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

Norberto Santana with his son Maximo at the as-yet-unlaunched Voice of OC's office
Jonathan Ho

A New Page
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.”

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!”

Santana sold flowers on street corners; it helped him pay his way through USC, where he majored in political science. The degree brought him to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington, D.C., but within three years of graduating, Santana was traveling around Latin America on behalf of the National Endowment for Democracy, helping freedom-minded political parties fight off socialist challengers at the ballot boxes.

When traveling in Cuba in 1995, Santana was struck by the number of journalists he met who were sick of working for the state-run media. So with the help of U.S. government money, he helped to start CubaNet, an online outlet for dissenting Cuban reporters. Its founding brought up an ethical debate he’d have to revisit a decade and a half later: How can you start a news site, claiming to be impartial, when it’s financially backed by an organization with an agenda? “So, we’re saying, ‘Well that’s going to challenge their objectivity, right?’” Santana says. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have to move. We can either say ‘no’ to everything and let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or we can be confident in that we are motivated by the right ideas. So we said ‘fuck it’ and started moving forward.”

His first real reporting job came in 1996, when he was hired to comb through bills and interview congressmen for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. He then took a string of newspaper jobs, eventually landing at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

It was in San Diego, Santana says, that he did some of the best work of his career. An elderly woman tipped him off that the local branch of the Red Cross had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars to help people affected by a recent wildfire but had paid out much less than that. Santana remembers pitching the story to his editor.

“Only you, Norberto, would consider going after the Red Cross,” he recalls her saying.

Santana’s Red Cross series won him awards from the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. It also impressed Mark Katches, then the investigations-team leader at The Orange County Register. (Full disclosure: This writer worked for the Register as a freelancer and as an intern.) Katches had known Santana for years through the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors; in 2004, he offered Santana a job. He took it.

“Norberto is very refreshing,” says Katches, who now heads up the nonprofit journalism outfit California Watch. “He’s got a great sense of outrage. He reports and reports and reports a story like crazy.”

Santana’s arrival came during a high point in the Register’s history: 2004 and 2005 would see the paper receive back-to-back Pulitzer nominations for its investigations. In the words of Bill Heisel, one of the reporters on the 2004 Pulitzer finalist piece—a report card on the region’s hospitals—Katches’ leadership in the early part of this decade brought “a great crest of investigative work at the Register.” Jenifer McKim, now a reporter at the Boston Globe, led a team that traveled to Mexico and paid a laboratory to test candies from south of the border for lead. The resulting investigation, “Toxic Treats,” was the Register’s 2005 Pulitzer finalist. “I was a really lucky reporter,” says McKim. “Generally, very few newspapers are spending two years on a story and publishing a six-part series, but I felt I had a lot of support.”

But the year of Santana’s arrival held another landmark for the Register: It was the year its parent company would take on the debt that would eventually bankrupt it.

*     *     *

News organizations across the country have had a rough decade, and daily newspapers have had it the worst. Circulation for newspapers across the country generally has fallen each year since 1987. Print advertising expenditures began to decline in 2006 before cratering with a record 17.7 percent drop in 2008, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Craigslist has eviscerated the demand for paid classified ads in print.

The Register has had to contend with all these problems. But on top of that, it’s carrying a massive debt, much of which comes from the fallout of a family feud. Irvine-based Freedom Communications owns the Register and more than 40 other newspapers across the country, as well as a handful of TV stations. Raymond C. Hoiles, an outspoken free-market advocate who referred to public schools as “gun-run schools,” founded the company in 1935 with the purchase of the Santa Ana Register, hoping to build a media empire that would speak out for libertarianism. As subsequent generations of Hoiles descendants have overseen the company since then, they’ve run into internal controversies both personal and philosophical. “I believe we are one of the most dysfunctional families that own a business in America,” Tim Hoiles, the founder’s grandson, told The New York Times in 2003.

 

In the early 2000s, a group of family members unhappy with Freedom’s profit margins and uninterested in continuing to run a newspaper company decided they wanted out. Led by Tim Hoiles, they contemplated putting Freedom up for sale. Gannett Company (owner of USA Today), and Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group (owner of the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram), expressed interest in taking over. But the rest of the Hoiles family didn’t want to lose control of the company. So, in 2003, they worked out a deal in which the remaining family members would buy out the dissidents with help from private equity firms Blackstone Communication Partners and Providence Equity Partners.

The price tag when the deal was finalized in 2004: a debt to Wall Street lenders of nearly $1 billion.

This debt has hung over the heads of Freedom and Register management as revenues plummeted the past few years. Freedom’s September bankruptcy filing mentions efforts to “right-size the cost structure” with “reduced headcount.” Firings, layoffs, voluntary buyout packages and pay cuts have battered both newsroom and sales staffs at the Register, starting with a hiring freeze in 2006. Three separate rounds of cost-cutting in 2008 alone left the paper slimmer by at least 210 people, according to newspaper-tracking website Papercuts. This year saw a 5 percent pay decrease for all employees.

“Over the past few years, how many farewell parties do you go to?” Santana asks. “The list can go on and on and on of talented people that are gone.”

Katches left the Register in 2006 to take a job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Chris Knap, a longtime investigative reporter, stepped into his spot. Former staffers say that Knap has done an admirable job, but that the paper’s dwindling resources and staff have contributed to a decline in the amount and quality of investigative reporting since he took over.

Knap disagrees. “I actually think investigative reporting and watchdog reporting on local issues here is as strong as it ever has been,” he says. “This whole idea that the Register isn’t doing its job just isn’t correct.”

Indeed, the Register has had successes in recent years. Two stories from 2008 qualified as finalists in respected journalism competitions (one was written by John Gittelsohn, who left the Register on the same day as Santana). Knap points to the Register’s OC Watchdog blog as an example of the kind of work he’s proud of: a more-than-daily dose of public-records-based dispatches spotlighting problems small and large. This year, writer Teri Sforza’s reporting about potential pension increases for Metropolitan Water District employees caused a public outcry that spiked the deal.

Some outside the paper, though, say they’ve seen the Register’s watchdog commitment falter. The smaller staff and the drive for web clicks have shifted the paper’s priorities, says Heisel, who left the paper in 2006 for the LA Times. Now a communications officer for a health-research center in the Seattle area, Heisel says he still gets a few calls per month from former sources in Orange County with news tips they can’t get any reporters in Southern California to follow up on. “It’s definitely more feature-y,” says Heisel of the Register. “It’s more and more bite-sized, even though that’s been for a long time one of the Register’s hallmarks. I guess before you were getting kind of a fast-food version of the news. Now, you’re getting more like a snack-pack version.”

Santana directs most of his anger at the paper’s corporate management. “You guys took care of your profit margins over the years, and in these past few years, as you’re downsizing and downsizing, you’re asking us reporters to walk out in the community and tell them nothing is gonna change,” Santana says. “At some point, with all due respect to my former employer, you start feeling like that’s a lie.”

*     *     * 

Santana didn’t tell anyone why he was quitting. On June 4, he announced he was resigning; the next day he packed up his desk and drove his Jeep out of the parking lot of the Register’s offices on Grand Avenue in Santa Ana.

But the decision had been coming for a while. Berardino and Santana regularly chatted in the course of the latter’s reporting on county pension deals and layoffs. About a year ago, Berardino—a labor leader for more than three decades who says, if he could go back and do his life over again, he’d be a journalist—started to get really concerned about the reporting at the Register. “I saw great stories being ignored,” he says, “and feature articles of bunny rabbits on Easter, with big photos, taking the place of reporting about government.”

 

So Berardino asked Santana how watchdog reporting was going to survive. In response, Santana mentioned that “nonprofit” had become something of a buzzword in journalism circles: The past half-decade, especially the past year, had seen the launches of not-for-profit, online investigative outlets around the country, including the Voice of San Diego in 2005 and ProPublica in 2007. Berardino’s interest was piqued. Would Santana talk him through what it would take to start something like that?

Meanwhile, each day at the Register, Santana felt less and less happy. Good friends had left, and he had a hard time stomaching the way editors there baited the racist commenters on the paper’s website with a steady stream of stories mentioning illegal immigration.

“‘What happens if, in the newspaper game, it turns into this clique-happy, quantity-over-quality thing?’” Santana asked himself. “‘If that is the case, do you still want to be a journalist?’ I started getting to the point of saying, ‘I dunno.’ I’ll work 18 hours a day if I feel like I’m making a difference. But do I want to work this level just to say I’m a journalist?”

He did have a hot story he was following: That of newly appointed Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ stand-off with the Board of Supervisors. Santana’s stories about Hutchens aired the concerns of gun owners who had had their concealed-weapons permits taken away and pointed out instances in which Hutchens misspoke during hearings before the board.

Earlier this year, he heard that Hutchens and Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman John McDonald were going to sit down with Register staffers. They were unhappy with the way they were being covered.

“Stay calm,” Santana recalls one editor telling him.

He knew something similar had happened a few years earlier with Mike Carona, the disgraced ex-sheriff. Reporter Aldrin Brown had shed light on the sheriff’s department’s prisoner abuse, excessive use of helicopters for personal business and misplaced crime reports. Carona complained in 2004 and was granted a meeting with the paper’s editors—Brown wasn’t invited—and, Brown says, the Register ended up running a clarification of one of his articles. Brown, now at the San Bernardino County Sun, told the Weekly he thinks the paper treated Carona, who faced federal corruption charges and was convicted of felony witness tampering earlier this year, “with kid gloves.”

Santana says he was happy to meet with Hutchens about his articles. But the sit-down was scheduled for the same week Santana was set to go on furlough (mandatory, unpaid vacation). While on furlough, Register staffers were told they weren’t allowed to check e-mails, listen to voice mail, or do anything work-related from home. They were, for that week, not staffers.

Santana asked if they could please move the meeting with the sheriff. He says his request went unanswered. When his furlough week came, he went Jeep-riding with his wife and son in the high desert. But Santana says that while he was away, Hutchens and McDonald had lunch with Register editor Ken Brusic, Knap and at least one other reporter. Neither McDonald nor Knap would discuss that meeting. But, Knap says, public figures regularly complain about coverage. “I always defend the reporter,” Knap says. “I always tell the public figure that if they want better PR, they need to return the reporter’s phone calls.”

In an e-mail to the Weekly, Brusic says that the idea for a sit-down came up while he was having coffee with the sheriff. He asked if she thought the paper had been fair; she said that some of her staffers had concerns. “The meeting was a general clearing of the air—an attempt to keep communication open,” he wrote. “They had some concerns; so did we.”

According to Brusic, Santana’s reporting was not the focus of the “wide-ranging” discussion, though coverage of the concealed-weapons issue did come up. Santana says he was told that former Register reporter McDonald had called his articles “too aggressive” and “unfair” without offering any concrete examples. When he returned from furlough, Santana says, he was told to “be fair” when covering the sheriff.

“I’m not sure what Chris Knap told Norberto after the meeting, but an editor reminding a reporter to make sure all sides get fair treatment in our stories is pretty common advice around here,” Brusic says.

But Santana bristled. To him, “be fair” was code for “back off.”

“I’m sitting there, looking at an editor, going, ‘Have we ever not been fair?’” Santana recalls. “That, to me, was a death knell to my time at the Register. They have every right to run that paper however they see fit. But then I have to decide whether I want to work there.”

 

Santana’s furlough week also saw Berardino telling him that OCEA was going to make a move on the non-profit news website they had discussed: The board of directors had approved a $140,000 startup grant. Did Santana want to be executive editor?

The missed sit-down made his choice easier. His father had chosen to leave a stable life in Cuba for a freer life in America; Santana says the decision he then had to make wasn’t much different. He took the job.

*     *     * 

Santana has faith: that investigative journalism will survive in Orange County, that there will be donors to keep the Voice funded and, perhaps most surprisingly, that people will want to read about the things he wants to write about.

“What I keep talking about is essentially doing a CQ, a CSPAN, with a lot of 60 Minutes kind of attitude, on the local level,” he says. He looks out at Broadway, which he wants to shut down on election nights and turn into a Voice-sponsored, civic-minded street fair. “We’re going to make this place happening.”

There’s certainly no shortage of people who want to get involved. Judging by the flood of phone calls, e-mails and résumés from journalists that hit Santana from the hour the Voice’s launch was announced, Santana says he thinks he’ll able be to open up shop with a bench as deep and experienced as the Register’s. He’s looking to hire a staff of six to eight reporters. He’d like a mixture of seasoned Orange County journalists with contacts in the community, a few younger apprentice reporters and interns. And he hopes to have a few reporters with the language experience to publish the Voice online in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

As chairman, Dunn is charged with assembling the rest of the board of directors, which will advise and fund-raise for the Voice—but will not, he says, be involved with the editorial process. Thus far, Dunn has assembled a slate drawn heavily from the left-leaning legal world, including high-profile Los Angeles attorneys Thomas Girardi and James Brosnahan, as well as UC Irvine Law School’s first dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. Two former LA Times reporters also sit on the board: Dan Morain, who now directs public relations for the Consumer Attorneys of California, and Henry Weinstein, a legal-affairs reporter who now teaches at UCI law.

Though the board is only about half-constituted—Dunn says he’s recruiting more members—its ideological and professional makeup has already drawn suspicion.

“My concern about the publication is that the board has a great many trial lawyers on it,” says Jeff Brody, a former Register reporter who now teaches journalism at Cal State Fullerton. “It seems to me that the ethics of journalism, which seeks the truth, differ from the ethics of law, which seeks advocacy for its clients.”

Santana and Dunn say that each board member has personally consented to the stipulation that he may not, under any circumstances, attempt to influence what Santana or any of his staffers cover. “The thing is this: If that [meddling from the board] happens one time, this project is dead,” Santana says. “And everyone is mindful of that. It’s almost like you have this wonderful little plant. The only thing you’ve got to do is put water on it.”

Others worry about the fact that the publication is, so far, primarily union-funded. “I think the OCEA involvement is a real concern at this point,” says McDonald. “The union obviously has their own agenda. . . . Norberto being the reporter he is, he knows that appearances are almost as important as the reality.”

It’s an issue that has been raised with seemingly every new nonprofit journalism venture. “People are always gonna have suspicions of what your motives are,” says Andrew Donohue, whose Voice of San Diego—which isn’t associated with the Voice of OC but has provided advice to Santana—has fielded criticism that it’s a mouthpiece for its major donor. “The only thing you can do about that is to do credible journalism every day.”

Slate magazine’s editor-at-large, Jack Shafer, set off a round of hand-wringing in September with a column titled “Nonprofit Journalism Comes at a Cost.” Among the pitfalls: potential agenda-pushing, a desire to “influence” instead of a desire to attract readers, and an inability to establish a sustainable source of funding. Shafer tells the Weekly that, on balance, it’s a good thing to have more voices in the mix, but that nonprofits likely face as many challenges as their for-profit competition. “I have yet to see any media that was created or founded in which the money people didn’t want to see a certain kind of journalism,” he said.

 

Both Berardino and Santana seem keenly aware of the criticisms. Berardino insists all the union wants out of the deal is fair, comprehensive coverage of government.

“I think that is a legitimate question,” Berardino says about concerns of the union’s motives. “It’s one I would ask. The answer is: If we weren’t interested in getting the truth out, no matter where it lands, we would just continue to let things deteriorate. The fact that there’s been such a contraction in reporting helps special interests.”

Santana says the skeptics will just have to wait and see. “If we’re going to be a union rag or a left-leaning rag,” he says, “you’re gonna know that in our first two stories, right? If not, and we’re the real deal, likewise.”

Berardino says he fully expects Santana’s reporters will scrutinize OCEA. In the past year, Santana has investigated hefty overtime payments for both firefighters and police officers. Neither article was popular with those groups’ respective unions.

“Being a public-employee union, I know I’m gonna get my ass kicked,” Berardino says. “But I would rather take my lumps than sit on the sidelines and watch one of the fundamentals for democracy diminish.”

skornhaber@ocweekly.com


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