Members of The Oaklandside staff pose for a group photo at Morcom Rose Garden. The newsroom is a finalist for four 2021 Nonprofit News Awards. Credit: Amir Aziz

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A previous version of this article was published on Oct. 8, 2021. It was updated to reflect the awards announcements and republished on Oct. 13, 2021.

In the weeks leading up to our launch in June 2020, the editors at The Oaklandside would regularly meet in person at various parks around town (this was the very early days of the pandemic, and meeting indoors was out of the question) to lay out our vision and share our hopes for the newsroom we were building. We spoke then about providing Oaklanders with information and resources that they could truly use and act on. We discussed the dire need in Oakland for trustworthy and in-depth coverage of local government, including law enforcement agencies. And we acknowledged that journalism alone wouldn’t be enough—that to be successful we would need to build trust by putting just as much energy into community engagement and listening as into our reporting.

There is still so much to do and we’ll continue to listen, learn, and improve on how we serve Oaklanders. But less than a year and a half after those brainstorms in the park, we can look back with a lot of pride at what our team has accomplished in its initial months. Our peers in the journalism industry are taking notice too, and we were excited to learn on Wednesday that The Oaklandside was named a winner in the “Game Changer” category (which recognizes newsrooms producing innovative ideas and practices) of the 2021 Nonprofit News Awards, hosted by the Institute for Nonprofit News. The Oaklandside also received honorable mentions in three additional categories: Best Investigative Journalism, Community Champion, and Emerging Leader. We wanted to share the good news with our readers, and offer a look back at our stories, initiatives, and people that are being recognized.

Mission Metrics initiative (Winner, Game-Changer Award)

The Oaklandside’s community advisors. Top row from left: Danielle Thompson and Itzamar Carmona Felipe; Middle row from left: Maria Hoang and Marquita “Keta” Price; Bottom row from left: Victor Moreno, Reg Wooden, and Robbie Neely Credit: Amir Aziz

Prior to the pandemic, and before our newsroom had even adopted its name, our founders hosted a series of “community listening sessions”—deep in-person discussions with Oakland residents, where people told us what they wanted from a local news organization. Those rich conversations led to the formation of our founding newsroom values—a set of principles that guide our reporting to this day.

In spring 2021 The Oaklandside launched a pilot program to help us live up to those values and measure the impact of our journalism. At its center was a community advisory board—a diverse group of seven Oaklanders, one from each district in the city. Every week for two months, they provided our reporters and editors with written feedback on articles and tagged our stories with various “mission metrics”—a set of criteria we developed to measure our journalism against our stated newsroom values. Community advisors also met twice over Zoom with the entire Oaklandside news team, for in-depth group discussions and small breakout sessions, to dig deeper into what’s working and what could be improved about our reporting and the overall presentation of our content.

The feedback we received from our community advisors is now influencing our decisions as editors and reporters. When the pilot ended, we surveyed our news staff about their takeaways. 

“I’m going to double down on my commitment to write about Oakland’s history,” noted our News Editor Darwin BondGraham, “and to source more freelance work that delves into the history of the city.”

“I appreciated all the reminders that people want to be able to use the information in articles to help their communities and improve their lives,” wrote our Housing and Homelessness Reporter Natalie Orenstein. “So I plan to include more resource lists, contact info for elected officials and organizations we mention, and coverage of how people can get involved with the issues we write about.”

“Our one-on-one interactions with advisors have further convinced me how important it is to be walking around different parts of Oakland and start conversations with people, even if it’s not for a particular story,” said our Small Business Reporter, Ricky Rodas “Those personal interactions will help us understand how we should approach each article with compassion and mindfulness.”

The Oaklandside’s Mission Metrics initiative was also recently recognized by the nonprofit Current as a finalist in their Local That Works competition, which “spotlights innovative, community-focused media initiatives that expand, engage, diversify, serve local audiences and create civic value.” Read more.

Did OPD violate its own policies against protesters? We investigated (Honorable Mention, Best Investigative Journalism Award)

A sheriff’s deputy aims a less-lethal firearm at protesters on June 1 shortly after 7:38 p.m. in Oakland. Credit: Frank Sosa

In late May and early June 2020, cities across the country were rocked by street protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. At the peak of these demonstrations, on the evening of June 1, 2020, Oakland police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies opened fire on hundreds of protesters with tear gas and less-lethal munitions. In the aftermath of that event, both law enforcement agencies said the use of force was justified due to the threat posed by protesters, some of whom they claimed were throwing Molotov cocktails. Oakland Police Department’s interim chief at the time, Susan Manheimer, characterized the protesters as “violent disruptors” and “professional agitators.”

A little over one month later, on July 6, The Oaklandside published an investigation into the events of that evening, based on a review of over 50 videos and hundreds of photos taken that night, as well as social media posts, interviews with eyewitnesses, and government records, many of which were secured through public records requests. Our investigation determined that the attacks on protesters by law enforcement officers that night were unprovoked and in violation of OPD’s own crowd-control policies.

Nearly a year to the day after that fateful night of protest in June 2020, and 11 months after The Oaklandside published its investigation into what happened, new OPD Chief Leronne Armstrong held a press conference and shared information that confirmed our findings: that his department’s use of force that night constituted a violation of OPD policy. Multiple Oakland police officers are now facing discipline because of their actions during the protest. Read more.

Oakland Vaccine Equity Campaign (Honorable Mention, Community Champion Award)

Oaklandside’s contributing health reporter Brian Krans posts a flier with information about how to get vaccinated, at a bus stop in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz

In December 2020 and January 2021, when vaccine efforts were just getting underway in earnest, our newsroom embarked on a campaign to inform, dispel myths, and get timely, accurate, and actionable information about vaccines into the hands of Oaklanders who needed it most. 

At the center of our campaign was an in-depth vaccine guide, which we published in January 2021—an easy-to-navigate online document that we continue to update to this day, providing answers to critical questions about the vaccine: Who’s eligible, how to find appointments in our city, how to volunteer, and much more.

But we knew that information about vaccines and how to get them was changing rapidly and that not everyone in Oakland who needed the information would get it from our website. That’s why we also launched a text messaging service to reach a broader cross-section of our city and respond in real-time to residents’ questions and concerns. To get the word out, we plastered 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper flyers all over town, with a focus on neighborhoods in East Oakland that have been among those hardest hit by the pandemic, with information about how to sign up for the text service and a QR code to access our mobile-friendly guide.

As journalists, we knew that ongoing reporting coupled with storytelling about the virus and vaccines would also be key. So we complemented our guide and texting service with articles about Oakland’s vaccine rollout, and live-streamed Q&A sessions with local public health officials, alongside profiles and first-person narratives of everyday Oaklanders navigating the pandemic and vaccination process. We’ve also continued to point our audience to one of the first posts we developed as a newsroom in the early days of the pandemic to protect our communities: a guide to free COVID-19 testing sites in Oakland.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come to our vaccine guide to get information about when, where, and how to find and make an appointment in Oakland and Alameda County, and over 2,000 people signed up for our text messaging service. As of the date of this article, 90% of Oakland residents had received at least one vaccination shot. We take great pride in knowing that our work has been one small but important piece of a much larger, community-wide effort to increase awareness of vaccines. Read more.

Editor-in-Chief Tasneem Raja (Honorable Mention, Emerging Leader Award)

The Oaklandside’s Editor-in-Chief Tasneem Raja Credit: Amir Aziz

The multiple award nominations received by The Oaklandisde—both stories and equity initiatives—speak volumes about the skills of our editor-in-chief, Tasneem Raja, both as a journalist and a nonprofit newsroom leader.

A trailblazer in nonprofit and community-led journalism, Raja previously co-founded the East Texas news site The Tyler Loop, reported and edited stories about race, identity, and culture as a senior editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, was a senior editor of data journalism at Mother Jones, and a founding staff member of The Bay Citizen and Oakland North. 

“Oakland is where I relearned what it means to be a journalist, and reexamined journalism’s responsibilities in the communities we aim to serve,” Raja said, shortly after returning to Oakland in 2019 to lead our newsroom. “I am honored and humbled by this opportunity to work with and learn from people who are invested in serving information needs across Oakland, holding harmful systems accountable, and reflecting the values of Oakland’s communities.”

Under Raja’s leadership, The Oaklandside has grown, in just 15 months, into a nationally recognized model for innovative local news and a trusted source of information to residents, with over 1,000 articles published, 20,000 newsletter subscribers, a robust social media following, a web platform that reaches over 150,000 users per month, and more than 2,000 members who support us will donations. 

Raja’s understanding of the importance of a community-centered newsroom for Oakland has been a driving force behind The Oaklandside’s work. 

Soon after being hired, she spearheaded the community listening process that led to the adoption of the newsroom’s founding values and the Mission Metrics initiative described above; she was instrumental in hiring a team that’s not only talented journalistically but reflective of Oakland’s diversity; as a successful fundraiser, she’s championed The Oaklandside with enthusiasm and communicated the importance of our values-driven journalism with eloquence and charisma; and in the newsroom, her skills as an editor have consistently strengthened our reporting and elevated our prose, while her insights and support have helped a team of young journalists, as she often says, to “punch above its weight.” 

Watch Raja in discussion with Martin Reynolds and Soledad O’Brien.

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. Simas has lived in Oakland for the past decade with his wife and two children, who attend Oakland public schools. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat and a former volunteer host and producer with KPFA.