Has the Decline of the Register Created Space for Nonprofit Site the Voice of OC to Put Down Roots?

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Has the decline of The Orange County Register created enough media space for nonprofit news website the Voice of OC to put down roots?

At a half-open window on the second floor of the Santora building in downtown Santa Ana, Norberto Santana Jr. holds his 1-year-old son, Maximo. As he stares outside, he seems to be giving Maximo a pep talk. “We’re going to kick ass, aren’t we?” Santana hisses. “Yeaaaah.”

Santana’s wife, Amanda, stands to the side, her arms crossed, and throws her husband a look. “You know I’ve got a good grip on him,” he says to her, then looks down at Maximo. “We’re going to raise an ass-kicker.”

Norberto Santana with his son Maximo at the as-yet-unlaunched Voice of OC's office
Jonathan Ho
Norberto Santana with his son Maximo at the as-yet-unlaunched Voice of OC's office
Labor pains: OC Employees Union General Manager Nick Berardino spars with Santana
Jonathan Ho
Labor pains: OC Employees Union General Manager Nick Berardino spars with Santana

Across Broadway and a few blocks away stands the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse, a gleaming modern skyscraper in an area of historic storefronts and bars. Beyond that is the civic center, the seat of county government—the government that was, until recently, Santana’s beat at The Orange County Register. It’s the government he wants his soon-to-be-launched online, nonprofit journalism startup, the Voice of OC, to dig into.

“Yeah,” Santana keeps saying. “Gonna kick ass.”

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), arrives. He has broad shoulders, is balding and mustached, and wears a dark sport coat. With a $140,000 donation, OCEA is, so far, the main financial backer of the Voice of OC. Santana picks up Maximo from the windowsill and takes him to Berardino. “Look,” Norberto says to Max, gesturing to the gold baubles around the union boss’s neck. “He’s got chains. You can pull on those.”

A crew from KCET will soon arrive to film Santana and Berardino. Santana hands off his son to Amanda, who takes him to the Gypsy Den down the street. Berardino looks around the Voice’s new office. The walls of the empty room are white; the wooden floors are covered with clear plastic for paint splatters. Two guys from OCEA’s main office have been putting down a base coat.

“We need to get some chairs in here,” Berardino says.

“What do we need chairs for?” Santana asks. He has now got an unlit cigar between his lips. “We’re a moving organization. Moving and grooving, moving and grooving, moving and grooving.”

“To relax,” Berardino says.

Santana laughs. “There is no relaxing at the Voice of OC!”

It’s not as if Santana, who chomps cigars even indoors and spends his weekends fixing up old Jeeps, ever really relaxes. When the Voice’s existence was announced via press release in mid-September, a few of his former Register colleagues snickered at the thought of Santana trying to run anything. “The guy is crazy,” says one former Register editor who asked to remain anonymous. “He is a wild guy.”

But, publicly at least, concerns about the man in charge have been eclipsed by questions about the Voice’s model and motives. Some Orange County media watchers fret about the Voice’s agenda, given that it’s funded by the public employees union and its board of directors is led by Democratic former state Senator Joe Dunn and a slate of liberal-leaning legal minds including UC Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Others wonder how long an online nonprofit publication funded mainly by private donors, NPR-style “subscriptions” and some advertising can survive. Santana brushes aside the doubters. With the Voice of OC, he seeks to reinvigorate Orange County investigative reporting while reigniting the civic awareness that he believes made this country great. Convinced that the “corporate-owned daily” business model of The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times will forevermore be unable to hold elected officials accountable to voters, Santana talks—a lot—about changing not only Orange County journalism, but also Orange County itself.

“There’s a storm coming,” Santana, somewhat inexplicably, tells Berardino during their chair-related deliberations. “A storm of accountability.”

*     *     * 

The way Santana, 42, tells it, he’s been a political reporter for most of his life. He remembers sitting with his father in his childhood home in what he describes as a working-class neighborhood in Whittier and going through sample ballots for upcoming elections. His father, who spoke little English, would point to a ballot measure and ask Norberto, “What’s this for?

Neither his father nor mother trusted government; after all, they were in the United States after fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba. His father often told Santana about Cuba in the 1950s, when “everyone was playing baseball and having fun” without realizing that, every day, their government became more corrupt.

In the States, his dad—a machine operator and member of the Teamsters—voted Democratic. His mom, a seamstress who worked in garages and bridal shops, voted Republican. The two were vocal about their disagreements. Because of the union, his dad would say, he didn’t have to worry about losing limbs every time he came to work. His mom would scream about the dues they had to pay: “What has the union ever done for us?”

His dad would put up his hands. “Look at my fingers,” he’d say. “I’ve got these!”

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