Marrying Community Engagement and Health Reporting for a Different Kind of Journalism

Published on
April 16, 2011

Image removed.It takes a certain kind of stubbornness and stick-to-it-ness to develop a successful online news site or a popular blog, especially if you are writing about the civic life of your community - not fashion tidbits or celebrity gossip.

A number of hardy souls have done just that across California, developing vibrant and creative online news operations or single-issue blogs that enliven the conversation in communities that never had this kind of news, even in the heyday of local media.

The best ones tend to write about the more intimate moments in a community, those that traditional news reporters might disdain: the community tree planting, the cancer fund-raiser. The community news sites swap recipes with readers, host quizzes and contests and cover the planning board and city council meetings in a way that local newspapers rarely do these days. They conduct investigations and get out the word on emergencies in remote rural areas. They can galvanize communities around common concerns and focus unrelentingly on topics such as homelessness or public transit. In our view, all this is pretty inspiring – especially at a time when so many traditional media outlets continue to struggle.

Later this month, The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, our USC Annenberg School program, will tap into the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of these innovators, launching its first training program for online news creators and bloggers. Called "Online Community Building and Health," it is offered in partnership with San Francisco State's Renaissance Journalism Center.

The aims: help online editors make health an important element of their online storytelling.  And provide editors with tools to improve the health of the news sites themselves. To do so, the program will focus on community engagement strategies, a key to sustainability.

Many of the civic issues already covered by these news sites have important health implications that go unexplored. We expect to build awareness on how, for instance, slum housing can make you sick. We will talk about health disparities; learn about essential tools for investigating health care quality with Pulitzer prize-winner Charlie Ornstein, and get practical guides on using local data sources to map and understand community health, with Bloomberg Government's Frank Bass. 

We will turn to film makers, among others, for inspiration on community engagement.  As Jon Funabiki, my collaborator at San Francisco State notes, "the filmmaking community has advanced far more quickly on community engagement than the journalistic community thanks in large part to innovations developed by San Francisco's Active Voice (which will present at our seminars).

The fellows competitively selected for the program will each receive $2,000 to help them with ambitious community reporting projects. The stories they propose delve into nutritional disparities, community safety and neighborhood walkability. There are projects on local health reform initiatives and prescription drug abuse. We will be blogging – as will our fellows -- about our experience together.

To introduce the program, here's some background on the fellows and their projects. You can also click on their individual ReportingonHealth profiles to read their descriptions of their upcoming work:  

Online Community Building and Health Fellows 

Brandy Tuzon  Boyd, founder/editor of, has reported for newspapers and other publications throughout Northern Californian. She launched NatomasBuzz three and a half years ago to cover news in the Sacramento neighborhood in which she lives. For her Fellowship project, she plans to look at whether the suburban neighborhood of Natomas is walkable and bicycle-friendly. The project will examine efforts currently in place to promote walking/biking for the personal health benefits and what challenges they face.

Pascale Fusshoeller is co-founder and editor of, which provides in-depth information on issues affecting residents of the Sierra. With a background in computer science, Fusshoeller excels at using new technology to visualize complex data. Pascale's Fellowship project will examine the health effects of ozone and particulate matter pollution in the Sierra Nevada, with an emphasis of the effects of wildfire on air quality. Nevada County is among the dozen most ozone-polluted counties in the nation. Interviews with health and fire professionals, high school athletes, and elderly residents will illustrate the problem for locals, and video and GIS animations will be used to highlight the origins and destination of the pollution. Tips to avoid exposure and possible solutions will be featured in the series and in a town hall forum, co-produced with the local radio stations and local agencies.

Maria Alicia Gaura and Tara Leonard  co-founded the news website in 2008.  Both live in Santa Cruz. Maria spent more than a decade covering Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle and later reported and co-produced segments on health issues for public radio station KAZU.  Tara began her career in health and fitness book publishing, wrote for local newspapers in the Northeast and several health education firms, and writes the "Thrive" health column for Santa Cruz Magazine. Their project will look at the search for solutions to the nutritional disparities that plague Santa Cruz County. A consortium of community groups, rooted in Central California's farming community, has launched a search for solutions to Americans' increasing reliance on processed foods. They have launched a drive to distribute fresh produce to the poor, to teach low-income families about nutrition and cooking, and to take diabetes education directly to the workers in the fields. Gaura and Leonard will propose a series of stories examining this community's groundbreaking efforts to avert the oncoming wave of disabling, nutrition-based illnesses. 

Elizabeth Larson and her husband, John Jensen, founded Lake County News in December 2006 after a decade of experience in publishing, from books and magazines to newspapers. For her Fellowship project, she will produce a multi-part series on the county's primary health concerns, based on information gleaned from the recently completed 2010 Lake County Health Needs Assessment, 2010 Census information, and research by a variety of other organizations and agencies.

Bill Macfadyen is the founder and publisher of, a professional news site in Santa Barbara. Bill will serve as editor for a Fellowship project that examines the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, an alarming trend in Santa Barbara County. Noozhawk will review research available data to determine the extent of the problem locally; identify which age, racial groups and gender are most at-risk; explore the drugs' availability and controls; track the effectiveness of detection, prevention, addiction, treatment, and disposal programs; calculate the cost to society - including the challenge of funding a comprehensive response in an era of severe budget distress; and tell the personal stories of some of those whose lives have been caught in the middle. His goal is to develop a community solution and possible consensus on how it can be implemented.

Damien Newton is the writer/editor of Los Angeles Streetsblog, which, since 2008, has chronicled the "livable streets'' movement in Southern California. His Fellowship project will look at the progress of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's Policies for Livable, Active, Communities and Environments (PLACE) Program.  Four of the five winners of the grants were for projects to create livable communities in Culver City, Glendale, Long Beach, and Pacoima.  Streetsblog will look into what public health benefits are expected from the effort.

Eddie North-Hager is the founder/publisher of, which provides coverage of a square-mile neighborhood in South Los Angeles. A former longtime newspaper reporter, North-Hager has a day job in public relations for the University of Southern California. For his Fellowship project, Eddie plans to write about how safe places in a community are tied to emotional and physical health.  He will examine the reasons for the dearth of parks and open spaces in South L.A., the consequences for residents' health, and efforts to increase recreational options.

Victoria Schlesinger is a founding partner, editor, and reporter for Way Out West: Bay Area Green News. She has been reporting on the environment for 15 years for newspapers, magazines, and public television. For her project, she will look at the implementation of California's pioneering 2007 law to regulate the chemicals in consumer and commercial products. Scientists estimate that some 200,000 Californians suffer from preventable chronic disease because of exposure to toxic chemicals at work. Those most likely to endure exposure are immigrant, minority, and low-income groups. Regulations for implementing the 2007 law will be hotly debated this year. Industry is arguing for a gradual approach to regulation due to the recession; environmental health advocates say aggressive regulation cannot come too soon, given how little is known about the health effects of almost 80,000 chemicals used in U.S. products today.

Michael Stoll is executive director of the San Francisco Public Press, a startup nonprofit news service for the San Francisco Bay Area. He previously reported for the Hartford Courant and the Philadelphia Inquirer and freelanced for numerous newspapers and magazines. For his Fellowship project, Michael will supervise a team that includes three reporters, a photographer, and an editor that will examine the track record of a city-sponsored health care program called Healthy San Francisco. The two-year-old program provides basic coverage to city residents who do not qualify for employer-subsidized health insurance and cannot afford to buy it on their own. It has quickly become a test case for government-run care at a time when the fate of the national consensus on health care reform is quite fragile. The stories will be posted online and will also serve as the centerpiece for a future edition of the print newspaper edition of the Public Press.

Isabelle Walker launched The Santa Barbara Homeless Blog in April 2010 after three years of reporting for the Santa Barbara Independent on the health of Santa Barbara's homeless population. Her blog features original reporting as well as essays and poetry by about a dozen homeless writers. Isabelle has been a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow twice previously. Her Fellowship project will examine what happens to homeless people in Santa Barbara after they are discharged from a hospital or emergency room. When home is a shelter or sidewalk, the discharge is suddenly fraught with financial and human consequence. There are few discharge options in Santa Barbara, and readmissions inevitably occur, driving up health care costs.

Photo credit: raoultrifan via Flickr