Today marks the 12th year Orange County residents have shown America what a tough, independent and nonprofit newsroom focused on local quality of life issues can achieve.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Since the pandemic broke early last year, millions of local readers engaged with the Voice of OC news content on a regular basis. Readership continues to grow by leaps – with monthly readership going as high as one in three OC residents. 

As government agencies shut down the economy, schools, parks and beaches amidst apocalyptic coronavirus projections last Spring, Voice of OC stood apart in getting residents daily, balanced, accurate and fair information they were able to use to make their own decisions about who or what to believe.

Our newsroom reacted with courage and our reporters stayed active. Early in the pandemic, we wrote numerous stories — sometimes nearly 10 a day — examining closures, what the viral disease experts thought could happen, what hospitals were doing to prepare and detailing the wave of death OC residents could unfortunately expect to see. 

If you go back and listen to any of the daily press conferences held by the County of Orange during the height of the pandemic, you’ll hear more policy questions coming from Voice of OC reporters than any other Southern California news outlet. 

Our daily infographics on Coronavirus statistics were so balanced and effective that a recent panel of statewide judges gave it First Place — in a category competing against the state’s largest newsrooms. 

Our reporters filed so many public records requests to county Health Care Agency officials during the crisis that County Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do complained about it publicly, derisively calling our news agency, the Noise of OC. 

We made T-shirts from his insult. 

Readers gobbled up the limited run we produced. 

Orange County residents have shown they really care about transparency and accountability. 

More and more, this is a Purple County, not just Republican or Democrat or Independent. 

It’s a mix of vibrant, diverse, intelligent and connected residents who have consistently sent the same message, no matter their political affiliation. 

The real enemy is not liberal or conservative. 

It’s bullshit. 

And that’s exactly what our real-time nonprofit news agency is geared to dismantle.

Our reporters are not here to tell readers what they want to hear, or push them toward any policy goal. 

They are also not here to make elected officials or government agencies happy. 

This newsroom is here to inform.

Decisions are up to the residents. 

Our numbers show Orange County residents appreciate the approach. 

Our website audience has grown by 700% and our donors have increased by 300% – just this past year. 

Just take a look at what some of our most passionate donors have said about our coverage:

“Your Covid-19 reporting has been refreshingly blunt, heavy on facts and stats (not the normal high level, vague and sterilized information that’s difficult to assess) and thankfully apolitical,” wrote Nathan J. last December. “The past few years, that’s been tough local journalism to find. Your articles on Covid-19 have amazing levels of detail and we’ve used them to keep our OC employees educated on the current state of the community. Thanks for your good work – please keep it up.

“Voice of OC has been my go-to information site during coronavirus,” wrote Debra Marsteller, last July adding, “having quick and accurate information makes me feel better during this stressful time.”

“I can’t thank you enough for keeping the feet of those politicians — who think their job is only to campaign,” wrote Tim Budd last July. 

“Kudos to the Voice of OC for continuing to pressure the Board of Supervisors to be more transparent to air constituents about ALL their decisions and information that they make public, especially during this pandemic. Their decisions can now be a matter of life and death in our communities,” wrote Anna Fortuna last August.

In the absence of certainty in recent times, your nonprofit newsroom consistently provided steady news and data while pushing often-unwilling elected officials to release accurate and complete COVID-19 data to the public.

We often uncovered data inconsistencies, convened health experts to answer readers’ questions, made public thousands of comments on school reopenings and showed the real human economic impacts throughout the county.

The public now sees a more accurate hospitalizations database when the county started using the state’s more complete data based on a Voice of OC article examining data disparities.

Residents now have access to a city-by-city of cases when the county released the data (and ultimately also for smaller cities) in response to week’s of Voice of OC pushing on the issue.

Non-English speakers got translated information at the county’s Coronavirus testing sites and through the county’s public information efforts after Voice of OC called officials out.

Residents have received at least one story every day on Coronavirus (yes even on Christmas) stepping beyond the numbers and offering insights directly from local public health experts.

The public has seen easy-to-understand data visualizations every day showing new infections, hospitalizations, deaths, trends and impacts on vulnerable populations. 

Educators, business owners, elected officials, employees and residents have all reached out to us to show appreciation for this critical information that they say is easy to comprehend compared to the county’s myriad of data reports.

Residents have used critical information on available food pantries and resources during the economic crisis through Voice of OC’s continued reporting on food insecurity.

Our newsroom also has consistently defended the public’s right to know as well as allowing all residents to hear all voices in the debate.

For example, residents were able to see 4,000+ public comments submitted electronically in response to the OC Board of Education proposing schools reopening without mask or social distancing requirements. 

The board didn’t know of any way to make thousands of written comments public, so they just showed the two dozen people who were comfortable speaking in person during the meeting. Voice of OC demanded the comments under the public records act and worked to convert the PDF documents into a human, analyzed and public complete story, graphics and database.

The public now sees how many students and teachers have COVID in various school districts because Voice of OC called out the lack of clarity when schools reopened. Still, testing and data reporting is sporadic and delayed.

Despite our tireless reporting, the county continues to keep the specific locations of COVID outbreaks secret. In some cases, such as jails and homeless shelters, Voice of OC has found and reported on outbreaks. 

Our growing network of reporters – increasingly bolstered with strong university interns and fellows – consistently keep watch. 

Last year, after a rushed opening after Memorial Day, our stories engaged local businesses as they reopened, and kept track of hospitalizations that were trending up

When numbers were described by officials as flatlining, Voice of OC exposed that cases were increasing. We also showed how the county was keeping outbreaks secret specifically when theme parks were considering reopening.

Our reporters also effectively covered the protests across Orange County after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd along with the droves of policy questions that surfaced in the wake of the demonstrations — namely how tax dollars are allocated to local police departments. 

Most importantly, our coverage has engaged residents to ask informed questions about local budgets, use of force policies and whether police officers should be expected to function as de facto social caseworkers handling mental health calls.

In between all that, we led coverage of Anaheim’s massively subsidized Angel Stadium land sale – now being challenged in court.

Now, as Orange County moves to reopen, we’ll stay focused on offering residents realtime information on how things are trending, keeping them informed so they can make their own decisions. 

At the same time, millions of readers have now seen our realtime coverage of civics, public budgets and investigations into how tax dollars are invested, and oftentimes wasted. 

As more and more readers become donors, expect us to keep adding coverage.

At this newsroom, donors are assured that every dollar goes back into covering news for Orange County.

Our ultimate aim is to effectively cover all 34 cities, the county government and super agencies like water districts and toll road agencies. 

That’s going to empower residents to really see the best return on their tax dollars, and always keep Orange County working together on something we can all, always agree on.

Improving our quality of life and the legacy we leave our children. 

So, in the meantime, if you haven’t yet subscribed to our free, daily email newsletter choc full of civic stories from your backyard that you won’t find anywhere else, sign up.

If you already get this steady stream of free news, consider stepping up to become a donor like the thousands of other Orange County residents who have already helped pay for the content you are now reading for free.

Together, we’ve launched a movement.

Here’s to the next 12 years!

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.