Q&A: San Jose Spotlight’s Ramona Giwargis

By Robert Haugh

What are your top goals for San Jose Spotlight?

Our goal is to fill the gap in a shrinking local news landscape and to provide readers with an in-depth look at the issues that impact their lives. As you know, San Jose is the 10th largest city in the nation, and yet, there’s an alarming scarcity in local news coverage. We are the first nonprofit news organization focused on San Jose policy, politics and government. We’re supported by the community – the everyday readers – and we’re not beholden to anyone. This puts us in a strong position to pursue watchdog journalism, search for the truth, hold powerful decision-makers accountable and give a voice to the voiceless.  

How much of your focus will be on San Jose city hall and politics?

San Jose City Hall and politics is a major focus of our news coverage and will continue to dominate our content strategy moving forward. There’s so much happening at San Jose City Hall that goes unreported, and those are the decisions that are changing people’s lives – whether they know it or not. It’s our job to help readers understand what City Hall is doing, how it impacts their lives and why it matters.

Why should people in Santa Clara, or other cities outside of San Jose, read your site or contribute to your effort?

What happens in San Jose affects Santa Clara, and the other way around. Our team of reporters cover issues that have a widespread regional impact on San Jose’s neighbors. We’re also currently covering the city of Santa Clara and have plans to continue expanding in the near future.

When you left the Mercury News, you sued them. What’s the status of the lawsuit? Was there a settlement?

Actually, I did not sue the Mercury News. There is no settlement, either.

OK. when you left the Mercury News, it was reported that you were going to sue them. Can you tell us what happened?

I stand by my original answer and I have nothing more to add. Your question is rooted in the past, and I’m focused on our exciting future and ensuring San José Spotlight’s continued success.  

How are you differentiating yourself from other newspapers?

As a nonprofit news organization, we don’t run ads on our website nor do we charge readers for content. We’re also hyperlocal and focused on policy, politics and government.

Also, San José Spotlight is more than just a news operation – we are a community partner. We’ve already hosted an educational panel on the contentious issue of raising building heights in downtown San Jose and we’re planning several more on important topics. We’ve also got a few other community engagement projects coming up. Stay tuned!

You’ve published your donors. That’s admirable and unusual. You also have a policy that says donors don’t get to influence your reporting. Have you written any stories on any of your major donors yet? Will you?

I appreciate you calling it “admirable,” but it’s actually not that unusual. In fact, as a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), San José Spotlight pledged to be transparent about the funding of the organization and to disclose our donors. It’s a membership standard.

In addition to donor transparency, INN requires members to adopt a policy of editorial independence, which says our donors cannot influence news content and we maintain a firewall between news coverage and revenue. We’re among nearly 200 nonprofit newsroom within INN’s network that have made both pledges.

As of this week, we have more than 600 sustainable members and individual donors, with the average membership level at $15 per month. Our donations are a result of a grassroots effort to build community support for independent journalism. Our diverse group of donors come from all walks of life and all sides of the political aisle – from business leaders, to labor, nonprofit and government officials. This widespread support would not be possible without the hard work of our development director Josh Barousse (my husband) and our talented reporting team.

To answer the last part of your question, one of our donors is the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and one of the first stories we wrote was about the Coyote Creek flooding two years ago and how the water district (along with other agencies) was blamed. Our donors are smart, and they understand that their support does not influence news decisions or editorial content.

San Jose Spotlight staff. Photo by Andy Nguyen
San Jose Spotlight staff. Photo by Andy Nguyen courtesy of San Jose Spotlight.

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