Norberto Santana, Jr.

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

Our democracy is on the line. 

And not just at the national level. 

Here at home, there’s a host of local governments increasingly functioning with less public oversight.

Decisions directly impacting people’s quality of life are being made without much public debate – like stadium sales being secretly hammered out or budgets being adopted without much public discussion. 

Meanwhile, the number of reporters covering OC governments for 3.2 million residents has plummeted over the past decade. 

That means there’s very few eyes watching 34 city halls, the $9 billion County of Orange Government with an array of special agencies like social services and the sheriff. 

Sources: Nieman Lab, LATimes, LATimes, Deadline, LATimes

Consider that Orange County has more residents than many US states like Mississippi, Kansas, New Mexico and New Hampshire – just to name a handful.

In the meantime, on a daily basis, a host of officials – both politicians and administrators – take a host of actions during their regular business that can curb freedom, hike taxes and increase fees.

All these decisions – made amidst a dwindling press pool – directly impact quality of life in a deep way.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by The Expanding News Desert Research project

This month, Voice of OC readers can take direct action to guard their quality of life by donating during the national Newsmatch campaign to support fact-based beat reporting focused on local neighborhoods.

Investing in Local News

During this special annual fundraiser, which runs until Dec. 31, national foundations double the impact of local donations. 

Thousands of local readers have already stepped up as donors to make this free content available – giving everyone reliable news archives that stretch back 15 years covering key local events, elections, budget deliberations and controversies. 

Our goal is to become 100% reader funded, meaning no commercial pop-ups, advertising or corporate sponsorships.

Our coalition of reader-donors has already helped build and train the core newsroom of tomorrow, one focused solely on Orange County. 

Just this month, Voice of OC Senior Staff Writer Brandon Pho – among our first full-time hires – was elected as president of the Orange County Press Club, a key institution advocating First Amendment rights and strengthening the local press corps.  

[Read: Voice of OC Reporter Elected President of OC Press Club]

Pho – who graduated from Cal State Fullerton and trained as an intern at Voice of OC – speaks passionately about making Orange County a destination for great journalism.

Voice of OC has partnered deeply with local colleges like Chapman University where journalists like Noah Biesiada, Julie Leopo, Hosam Elattar and myself are working as adjunct professors with students getting them direct daily training crafting a variety of news stories.

Training the Next Generation of Watchdogs

Students are increasingly producing civic investigations – like deep dives on how transparent cities are on posting campaign finance disclosures or providing closed captioning for deaf and hard of hearing residents.

Those efforts are even producing weekend stories connecting residents to a slew of free civic assets like the Saddleback Wilderness or free events at our local libraries and parks. 

A host of students from Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton College and Santa Ana College are also getting opportunities to get published through an active partnership. 

This summer, we are working with Chapman University to also start hosting high school journalism boot camps. 

Our aim is to connect people to their civic life – sometimes with simple journalism like civic calendars showing us where to be to get involved in decisions before officials make them. 

And how to connect to free local services at libraries and parks on weekends. 

Local readers also get vibrant community opinion pages where they can opine on the issues of the day. 

More Civic Coverage and Local Investigations 

Most importantly, these efforts are increasingly allowing us to cover more cities, get more residents information during budget deliberations as well as produce the ever-popular election guides that offer basic reviews on candidates, city issues and local campaign finance.

That’s not to mention our bedrock, daily investigative journalism into Orange County’s biggest cities and government agencies such as our award-winning coverage of the ongoing Anaheim corruption scandal that has allowed residents to participate in an unprecedented, frank discussion about how city hall really works. 

Most importantly, the coverage has helped residents and interested elected officials convene a conversation about potential reforms not just in Anaheim but across Southern California. 

The Fall of Reform

Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?

Next year, readers can expect energetic coverage of local races – for posts like county supervisor and judges – that can’t be found anywhere else. 

A local emphasis on our civic life. 

Just by looking at local election precinct returns on national races, you can see there are deep differences across Orange County. 

But our local civic life doesn’t have to reflect the national political playbook. 

Whether it’s school curriculum, issues like COVID or even seemingly straightforward restaurant inspections, our city halls and county government are at the center of continually tough debates over our local values and future course .

To keep our public conversations smart and civil, concrete information is key.

That’s why reliable news is so important. 

Don’t Leave City Halls in the Dark

Rather than being governed by slogans and sloganeers, a community as diverse and large as Orange County needs realtime facts in order to spur good policy and accountability.

Recently, our newsroom has noticed an increasing trend to pen in the press.

Just earlier this month, one of the student journalists working with us from Chapman University, was restricted from taking photos along with other reporters by the Orange Unified School District while board members were debating parental notification policies. 

During the pandemic, we saw county officials regularly restrict reporters’ access to critical information about health care response, testing and vaccination efforts and distribution of federal relief dollars.

Most recently, we see our local DA resist efforts to have a community conversation about local prosecutions with real public data. 

[Read: OC District Attorney Resists Detailing Who He Prosecutes]

There’s also an increasing trend of elected and appointed officials ignoring reporters’ request for comment on pending public policies that impact thousands of people’s lives.

Politicians often kick tough debates to the late hours of city council meetings, banking on vocal residents to get tired and go home. 

In places like Anaheim, they hold mock meetings to rehearse what they’ll say in public.

Or they don’t say much on the public dais at all — like with the attempted sale of Angel Stadium or recent decision to move forward with a controversial recall election in Santa Ana. 

During campaign seasons, these elected leaders regularly avoid debates or even answering questionnaires. 

The intent seems clear: to leave the public in the dark. 

This is why it’s so important to keep supporting community news outlets like Voice of OC. 

In the absence of real time news, we are governed – not by right or left – but by slogans and sloganeers. 


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