Emilie Raguso
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Former Berkeleyside Reporter Emilie Raguso reflects on the past, present and future of local news in Berkeley, CA

10 mins read
4

Award-winning Berkeleyside reporter Emilie Raguso announced her departure from the news org after 10 years back on Sept. 7.

Emilie isn’t abandoning Berkeley completely though as she recently announced she’d be launching her own news outlet with a focus on crime and public safety reporting. Her highly-anticipated site The Berkeley Scanner officially debuted on Thursday, September 29.

Berkeleyside was founded in 2009 by three veteran journalists and quickly became an indispensable source of information for the Berkeley community. It’s not unfair to say that Raguso’s efforts were one of of the primary drivers of Berkeleyside’s success. Her tenacious and timely reporting became a model for dedicated and embedded local news reporting.

Berkeleyside grew at an incredible pace during Raguso’s tenure leading to the expansion of their platform into neighboring Oakland. Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside now both operate under the Google News Initiative/American Journalism Project funded Cityside Journalism with a focus on news sustainability and equity.


Raguso has built an incredible network of Berkeley contacts and institutional knowledge of the city while at Berkeleyside. She’s hoping to continue to use these resources, in tandem with the support of local news associations like LION Publishers, to help keep the residents of Berkeley informed.


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We gave her 10 questions about her approach to local news reporting, her insights on the direction of the industry, and what ultimately guided her decision to go independent.


Q&A with The Berkeley Scanner founder Emilie Raguso

EE: Talk to us about the reception you’ve received by Berkeleyside readers when it was announced that you’d be departing as a reporter after 10 years.

ER: On the day the announcement came out, I was amazed and surprised at the intensity of the community’s response. It was incredible to see the outpouring of love and support from readers and to hear how they felt about my work. There were so many people I’d never even met or spoken to who made very detailed, astute observations about my approach to reporting and what it had meant to them over the years.

Even though it’s always sad to say goodbye, Berkeleyside and the community made that day so special. I don’t think many people get that opportunity to hear how much they are appreciated. I felt so grateful and moved by that.

EE: Enlighten us on the most important lessons you’ve learned covering a city like Berkeley and how it shaped your approach to reporting.

ER: When I started at Berkeleyside in 2012, I’m not sure I knew exactly how engaged and informed the readership would be. Obviously, Berkeley has a reputation for having these qualities, but it was still astounding to see. Everyone has an opinion and isn’t afraid to share it. If people think your writing is sloppy or you picked the wrong word or you missed some important context, they aren’t afraid to let you know. Not only have I learned so much from this process, it’s also made me try even harder to be above reproach to the largest extent possible.

Another thing that struck me was how many different viewpoints there are about the topics I covered. When you go to meetings and public events, you often hear just one segment of the population. But there are so many other views out there that people might be surprised to hear in Berkeley. I learned a lot about how much diversity there really is in the community and how nuanced people’s thoughts about complex subjects could be.

I guess one other thing that surprised me was how generous people are — and I don’t just mean in terms of supporting robust local news, which they do. But people really do want to share tips, skills, resources and appreciation in a way that is very special. It’s made me feel that I’m not just reporting on the community but very much a part of the local landscape. I think that’s probably true of all successful local newsrooms. And it’s certainly true here.


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It’s made me feel that I’m not just reporting on the community but very much a part of the local landscape. I think that’s probably true of all successful local newsrooms. And it’s certainly true here.

EE: You’re able to walk a delicate line of objectivity that few local reporters are able to find. Can you provide any insights or perspectives for new/young reporters?

ER: I always try to come to interviews with an open mind, withholding judgment — whether I think I might agree with someone or not. I want to understand where a person is coming from and why they might feel that way, and how they came to that place in their lives where I’ve met them. It’s always important to be skeptical and ask follow-up questions, but it’s also important to try to represent someone’s perspective and viewpoint in a way that feels honest — both to them and to you. When you’re working to develop deep beat reporting, it’s all about the relationships and the accountability.

We have so much power as journalists and that power often goes unchecked. Readers can challenge us in the comments section or people can send us emails if they feel we got something wrong. But our work is ultimately what’s out there in print driving the narrative to a large extent. There’s very little oversight and I think sometimes that gets abused: We aren’t responsive enough to requests for corrections or clarifications. We don’t try hard enough to include the relevant context. I think that does our work and our community a huge disservice.

A lot of people get into journalism because they want to address social problems and help improve our commons. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it starts to bleed over into advocacy and a lack of balance, I think that’s where our field begins to lose credibility with people.

A lot of people get into journalism because they want to address social problems and help improve our commons. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it starts to bleed over into advocacy and a lack of balance, I think that’s where our field begins to lose credibility with people.

EE: The Berkeleyside founders have all moved on from their original roles with the publication. How much does this have to do with your decision to depart and go about it alone?

ER: As employee No. 1 (literally) at Berkeleyside, I got to watch the organization grow in so many ways. I saw the birth of East Bay Nosh and the eventual creation of an Oakland newsroom. I saw the organization test various funding models and ultimately become a nonprofit. And the folks who hired me did move up in the organizational structure as the business expanded.


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It was exciting to see all the growth and change — that’s not something many local newsrooms have been able to achieve. But ultimately I just knew I would be able to serve the community better in my new role.

EE: It’s obvious to people in the news industry, but nonprofit journalism comes with certain editorial caveats. Breaking news coverage/crime & public safety reporting is not a priority for their funding. Does this leave an important coverage gap that you’re hoping to fill?

ER: I’m no expert in the nonprofit funding world because I have always just taken my approach and commitment to covering the community in the ways I’ve learned resonate with people — and run with that. And Berkeleyside supported my efforts in that vein. So I really cannot speak to what the funders what.

But I will say that often the work that matters most to people in Berkeley, from what I’ve seen, is not what wins awards. It’s not necessarily the sexy stuff for funders. Which is fine — I think there’s room for all of it.

I have no doubt from what I’ve seen in local news that people do want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods. They do want their newsrooms to be responsive. And they are interested in granular reporting on public safety as well as more substantive stories from the beat. So, yes, I do believe there’s a market for it. And I am very excited to have the opportunity now to test that hypothesis.


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EE: So you’ve now launched your new project, The Berkeley Scanner. What is the focus of your platform? Tease us a bit on what your goals are for your first year.

ER: My plan for The Berkeley Scanner is to be the community’s most reliable, comprehensive source of public safety news in Berkeley, whether that’s crime, traffic safety, fires and power outages — or the development of the policies that drive Berkeley’s approach to those challenges. There’s also the opportunity to dive into court coverage of the most serious crimes in the city and look at some of the issues related to problematic street behavior that Berkeley routinely faces.

I think The Scanner also really has the opportunity to shine a light on how the criminal justice system works in Berkeley and Alameda County. Because there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about that.


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I also really want people to know that they can come to me with their questions and I will do my best to chase down the answers. That level of responsiveness and accountability has always been core to the way I’ve approached my work — I think it’s how we build trust in our communities and gain legitimacy as news organizations.

EE: The biggest question for me is if a single-subject/single-city focus is enough to sustain a news org. Are you prepared to expand your coverage beyond this scope if necessary?

ER: There is truly so much happening in Berkeley practically every day, in addition to the bigger projects and more substantive news I’ll be producing, that I personally think it’s possible to be sustainable. Of course, only time will tell. Most people have no idea everything that goes on for our first responders and may think it’s usually a sleepy place. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

My first goal is to try to take a more comprehensive approach to covering what’s happening on a daily basis so people can get a truer sense of what’s “normal” — then I’ll be able to figure out how much bandwidth I have beyond that. I think there’s certainly enough happening in Berkeley to keep me busy, especially given how I’ve conceptualized the coverage.

That said, I think there’s a high level of interest in offering expanded Scanner coverage to surrounding cities. I don’t currently see how that could happen without adding staff or creating some kind of franchise model. None of that is impossible but it’s not my current focus.

I’m just really looking forward to focusing on one topic — which actually encompasses so many things and so many aspects of the community — and doing it to the absolute best of my ability every day.

Most people have no idea everything that goes on for our first responders and may think it’s usually a sleepy place. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

EE: Do you think The Berkeley Scanner model is scalable to other communities or is Berkeley somehow unique because of its combination of high citizen engagement and affluence?


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ER: I definitely think my current model — which is 100% member-driven, meaning there is no advertising or other funding — relies on the generosity of a community that values the type of information and service I’m providing. I’m definitely interested in finding out whether my belief that it can work will bear out. And I will certainly keep everyone posted on that.

So far, the community has already been so generous, remarkably so. To already have 180 paying members just days past launch is astounding. We’ll just have to see if the growth and community investment will sustain itself as I grow the site and coverage.

EE: What metric(s) will you rely on after your first year to determine if your platform is on the right trajectory toward sustainability?

ER: The main thing will be whether the amount I’m making at that point is enough to live on, or whether it’s heading in the right direction fast enough. That’s not to say it all comes down to money, because that’s never a reason anyone gets into journalism. But I do need to survive in the Bay Area, and The Berkeley Scanner is my sole income source.

Beyond that, I’ll have to ask myself whether the amount of work I’m doing feels manageable. And of course I’ll also be watching closely to see if the broader community is satisfied with the news I’m providing, and how I’m providing it — or whether folks want something different.

I’d like to give myself 1-2 years to get The Berkeley Scanner to where it needs to be financially for me to make it work.

It’s also been well-documented that places without strong local news networks are less informed and participate less in the democratic process. And we can all think of examples of gross misconduct that would have gone uncovered and unreported without journalists on the ground asking hard questions.

EE: Explain to readers why they should chip in to support local news?


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ER: I actually feel really fortunate to have launched The Berkeley Scanner in a time when many people already have gotten this memo, in large part because of our national political landscape but also because of the pandemic. That said, we are still watching newsrooms around the country shrinking or closing altogether — so we can probably never stop trying to drive this point home.

It’s also been well-documented that places without strong local news networks are less informed and participate less in the democratic process. And we can all think of examples of gross misconduct that would have gone uncovered and unreported without journalists on the ground asking hard questions.

What it comes down to is that covering a community is extremely labor-intensive. It takes a lot of time and hours and investment to do it right. You have to spend so much time reporting — talking to people, monitoring meetings, writing and synthesizing information that can be very complex — that it can easily be all-consuming. Then you take someone who covers a community closely and does that for 10, 20 years, or longer. That kind of institutional knowledge and inside understanding is impossible to replicate.

So I think it’s critically important for communities that want someone, or multiple people, to play that role in the local news landscape to ensure reporters and editors are able to make a decent living from it. Otherwise, there are plenty of companies and municipalities that can offer a more comfortable living, and often less intensive work environments, and are more than happy to pay a premium for the skills we develop as journalists.

If you would like to support Emilie’s efforts, you can become a Berkeley Scanner monthly supporter, follow them on Twitter or subscribe by email for free.

Feature Image: David Yee

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

4 Comments

  1. Emilie said “A lot of people get into journalism because they want to address social problems and help improve our commons. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it starts to bleed over into advocacy and a lack of balance, I think that’s where our field begins to lose credibility with people.” That’s essentially why I stopped being a monthly contributing member to Berkeleyside (and became a Berkeley Scanner supporter) – their site crossed the line and became advocacy journalism, rather than just regular journalism.

    • I agree. I was an early supporter of Berkeleyside but I canceled my monthly donation recently when I realized they were curtailing comments and focusing on publishing happy stories only. I am a big fan of Emilie Raguso and so delighted to learn about Berkeley Scanner. Have just subscribed. Thanks E’ville Eye!

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