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HealthyCal.org: New Site Melds Journalism, Community Around Health Issues

HealthyCal.org: New Site Melds Journalism, Community Around Health Issues

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Veteran journalist Dan Weintraub today launches a new website dedicated to helping Californians better understand and talk about public health and community health, broadly defined. Supported by The California Endowment, the state's largest health philanthropy (which also supports ReportingonHealth), HealthyCal.org will also examine land use, transportation, poverty, food and criminal justice issues as they relate to health. As the site's editor, Weintraub will cover public policy issues and encourage Californians to share stories from their own communities.

So far, the site includes a neat searchable database of health industry contributions to California politicians (see the bottom right corner of the home page) and a point-counterpoint on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest proposed budget between Wendy Lazarus, The Children's Partnership founder and co-president, and Kim Belshé, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.

Weintraub, who most recently was a Sacramento Bee columnist, says he hopes the new site will help jump-start a conversation among Californians about the connection between place and health, an issue The California Endowment is now addressing in its initiatives to build healthy communities. "Research shows that where you live affects your health much more than access to health care," Weintraub told me.

I recently spoke to Weintraub by phone about the website, and our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A heads up: he's looking for freelancers, and you can contact him directly at daniel.weintraub@gmail.com.

Q: What are your goals for HealthyCal.org?

A: My biggest goal is to bridge what I consider to be a disconnect between the political and policy worlds and the rest of the world. I've been covering public policy for over 20 years in California. Over that time, the general public has become more disenchanted, cynical and detached from its government and policymakers. And policymakers, in some ways, have walled themselves off from the community. So this project, I think, has the potential to break down some of those walls. I'm hoping that policymakers will come to the site and see voices from the community, and that the community will come to the site and see more about what's happening in politics and policy and how it affects them.

Q. How does your long experience as a columnist and journalist apply to what you'll be doing on this site?

A:  I've always seen myself as a guide to the policy world, explaining policy and political decisions to the general public. I'll be both reporting on policy from the places where it's made but also bringing voices from communities where people typically aren't heard from to a higher profile. I have contacts and background and expertise that are pretty deep in the policy world and I can use those to explain for this audience what's going on in the state capitol and elsewhere, and how it's likely to affect them. I will cut through a lot of the jargon and alphabet soup acronyms in the way you'd explain it to your mother or brother who doesn't live and breathe this stuff every day. That's what I'm going to bring to this site.

Q: What are the locations and issues you'll be focusing on at first?

A: Let's start with the issues. I'll be focusing on public health and the connection between place and health. Most people will see health and they'll naturally think of doctors, hospitals and health insurance, but they'll quickly see the site is much broader than that. Research shows that where you live affects your health much more than access to health care. Transportation, economics, environment – all these things have an effect on healthy communities. The issues will be pretty broad, but they'll be covered in the context of their effect on health. In our community report, we'll be covering places all over California where people are dealing with these issues. I have a special relationship with the 14 places where The California Endowment is going to be focusing its work in the next 10 years. I'm building relationships with grantees and other resources in those communities, which is a good way to find interesting stories and people, but we won't be limited to those places.

Q: What kind of stories from the public or journalists are you looking for?

A: I'm looking for stories that really reach into the community and show real people dealing with problems in their communities. In almost all cases, the emphasis will be on people who are dealing with problems in their lives and work that are the result of failed policy or could be addressed by new public policy. These will also include success stories about people and organizations overcoming obstacles and improving the health outcomes or prospects of their communities.

Q: There are a number of health-related news sites that have sprung up in the past couple of years, including Kaiser Health News, the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, Health News Florida and the Kansas Health Institute News Service. How will your site be different?

A: The policy reporting side of it will be more personal and intimate. In my blog, which is how my reporting will be structured, you'll get the feeling that you know me and hopefully trust me. I'm walking you through this unfamiliar place, (telling you) what's important and what might be flash. I'm even going to make myself available in conference calls for people who are registered members of our community. The idea is to be much more connected to the readers.

The other sites you mentioned are a little bit more institutional and traditional than this site will be. They offer traditional reporting in a new package with new sources of funding. My site is going to be different because of the more personal nature and the community report – we're going to paint this whole mosaic of how people are dealing with these issues. I don't think there's anything else like that. This will be more at the micro, neighborhood, community level. The connection between place and health, which will be a constant theme of the site, will certainly be unique.

Q: How would you characterize the type of health storytelling you'll be doing? Is it journalism? Advocacy journalism? Citizen journalism? All of the above?

A: Not all of the above, maybe two out of three. My stuff will be recognizably similar to certain things I've done at Sacramento Bee.  The freelance reports will be done in regular journalistic form. We will shepherd the community person's voice onto the site. You might see a person in text or video in their own words, or they may communicate directly. Everything's going to be edited or reviewed by me or someone else working with me. The kind of citizen journalism site where people throw things up there at will – we're not that. Everything's going to be edited and moderated.

Q: What conversations would you like to see around the issue of place and health?

A: I'd love to see people exchanging views with policymakers and each other on issues of health prevention and the built environment. We're going to have a comment section on every blog item and story and forums for more wide open discussion. One thing we're going to emphasize is civility. I come from the newspaper world and one thing I've learned there is that the comments section can become a very negative and kind of destructive forum where people are attacking each other and being very bitter and I don't think advancing very much in terms of discussing issues. I know a lot of people personally and readers who've contacted me over the years who say they'd like to participate in these discussions but don't want to wade into that pool of negativity. We're going to require people to register and use their full names. I'll be moderating the comments and only allowing those that are civil and respectful. I completely welcome diversity of opinion and debate, but in a respectful way that will encourage people who've shied away from that forum in the past to join in.

Q. What California's mainstream media missing in their coverage of health issues?

A. Coverage of health care has been declining – so just more coverage is needed. I think we're doing a better job of covering healthcare delivery – what hospitals are doing, what doctors and medical groups are doing, and holding them accountable, but I think the policy side is not being covered very closely.

I know that during 2007 debate over health reform in California, it was my sense that was covered like a political campaign and horse race. It was personality-driven coverage, and not a lot of coverage of what these issues are about. I think that is a hole in the coverage that I can try to fill.

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