If timing is everything, than Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana Jr, was spot on 10 years ago launching Orange County’s only online nonprofit news room.

Back in May 2010 I had the opportunity to interview Santana for my then YouTube series “Barbara’s Bits” as he was launching the concept.

YouTube video

Santana spoke freely about the idea  of non-profit investigative news, comparing his innovative model to that of PBS television and NPR radio- both supported by public donations and grants.

I remember thinking during that interview that Santana’s plan was ambitious at best, but as a freelance political columnist myself, I was rooting for him.

I understood only too well that local government needed more light shined on it.

Santana’s timing couldn’t have been better in hindsight. In those days the writing was on the wall, investigative journalism was becoming a thing of the past as newspaper’s budgets were being cut as papers were being bought and sold.

It seemed every time a newspaper changed hands, there was less time and money allocated for investigative  journalists to do the deep dives needed to look into stories of corruption and the plain old stupidity that seems to breed in political bureaucracy.

It was the perfect storm for a new type of news outlet with a no-holds-barred, reporting concept.

Over the past ten years I’ve gotten to know Santana personally and professionally.

One thing we’ve always agreed on is that the form of government that affects you the most is on the local level.

City councils, county supervisors, school boards, planning commissions, etc. aren’t sexy to cover as a journalist, or even read about as a resident. But the decisions made by these folks can mess with you big time, and for years to come.

Covering the local political scene is how Santana and I became friends.

Funny thing, before I started writing in 2007, I actually contacted Santana while he was still an investigative reporter at the OC Register.

I was trying to get someone to pay attention to issues with the Santa Ana Heights Redevelopment Agency in my neighborhood.

Who knew a few years later, I’d run into him professionally covering my first big story, the attempted sale of the OC Fairgrounds in 2010.

I’ll never forget being denied entry into a packed OC Fair Board meeting during that time.

Santana saw I was being blocked from the door by a Fair official, got up from his seat and demanded they let me in because I was press.

He sternly told me never to let anyone stop me from chasing a story again. He was, and still is, fierce in that belief.

That moment was a game changer for me.

In the 12 years I wrote political and social commentary for the OC Register, and later the LA Times Daily Pilot, I followed my leads with unrelenting tenacity no matter what.

And in moments of uncertainty I’d think, “What would Norberto do?”  Then I’d fearlessly forge full speed ahead into the eye of the storm of controversy without hesitation.

Of course I’ve enjoyed my partnership with Santana and L.A. Times Community News Executive Editor John Canalis as co-creators of the Feet to the Fire political forums.

Over the years he’s taken to task many a candidate asking tough questions.

As the producer of the event, I’ve had my share of candidates whine about his aggressive questioning at times.

I remain unsympathetic.

My feeling is if you’re stepping into the political boxing ring, Santana is the George Foreman of journalism. If you can’t verbally spar with him, politics probably isn’t for you- go home now.

I’ve watched with great pride Voice of OC grow and flourish this past 10 years.

One thing I truly admire is Santana’s support grooming young journalists.  Working with Chapman University, teaching classes on journalism, and putting interns into the field getting firsthand experience covering local municipal meetings, is great to see.

This kind of training is invaluable to budding journalism careers.

Voice of OC also encourages community editorials so your voice is heard as well.   Democrat or Republican can step up with their point of view.

Ten years later I believe Voice of OC is more important than ever to this county as we need government to be accountable and transparent.

If Voice isn’t watching and reporting, who will?

I have an interesting perspective when it comes to local political coverage, as I’ve had a ring side seat to the good, the bad and especially the ugly side of this game.

Voice of OC brings the reader stories not only about the inner workings of government, but many times shines light on the conflicts of interest which motivate decisions that could ultimately change the quality of life in this county.

The nonprofit news model enables Voice to go where other news organizations often times can’t or won’t go because of ties to advertising obligations.

The concept of non-profit, publicly-supported news takes those types of roadblocks off the table altogether, delivering a purer form of coverage.

But it takes public financial support for Voice to continue down this road, and I can’t stress that enough.

I believe non-profit news is integral to a well informed and productive political landscape.

And I’m not alone in that thought.  We’re seeing more models like Voice now being explored these days with more than 200 nonprofit newsrooms across the country, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Congratulations to Voice of OC on their first decade – Cheers to the next ten!

Barbara Venezia serves on the Voice of OC Board of Directors and is a journalist, author, producer and podcast host.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

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