‘We need to radically redefine who we are serving.’

A conversation with the editor in chief of The Oaklandside

In the age of covid-19, The Oaklandside, a nonprofit local newsroom, is an anomaly: the pandemic marked the beginning, rather than the end, of its publication. In September of last year, The Oaklandside—in Oakland, California—began the initial stages of a methodical, deliberately slow start-up period ahead of a July 2020 launch. By March 2020, there were still only two people on the team: Tasneem Raja, the editor in chief, and Darwin BondGraham, the news editor. When the coronavirus hit, Raja had to figure out what to do. Instead of delaying plans, she accelerated them: together with BondGraham and a team of freelancers, she began producing dedicated public-service coverage about the local stakes of the pandemic. Raja also forged ahead with hiring a staff. “We just realized, We can’t wait,” she said. In a time of crisis, Oakland needed information.

Central to The Oaklandside’s development have been dozens of listening sessions and one-on-one meetings that Raja has held with community members. More than pre-reporting, these in-person discussions have informed the foundation of The Oaklandside’s identity. Raja did not want to load The Oaklandside with established assumptions of what journalism should look like; instead, she aimed to build it around what would be most useful to readers. The listening sessions were, of course, interrupted and altered by the pandemic. But by mid-June, The Oaklandside had a seven-person team working to help people navigate an unprecedented year. The staff turned articles into flyers, in order to reach unhoused community members; they translated explainers about covid-19 testing into Spanish; they dedicated scores of hours to oversight of the Oakland Police Department’s use of force during the summer’s protests against racist violence.

The Oaklandside is a sister publication to Berkeleyside—a nonprofit newsroom in Berkeley, just to the north. Together, the two sites now exist under the umbrella of Cityside, a new nonprofit organization dedicated to local coverage. Funding for The Oaklandside comes from an array of donating members, philanthropists, and a $1.5 million seed grant from the Google News Initiative. When I reached Raja, the smoke from the California wildfires was still lingering in Oakland, just a few days after ash had turned the skies a terrifying deep orange. This interview has been edited for clarity.

HerreraThe Oaklandside has pursued a community-relationship model with Oakland. Could you tell me about your relationship with the city?

Raja I lived in Oakland for several years, until 2015, when I was working as a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, with a focus on data journalism. Much of my journalistic lens has been shaped, and been shifted, by conversations and relationships with Oakland community members over the years. I began considering the relationship that local newsrooms have had with the people they cover, and the walls that have been put up between local newsrooms and community organizers, community activists—people who are deeply invested and deeply engaged in on-the-ground issues. My relationships and conversations and experiences that I had in Oakland really challenged my very traditional sense of this invisible wall that journalists are encouraged to keep up. My relationships also challenged me to rethink the value of work like investigative journalism—and magazine-style features journalism, long-form journalism, all of this. I began to question how we can do better to ensure that the journalistic resources that we’re bringing to bear are reaching and serving and including people who are directly impacted by policies and problems that we’re digging into.

Herrera Could you talk about the past few years—how you left and came back to Oakland?

Raja In late 2014 I was asked to consider joining the Code Switch team at NPR, in a leadership position, as a senior editor, and it felt like a sort of natural outflow of the work that I had increasingly begun turning my attention to at that time, in terms of journalism that investigates and explores intersections of race and culture and identity with everything else in America. So I left Oakland, and I went to NPR briefly and worked with the Code Switch team. Then life took another turn. For family reasons, my husband and I spent three years in East Texas, where we founded a totally scrappy, totally bootstrapped nonprofit community news platform called the Tyler Loop, which was kind of a culmination of a lot of that work and thought in Oakland and elsewhere. We were really coming at it from a data-driven perspective and from a community voices perspective. For example, we began a big, very widely well-received live storytelling show. I got to learn a lot about how that can work, what it can mean for communities, to start your work in community listening. And a few years after we founded the Loop, I started talking with the good folks at Berkeleyside, who had launched this tremendous local news publication ten years before in Berkeley, California. From the beginning, readers of Berkeleyside in Oakland had been saying, “God, we wish there were a publication that was truly looking at social issues from a community perspective and doing that work for Oakland as well.” And from my background at that point in listening-driven journalism—and pushing back on traditional breaking-news approaches, shifting more to participatory journalism—this became an opportunity. Not to create Berkeleyside 2.0, but to actually create something totally new, from the ground up, in conversation with Oakland community members and stakeholders.

Herrera Could you tell me more about what that’s looked like? Starting a publication with months of listening sessions?

Raja We spent the first three months going around the city in conversation: one-on-one conversations with artists, community organizers, healthcare practitioners, business owners. And really asking—not even news, we really weren’t talking about news—we were much more asking, What do you want journalists to do for Oakland? And What are your information needs in the city? What information do you find yourself lacking on a daily basis, or every now and then, that just makes it harder for you to enjoy and impact and understand this beautiful, complicated city?

Herrera I can imagine that those listening sessions were affected by the outbreak of covid-19.

Raja Absolutely. It’s a very different world than I was expecting this newsroom to launch into. This was all pre-pandemic, pre–protest movement, pre–fire season. And it’s been heartbreaking: we had to curtail our live engagement program, and we had to really shift a lot of our thinking about what this work was going to look like. Now we’re challenged with figuring out how to continue to really, truly engage with our communities, to continue the listening work that we built this newsroom’s foundation on, given that we’re not able to meet face-to-face and be in the same room together. And as a newsroom, as a team of journalists, we’ve absolutely been impacted greatly. We’re all members of this community. And, you know, we have several members of our newsroom who have elder loved ones nearby who they are, one way or the other, caring for, and certainly worrying about.

Herrera Can you give me some examples of how you’ve used The Oaklandside to respond to the pandemic—and the fires and the uprisings?

Raja Before we launched Oaklandside.org, one of our contributors, Azucena Rasilla, did a story that we initially published at Berkeleyside, where she called dozens of pharmacies across the city after a night of civil unrest and protests in Oakland that resulted in pharmacies across East Oakland boarding up and then shutting down. Obviously, in a pandemic, this was really, really bad for our community. So Azu called dozens of pharmacies, and we created a table, which was: “Is your pharmacy open?” This was service journalism. We were asking, What do our community members need to know right now? You see, it’s not enough to just tell the news. The news is that “pharmacies in Oakland have closed down because of the civil unrest.” But that’s not enough—what value is that to the person who was sitting there saying, Now, okay, is my pharmacy closed? What do I do now? So we’ve got to take this one step further. It’s not enough to just break news. We’ve got to serve our community’s information needs.

Breaking News: The coronavirus prompted The Oaklandside to debut early; soon, fires became a top story. Jane Tyska/Getty Images

Herrera I want to talk more about how The Oaklandside’s guiding principles contrast with more established newsrooms’. You built your model on listening sessions—could you tell me what you’ve learned? And how have your own assumptions about what journalism should look like been challenged by your neighbors?

Raja There’s reporting about communities, and there’s reporting for communities. And much of the work that I had been trained to do earlier in my career was squarely in the vein of reporting about, not reporting for. I started as a local reporter in Philadelphia and Chicago, and it was made very clear to me—whether explicitly or sort of indirectly—that my audience were largely people like me, and people like my colleagues in the newsroom, and certainly not always people we were reporting about, and people who were dealing with serious, intractable, life-changing, life-threatening, life-curtailing problems in those cities. It was very obvious that we were not intending for this work to really be useful or even necessarily valuable to the people who were spending a whole lot of time with our reporters—and spending that time, of course, in hopes that it would make a difference, for their lives or the lives of other people in their communities and communities across the city. I mean, what’s the evidence that simply telling stories moves the needle on inequity in our world? I am not convinced that that is enough in and of itself. I think it can certainly be an important piece of the puzzle. But it’s just not the be-all and end-all. And it becomes an unhealthy dynamic of ownership over someone’s story.

Herrera How does reporting for look different from what existed in the past?

Raja If you think about traditional newspaper sections, like dining or travel or business—we were always providing service journalism for more resourced communities, for communities that were attractive to advertisers. We really were not providing service journalism—really smart, savvy, data-driven, discerning journalism that can help people make choices about different products or different programs or learn how to navigate complex systems—for audiences that were not as resourced as the people who would typically be targeted by advertisers in your section. So we have a tradition of service journalism newsrooms, but we need to radically redefine who we are serving. That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with over the past nearly ten years of my career: Who is this work for?

Herrera How, at The Oaklandside, have you pursued service-oriented journalism for less resourced communities?

Raja I think a really good example of this is a resource that our housing reporter, Natalie Orenstein, produced a little while ago, where she was reporting about a class action lawsuit against Caltrans—which is the big statewide transportation agency. Caltrans workers had been accused of removing property illegally from homeless encampments. They were clearing out and essentially just taking people’s stuff and damaging people’s property. There was a class action lawsuit; the plaintiffs settled. And so now, if you are a person who believes that you have had property removed or damaged by Caltrans workers in a certain time period, you can file for reimbursement. Natalie wrote that story in a way where she has sort of a classic, traditional lede; she starts by talking about people who have been in this situation and hearing what they have to say. And then the whole middle of her story is a guide. It is, “Here’s who to call. What can you expect? What information do you need to have at your fingertips? How much money are we talking about? Who’s eligible?” And it is service; it is just a guide to filing for this compensation. And then in the last third of Natalie’s story, she comes out of that and back again into this traditional narrative format where she talks about how people have been involved in fighting for this lawsuit for a long time. So you can do both styles. You can absolutely do both. And we have to do both.

Herrera What news organizations have you drawn inspiration from?

Raja We’re certainly learning from outlets like Outlier Media, in Detroit. Their entire model is: How can we surface information that is of value to Detroit residents, many of whom are dealing with utility shutoffs and foreclosure and other housing problems? And their work largely happens via SMS, responding to people’s direct information needs. I’m also so grateful to City Bureau, in Chicago; Lewis Raven Wallace and Press On; MLK 50, in Memphis; Hearken, and their approach of saying, How are we creating feedback mechanisms through which readers can engage with our work? We are not doing this work alone. We are not doing this work in a vacuum. I very much want to avoid any implications of, like, “The Oaklandside is forging ahead or pioneering all by itself.” That’s not what we’re doing—that’s not accurate. We are in an ecosystem where we’re learning from, and hopefully contributing to, a community of practitioners who are doing this work.

“What’s the evidence that simply telling stories moves the needle on inequity in our world?”

Herrera It’s easy to talk about “the Oakland community” or to say, “This is what the community wants.” But there’s a big question in there: How do you know who the community is? And when you go to talk to the community, how do you know who to talk to?

Raja You know, it’s funny—we can fall into these habits of shorthand. But in our work, in our reporting, even as part of our style guide, we say that we don’t talk about “the Oakland community.” We understand that there’s no such thing as “the Oakland community”—or “the Latino community” or “the queer community.” There are communities within each of these large categories. So, to me, I think it starts with relationships. It starts with this idea of continuing to engage with people about their information needs. An example of that is when we started our coverage of local elections—we did not start with the candidates. We did not start with the horse race. We started with a survey that we distributed through a number of different paths, asking people, “Tell me about life in your neighborhood. Tell me about what’s working in your neighborhood school. What keeps you up at night? What would make life better around you?”

Herrera To me, it seems like one of the important parts of answering that question—about what Oakland really needs—is having people on your team who are Oakland residents. Original residents. What’s the relationship between your team and this city? And what’s your personal relationship with Oakland at this point in your life?

Raja We’re a small team, so these numbers are small, but three of our seven newsroom members had been living in Oakland for ten-plus years when we launched. Azucena is another great example there. Azu was Oakland born and raised; she has lived here her whole life; she has deep family roots. She was freelancing for us, and later she became our arts and community reporter. When it became clear that testing was going to become really important during the pandemic, she instantly said, “We need a guide. We need a guide to find these testing sites, and how to find free testing sites.” Very, very early on, she went out herself. It wasn’t just a set of addresses—she literally talks about, “I went here, I went there, then this happened.” And we have an En Español section; we have three bilingual, Spanish-speaking reporters in our newsroom. Whenever we have a piece like Azu’s, we’re sure to translate that into Spanish, given Oakland’s large and growing Latino population and the large population of monolingual Spanish speakers. We also have a partnership with a really fantastic community news organization called El Tímpano, which works with monolingual Spanish- and Mam-speaking Oakland residents.

Herrera You’ve been responding to a pandemic; you’ve been starting a newsroom; you’re also responding to your staffers’ individual needs. As an EIC, you have a big job right now. What have been some of the harder parts of it?

Raja Not being able to sit across from somebody you work with closely all day, and not to be able to just go to lunch with people, or just to be near someone, to be face-to-face and look someone in the eye while you’re talking to them, without the barriers of a screen. It’s hard. I’m thirty-eight, and this is my sixth or seventh newsroom, depending on how you count it, and so I have the benefit of coming up in those environments, and getting to go out with people for drinks after work, and to just sit side by side next to an editor and watch them mark up my copy and tell me why they’re making the changes that they’re making. To get to develop those organic relationships and just be friends—to just, like, soak it all up. And it’s hard not to have that right now.

Herrera For this local news model going forward, I think I have to ask: What’s the plan for funding The Oaklandside over the next five, ten years?

Raja We’re a nonprofit newsroom under the banner of Cityside. And if you look at the nonprofit newsrooms, at the state and national level, that have survived and thrived over the past decade, there are a few common denominators. Number one, you have to start with investment. You have to start with the capacity to hire the people who are going to keep the lights on in the long term. So that means that if you look at successful models, like the Texas Tribune or ProPublica, you certainly see that there was a crucial founding investment in the long-term sustainability of that work. I’ve worked with some of the largest nonprofit groups in the country, like NPR, and then I founded one of the smallest in the country, the Tyler Loop. What I’ve found was the importance, of course, of a diversified revenue stream. So that means that you cannot put all of your eggs in any one basket—you have to have a lot of different baskets, and you’ve got to be able to have the capacity to work with people who really understand these various support streams. Membership is very important to us—that’s individual, small-dollar giving—and I’m very happy to say that we have well over a thousand members. That means anybody who’s given anything, from a dollar to a thousand dollars. That might be a monthly recurring donation, or it might be a one-time donation. Our numbers continue to grow.

“It starts with this idea of continuing to engage with people about their information needs.”

Herrera For my last question, I want to ask, what’s been heartening? What’s been the best part of your job so far?

Raja Oh, man, there’s so many things. I would say showing that you can—quote, unquote—do both: that you can do the long-form, investigative, deeply in-depth reporting, and also direct service. We did this visual investigation of what happened in downtown Oakland the night of June 1, when Oakland police and other local law enforcement agencies fired less-than-lethal weapons on a crowd of protesters ahead of an official curfew. OPD said that they did this because people on the scene were fashioning Molotov cocktails to throw at the police line. Well, we looked at hundreds of photographs, dozens of videos; we door-knocked, asking people in the vicinity of that intersection for more evidence. And we unearthed more video that was really illuminating about what did not happen that night and what did happen that night. This was, like, a four-thousand-word investigation. So we do that, and then, side by side, we publish stories like Azucena’s guide to pharmacies and Natalie’s piece helping unhoused residents navigate this class action lawsuit. We did a version of Natalie’s story that we turned into a flyer. That middle section—where she was laying out the nuts and bolts of how to apply for the compensation—we just turned that into a flyer, and we consulted with the editor of Street Spirit, a paper that we have here in the East Bay that has been serving unhoused communities for a long time. We made a list of intersections that are near homeless encampments and other high-traffic areas and posted them around the city. We’re just really grateful for the opportunity to contribute to that body of knowledge.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jack Herrera is an independent reporter covering immigration, refugees, Latinx issues, and human rights. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Nation, and elsewhere. Based in San Francisco, he is an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations.