CalMatters seeks out overlooked diverse voices


The voices in the street are often as important as those in the suite.

That's the upshot of California Voices, the opinion arm of CalMatters, a California non-profit organization raising its megaphone for different kinds of experts.

For many publications nationwide, the default sources of opinion pieces are a cadre of Ps: pundits, professors, politicians and publicists. While expert analysis from a macro perspective is important in opinion journalism, micro-level firsthand viewpoints should receive notice.

In November, CalMatters announced a priority to seek out less obvious, though informed, viewpoints with California Voices. Editor Yousef Baig has been busy executing the strategy. 

“Things are going well,” Baig said. “What was important about the launch in November was sending up a ‘bat signal’ that this is our new mission. This is our new approach to commentary.”

One example is a guest commentary piece from the director of a non-profit “impact investing” organization about housing costs and its links to the homelessness problem — particularly relating to young adults raised in the foster care system. California Voices also published a piece by a woman who was formerly homeless and how she improved her situation.    

Baig said seeking opinions from people in the trenches is not a new concept, but recruiting such perspectives and working with sources to provide content that meets quality standards requires quite a bit of time. That time and those resources are less common in newsrooms cut back during the industry’s financial decline.

Just a few months into the strategy, Baig said California Voices receives, on average, five to 10 daily submissions. Not all are published, but sometimes he offers some coaching on rejected pieces for possible future publication. Baig also writes pieces himself, which make a point to include “smaller” voices. One example is an analysis published in January on a high-speed rail project that the political class dubbed a boondoggle. Baig’s piece gives voice to a local fish market owner and barber shop owner (among many other sources) who touted the importance of the project to the struggling city of Fresno.

For Baig, seeking out or raising these voices is a job worth doing. California Voices helps produce these pieces, which are available to news organizations statewide.

“We really want our commentary section to be that forum for California,” Baig said. “There are only a handful of robust opinion sections left in California, and they’re in the metro areas. And so, this is an effort for us to step into that mission in the opinion space and ensure that people who want to have their viewpoints published still have that opportunity, even if they don’t live in the big metros.”

Baig does some outreach to recruit voices. He has created a submission page that helps people get started. It explains the process and the tone that is expected in the piece. He also visits PR and coalition groups to get the word out, a marketing mix Baig described as a “symphony of different things.”

“I feel like we’re incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do that extra work and take this more labor-intensive route to get those firsthand perspectives and ground-floor voices,” Baig said. “… There are elements of this that I hope others can replicate. But it’s also a blessing that we have been able to do this without some specific demands other outlets have.”

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. Bob also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called The Lawless Files.


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