choc full of local residents training as apprentice reporters and making a huge difference for Orange County.

Yet it takes very special donors to help these journalists become catalysts in their community.

Consider joining their ranks.

Help fuel change.