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Jan. 18, 2018, 10:21 a.m.
Reporting & Production

This California journalism nonprofit is finding hope for the news industry in voices behind bars

Voices of Monterey Bay is amplifying less-heard voices (prisoners, the children of farm workers), building a community base of support, and publishing in both English and Spanish.

“One day, while out on the prison yard, I stumbled across someone’s prison-made tamale, but it did not match my memories of Nana’s tamales. I asked a few questions about how the guy made them, and my mind started churning, thinking of ways to create my own version that would be closer to the way I remembered them tasting.”

If this essay on making tamales in prison by inmate Gilbert Bao sounds like something you wouldn’t normally hear from an ordinary news organization, that’s what Julia Reynolds is hoping for. A veteran local reporter, Reynolds knew how news outlets in her area of California’s Central Coast often left out diverse perspectives due to logistical or language-based challenges. Now, her nonprofit site Voices of Monterey Bay has trained a group of teenagers in storytelling and government accountability. They’ve also recruited residents of a nearby prison to share their stories for the nascent organization, which Reynolds wants to keep focused on the voices (yes, plural) of the region a little more than an hour south of the Bay Area.

Reynolds has lived and worked as a journalist around Monterey Bay for the past two decades, with a stint as a Nieman Fellow in 2008-09. Her previous journalism home, the Monterey Herald, is a Digital First Media property, which means it’s been undergoing regular cuts for years; other publishers in the area are obviously feeling the heat as well. So being around teenagers and incarcerated people? For Reynolds, their attitudes were almost uplifting.

“They were inspiring in a time when people in the news business can feel very depressed and feel like things are hopeless, but this is the opposite of hopeless,” Reynolds said. “I’m a criminal justice reporter, so I’ve been working and dealing with people in prisons and I know their voices aren’t being heard. That’s true for prison staff as well. Youth are our future and they’re definitely not being heard.”

After years of freelancing and bemoaning the industry in coffee shops with other area journalists, Reynolds banded together to develop the VOMB concept with Mary Duan, the longtime editor of the local alt-weekly, and Joe Livernois, the Monterey Herald’s editor for 25 years. After coaching from the Institute for Nonprofit News, they launched VOMB in October (months ahead of schedule to take advantage of 2017’s News Match donation program), but have garnered 35,000 unique monthly visitors and 125,000 monthly pageviews so far. They’re funded by $20,000 in private donations and another $18,000 that is set to be doubled by News Match.

How do they maintain their focus on less-heard voices? Their summer workshop with a dozen high school students drew mostly teenagers from families of farm workers in Salinas, the largest city in Monterey County. (Forty four percent of jobs in the county are in agriculture.) Stories from the session have been gradually uploaded to the site throughout the fall. For the prison project, Reynolds said she is relying on people behind bars who are already skilled at writing and sharing their stories, pointing to bureaucratic red tape as an obstacle.

It’s not just the origination of stories that’s inclusive, but also distribution. High-quality translations of stories into Spanish drives 20 percent of their hits for a region with about half of the population as native speakers. (Reynolds notes that “a lot of the Latino community prefers to read in English, [so] I don’t think we’ll ever get to half our readers in Spanish.”)

The VOMB team only publishes one to two stories each week, a pace “that gives people time to read everything,” Reynolds said. The desire prompted them to restrain from pushing out too much at once, and they’re also able to dig into platforms beyond the written word. Part of that includes engaging with community members and raising money at performances in the style of Pop Up Magazine, such as Livernois presenting stand-up comedy about the region and a contributor reading an essay about her father-in-law’s assisted suicide, which she had also written about in VOMB. The scarcity can allows for things to resonate, Reynolds says.

“If you have too many good stories that come out too often, [a] magazine piles up in the corner and the reader feels really guilty,” she added. “We discovered if you just put out enough content where they can read it during the week, they feel this incredible sense of accomplishment. You actually get comments and letters to the editors.”

The slower approach also allows VOMB to dig more deeply into investigations and human-interest stories versus chasing the daily bang-ups and other stories that the traditional news organizations in the area may focus on. “We’re mediarich for being essentially a rural area — two newspapers, alt-weeklies, lots of TV news coverage, and yet none of them with few exceptions are able to dive into issues,” Reynolds said. But they’re also encountering some resistance from the longstanding organizations, even when offering content/collaboration for a low cost or for free.

Reynolds has previously reported on the impact of investment bankers in the local journalism scene. Our Ken Doctor has also explored these waters, writing in 2015:

In the Bay Area, we find a number of would-be buyers of smaller papers from Marin to Monterey and Santa Cruz. Geoffrey Dunn confirms that he has formed an acquisition group focused on the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Monterey Herald, and other Northern California papers. Dunn unsuccessfully bid to buy his hometown Sentinel (he’s a 4th-generation Santa Cruzan) when Dow Jones’ Ottaway community news group sold it in 2006.

Those are the ones we know about, with others sure to come out of the woodwork if smaller titles get loose from a bigger deal. Of course, that will be the next, big question if we see a single buyer: Will they keep all the properties and operate them, or immediately sell off some — as McClatchy did, shocking Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder, after buying all of KR in 2006?

We all know how media consolidation ends, but that’s why Reynolds and the rest of the VOMB leadership team (which isn’t taking a salary from the organization yet, but pays all its writers and freelancers) have been invigorated by the nonprofit model. Adapted from a Voice of San Diego initiative, they’re also trying to play nice with other local nonprofits by offering donors of at least a few thousand dollars a profile of a nonprofit of their choice to drum up attention for it. “It goes twice as far,” Reynolds said. “We also want to serve the nonprofit community since we’re part of it too.”

They’re working on reaching out to larger foundations now that they have proof of VOMB actually amplifying more voices. Expect more stories in Spanish, more tales from prison, and more outreach to communities across the Monterey Bay region.

“We’ve targeted some communities where we’re going to go in and immerse ourselves,” Reynolds said. “We’ll give a taste and the flavor of the area, not just writing a bunch of city council-type issues. It’s what’s going on in this place, what’s it like, what do they care about here.”

Photo of jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by Travis Wise used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 18, 2018, 10:21 a.m.
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