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Q&A: Norberto Santana Jr.

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Norberto Santana Jr. hasn’t yet gotten his first question — or his cup of coffee — and already the Voice of OC publisher is holding forth on the link between journalism and government accountability.

Seated on the Gypsy Den Cafe’s outdoor patio a block or so from his office in the historic Santora Building in Santa Ana, the founder of the investigative nonprofit begins by making one thing clear: His service is not intended as a liberal or conservative rag.

He and his staff have no interest in taking partisan stances, only in keeping a tight watch on government action and blowing the whistle when they perceive wrongdoing.

Santana, the son of Cuban immigrants, learned from his parents not to take democracy for granted. And he’s troubled by the apathy that he often perceives among voters — or, rather, non-voters.

“It’s like, is it any surprise that our voting rights keep going down?” Santana says. “People less and less want to be candidates themselves. The cities more and more are separated. In some ways, what we see happening in Ferguson and Baltimore is a direct result of just communities being less and less connected to their city halls, to their civic life.”

Six years ago, Santana helped launch Voice of OC to strengthen that connection. In 2014, the website forged a content-sharing partnership with the Orange County Register. Now, its longtime editor-in-chief is moving to a new role as publisher, where he’ll handle the business end while contributing a weekly column.

Whatever his title, Santana expects plenty of late nights on the job, in part because he posts his cellphone number on the Voice’s website and is used to after-hours calls from testy officials.

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Weekend: You mentioned Baltimore a few minutes ago. There’s been a lot of debate nationwide over the past few weeks about whether the city of Baltimore is really serving its residents — in the sense of policing, in the sense of education, economics and so many other things. If you were an investigative reporter starting work in Baltimore this morning, what is the first thing that you would do?

Santana: I’d look where all the city dollars are going, and I think what they’ll find is what they’ll find in most American cities, which is, most of your money — most of your tax dollars — is being spent on reactive solutions and policy procedures such as police, fires, prosecutors, public defenders, district attorneys, jails. It is stunning that nearly 60 to 70% of most American city budgets are targeted toward public safety, public safety, public safety — except the type of things that enhance public safety aren’t necessarily police and fire. They’re parks. They’re libraries. They’re roads. They’re jobs.

That’s what I would start in: What is the situation, and what is the city investing in these types of emphasis? Sometimes, in political campaigns and others, what we see is an absolute fixation on public safety, and we know why that is — because it’s a valuable endorsement for politicians. Saying that you’re going to spend money on parks is easy. Doing it is much tougher, because you’re having to make choices and establish priorities. So, again, I’d pore into their budget like crazy and start connecting faces to those budgetary decisions, and I’ll bet you that that tells you how we got to where we are today.

Weekend: As editor-in-chief of Voice of OC for the last few years, I’m sure you’ve gotten all kinds of story pitches and all kinds of job applications. When you’re looking to hire a really good investigative journalist, what are some qualities that you look for?

Santana: I want people who question authority and know how to question authority in a civil manner. It’s not just scream at people, and it’s not just be difficult. It’s how to engage policymakers in tough interviews, and that’s a real art form. But a big part of that is having the mental capacity to question authority, and to question it in an intelligent manner that allows you to come back the next day and keep questioning. So that, I think, is an incredibly important skill to have.

Weekend: About a month ago, you moved from being the editor-in-chief of Voice of OC to being the publisher. What do you think you’re going to miss most about being editor-in-chief?

Santana: Oh, the stories. Just working day and night with stories. Journalism has got to be the most fun endeavor on the planet. I mean, it truly is an adventure, and I will probably miss — or I know I’ll miss — that aspect of just getting up and just chasing stories all day long and working with reporters on stories. That is, I think, the hardest thing for all of us in the nonprofit news movement, to get to that point where you’ve got to concentrate on the business aspects of what’s going on so that you can remain viable. But the reporting is what I’ll miss.

Weekend: Voice of OC has had a relationship with the Register for about the last year. What are your thoughts on everything the Register has been through in the last few years?

Santana: It’s been an amazing time to see transformations everywhere. Here, I think that the owners — I would credit them for at least trying different things, you know, and getting in there. I would also credit them for having faith in the newsroom, that they added to it. Obviously, you see a lot of the sort of cautionary tales of any business, right? Be careful to expand too quickly. I think that’s one of the problems that they ran into.

And I do also think that one of the aspects that’s troubled me is, again, this commitment to cover stories that are not going to be popular, stories that are important to tell because it’s your responsibility as the newspaper. I think, in that, given their lack of expertise in newspapering, the owners have not been well served just by some of their own decisions about how they’d gone into places like Anaheim, things like the brokering deals, and we certainly covered them fully.

If anything, I think, it’s a difficult time for the American newspaper. I think that the advertising model, many of the pillars that maintained it for so many years, have taken some hard hits, through Craigslist and through economic contractions, and it’s forced a lot of us to kind of have to rethink, “How does the American newspaper fit into our new life?” I don’t know if there’s any easy answers to this. I mean, you see cuts everywhere. So, again, I think they should be credited with the creativity that they’ve tried, but I think at the same time too, they are a walking cautionary tale.


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