Santana: Voice of OC is Ten Years Old Today

Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. leads a class about civic engagement and opinion writing in the Voice of OC office in Downtown Santa Ana during a Media Summit on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

It seemed an odd idea, back during the Great Recession summer of 2009 – fundraising for a nonprofit, online newsroom that would cover local civics in a frank, nonpartisan and real time manner.

I can still remember standing with my year-old son Maximo, staring out the front window of our first office in the historic Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana, while talking to an OC Weekly reporter about the future and why I left the Orange County Register to start up a nonprofit newsroom.

OC Weekly

Santanas at the Santora. Photo credit: OC Weekly.

More than a few of my colleagues called me crazy.

I jumped into this adventure after decades of government coverage as a beat reporter, covering Congress in Washington, D.C., territorial government in the U.S. Virgin Islands and local city halls across Southern California.

I had seen up close what good government and investigative coverage could do to strengthen communities and keep powerful interests accountable.

Yet by 2009, I could also see the impacts of steep revenue declines that had already begun to cut into traditional newsrooms and would only intensify over the ensuing decade.

It wasn’t the first time I saw these kinds of attacks against civil society.

Before journalism, I worked across Latin America as an analyst with U.S. National Endowment for Democracy programs and witnessed first hand how activists, and journalists in particular, struggled for freedom of expression in developing democracies and closed societies like Cuba.

Often times, against ugly odds.

Here at home, all of us that founded Voice of OC felt we had to take action.

We were all motivated by what we saw as a looming crisis, with many newsrooms increasingly moving away from daily accountability coverage, in an era dominated by the mad dash for advertising-related page view clicks.

We all worried about what would happen if local politicians were left largely unwatched here in Orange County. Note this is the county that had already witnessed the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, so you didn’t have to search too far back to see what kind of damage an unchecked, insider crowd could do.

We envisioned a highly professional, community-focused newsroom that would really allow engaged residents to push through the traditional spin of Red or Blue parties or he-said, she-said coverage.

The newsroom’s central mission would be letting people know what was coming on the civic agenda, being there to cover official actions and investigating impacts in real time.

We also strongly believed that local communities were ultimately best suited to finance real nonpartisan, watchdog-based civic coverage focused on their neighborhoods.

We were sure that this kind of nonprofit approach to news would not only be cost-effective but also offer taxpayers a good deal in terms of helping ensure that local elections and city hall were administered in an effective, accountable and inclusive manner.

Time has proved us right.

Voice of OC journalists have offered residents a credible alternative over the past decade, jumping into the fray with vigor, standing up to countless special interests with the aim of getting accurate and timely information out to the public before official decisions are made as well as reviewing decisions gone bad.

Our journalism has been recognized at just about every level with awards at the state, regional and local level in just about every year of publication.

To check out the impressive list of recognitions, just head to our new Awards page.

Yet beyond awards, this newsroom is really geared toward impact.

We’ve collected over 100 concrete impacts on local public policy from our journalism over the past decade, displayed on our new Impact page.

You’ll see our Angel’s stadium coverage, celebrated by the Colombia Journalism Review, our homelessness coverage, called out by a federal judge, along with countless other high-impact investigations and enterprise stories diving deep into Orange County civic life.

Yet it’s not just our reporters who have fueled change.

Writers on our Opinion page – established in 2015 – also have been pretty active in spurring reform.

Animal rights activist Rose Tingle garnered support for a new county animal shelter, writing a series of stinging Op-eds that triggered numerous grand jury investigations and eventually convinced county supervisors to create a new $35 million shelter system across the county.

Longtime campaign finance activist, Shirley Grindle, used her pen to help create the vision for Orange County’s first ethics commission.

Fullerton’s Father Dennis Kriz got a federal judge to declare a public emergency around homeless deaths by writing a Christmas Op-ed about the issue.

And thanks to an innovative partnership with the state’s top First Amendment defense nonprofit, CalAware – where today I serve as a board director alongside the legendary Terry Francke and our super hawk litigator, Kelly Aviles – we’ve also successfully gone into court nearly a half dozen times this past decade to defend the public’s right to know in Orange County.

Over the past decade, we were in court more often than most large newsrooms across our state, winning nearly $500,000 in attorney fees.

And despite our small staff and budget, we haven’t shied away from civic engagement.

We began our engagement efforts with a historic live broadcast of election night coverage in 2012, partnering with producer Mike Taylor at PBS So Cal’s, Real Orange news program to show results and reactions from the Artists’ Plaza in downtown Santa Ana.

A bird’s-eye view of the Voice of OC/KOCE Election Night event (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

We followed that up with the popular annual Feet-to-the-Fire election discussion forums – led by OC Register and Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia (today, a Voice of OC board member) and L.A. Times Community News Executive Editor John Canalis (now a media partner) on local races at the state, federal and local level in just about every year since our founding.

We’ve also worked in between elections with Orange County’s Auditor Controller to conduct Accounting for Activist sessions where engaged residents could do deep dives into public budgets.

And last year, we partnered with the New York Times and Chapman University to hold an election analysis series with top reporters from the Times and the region talking about the Blue Wave election of 2018.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

KPCC’s Chief Content Officer Kristen (left) moderated the panel, which included – from left – Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr., KPCC Political Correspondent Mary Plummer and New York Times Los Angeles Bureau Chief Adam Nagourney.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve partnered with just about every top brand in our business including the Associated Press, PBS So Cal, the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Southern California Public Radio.

We’ve also been at the forefront of the nonprofit media movement, which has flourished around the country with now more than 200 newsrooms established since 2009. I also serve on the board of directors for the industry group, The Institute for Nonprofit News, working with industry colleagues like our CEO Sue Cross to continue honing our model on a national basis.

I’m most excited by our newest partnership with Chapman’s English Department, where I have worked in recent years as an adjunct professor of Public Affairs journalism. Working with Journalism Program Director Susan Paterno we are expanding our internship programs starting this fall, putting journalism students on beat coverage of city halls across Orange County.

Our aim is to get these young journalists solid training by putting them out into the civic trenches. Our hope is that the effort will also help Orange County communities by spiking the amount of free civic content residents can access about their local governments.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Outgoing OCEA General Manager Jennifer Muir Beuthin, who is expecting twins, talks to Chapman journalists about public policy.

This past year, we’ve also partnered with Orange County’s best arts and culture writers along with Rick Stein at the nonprofit Arts OC to start producing an award-winning Arts section that is really helping our newsroom expand further into community news.

Most importantly, we have been blessed over the past decade with a host of dedicated board members, donors, partners, reporters, editors, photographers and interns, who have all passionately taken on the mission of this newsroom to enable residents to make change.

Our board chair, local attorney and philanthropist Wylie Aitken, stepped up in a big way early on and has led our wonderful board members in financially supporting the concept of a local accountability-focused newsroom with great vigor, vision and energy over the past decade.

Former State Senator Joe Dunn, today teaching law at UC Irvine, along with his former aide and political consultant, Carina Francke Pantone also were instrumental in the early days helping establish our first board of directors.

Civic leaders like UCI’s Inaugural Law School Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky (now at UC Berkeley), and former County Public Finance Director Colleen Clark also have stood with us as board directors from the start, defending the importance of aggressive public policy news at the local level.

It’s also key institutions, like the board members representing the working families of the Orange County Employees Association, who along with their iconic former general manager Nick Berardino, really stepped out front as leaders and took a chance on a basic business plan, making the first visionary grants that made this newsroom possible in 2009.

Foundation leaders, like Beatriz Solis, Virginia Mosqueda and Sandy Chiang at the California Endowment also were there from the beginning, helping forge the critical connection between neighborhood health and civic participation and accountability.

We also received early critical support from the giants of journalism funding – key leaders like Jennifer Preston and her staff at the John S. and Jack L. Knight Foundation along with Sue Hale at Ethics and Excellence in Journalism.

Local philanthropic leaders, like Howard Ahmanson’s Fieldstead and Company, as well as foundation executives like Shelley Hoss at the Orange County Community Foundation and Vaishalee Raja at the Irvine Foundation have all offered critical feedback and support for our mission over the years.

Voice of OC also couldn’t exist without the army of dedicated staffers that worked so tirelessly over the past decade to forge a nonprofit news model with the aim of protecting Orange County’s quality of life.

I offer my deepest appreciation and admiration to our current and former editors, reporters and photographers along with our professional staff; Tracy Wood, Sonya Quick, Paul Hodgins, Heide Janssen, David Washburn, Amy DePaul, Adam Elmahrek, Thy Vo, Nick Gerda, Spencer Custodio, Brandon Pho, Susan Valot, Yvette Cabrera, Rex Dalton, Julie Leopo, Richard Chang, Timothy Mangan, Kaitlin Wright, Eric Marchese, Lawrence Christon, Laura Bleiberg, Jeff Antenore, Violeta Vaqueiro, Meg Waters and Theresa Sears.

You can check out all their work on our new Archives page as well as on our Awards and Impact pages.

All of these people have made my job as Publisher easy.

Indeed, the toughest part of this endeavor is asking for money, for support.

It’s certainly doesn’t come naturally to journalists, who are actually pretty bad at telling their own story.

Yet I’ve discovered over the past decade that telling our story is absolutely key to our future as a business model.

At its core, the Voice of OC story is really about what communities can do when challenged.

Together, our journalists and donors have created America’s most aggressive and independent local newsroom, one that is really connected to residents and makes a daily difference in defending their quality of life.

I hope you consider joining this movement to make Orange County a better place.

Donating now will keep you invested in your community forever.