‘We want to be part of the solution,’ says co-founder of media group focused on the marginalized

washington — The co-founder of a local reporting initiative in California is being recognized for her work mentoring young reporters and improving community news.

Tasneem Raja, who helped set up the Cityside Journalism Initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a long career mentoring reporters and reaching groups typically under-covered by media outlets.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit Cityside Journalism Initiative launched at a time when the news media industry was shedding jobs. Its mission statement: to create a newsroom that “amplifies community voices, shares the power of real information, and investigates systems, not just symptoms.”

The organization is now running Berkeleyside, which was founded in 2009, and The Oaklandside, which launched in 2020.

“We also try to go a step further and say, you know, ‘We’re not just here in some cases, to report on what’s going on. We’re also here to help people,’” Raja told VOA.

As editor-in-chief of The Oaklandside, Raja sees her role as creating opportunities for people who reflect the demographics and concerns of her outlet’s community.

Those efforts led to her being given the 2024 Gwen Ifill Award. Presented by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in memory of PBS journalist Ifill, the award honors the work each year of a female journalist of color.

“What particularly struck us about Tasneem’s work is her dedication to creating spaces [and] making news by and about the communities on which they’re reporting,” said IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Munoz. “Local news is vital to covering underreported issues and marginalized populations; Tasneem’s career has been spent advancing that much needed coverage.”

Another area that stood out in Raja’s career is her efforts to support new journalists.

Her mentoring, Munoz told VOA, “builds a new generation of women of color in media and news leadership.”

“Tasneem brings this mentality into her newsrooms as well, seeing the value of diverse perspectives and lived experiences to cultivate ‘green’ [inexperienced] employees into skilled journalists,” Munoz added.

Among those efforts is Raja’s work to create a policy that allocates an annual stipend for each employee to use for professional development.

“For me, it starts with creating a healthy newsroom that is going to empower people to do their best work, hiring great talents, creating a space where they feel supported and they have opportunities to learn and grow,” Raja said. “Gwen was somebody who was really ahead of the curve of that, really modeling what healthy, thoughtful, empowering inclusive mentorship was like.”

That supportive process is also reflected in the Cityside Journalism Initiative’s work.

During the pandemic, Cityside set up a hotline where reporters would answer questions and provide information. Actions like that, Raja said, underscore Cityside’s mission of not only reporting on the community but actively and tangibly helping it.

“We want to be part of the solution. We can’t do everything, we aren’t setting out to do everything, but we are setting out to just talk to community members in Oakland, Berkeley and now Richmond,” said Raja, referring to a third media outlet they are setting up.

Before moving to the Bay Area in 2019, Raja was co-founder of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit news startup in eastern Texas. She has also worked for NPR’s “Code Switch,” focusing on stories on race, culture and identity in America and the nonprofit, politically progressive Mother Jones, where she led a data team that built a database of mass shootings in America.

Alongside her work for Cityside, Raja is on the board of directors of The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom focused on women and the LGBTQ community.

Similar to media outlets across the U.S., the Cityside Journalism Initiative is currently focused on elections. Oaklandside in particular is looking to engage with the community in its coverage.

Among those they are keen to connect with, said Raja, are “casual” voters and those who are new to voting.

“By starting with those conversations, we’re looking forward to building a solid foundation upon which we’re going to shape all our coverage,” said Raja. “Ultimately, we hope to be part of moving the needle in empowering more people to feel like they want to and can exercise that big civic right that we have.”

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