News fueled by citizen journalists fills Calif. county’s ‘media shadow’

San Benito County resident John W. Eade registers an account with BenitoLink during the recent county fair. (Photo credit: Bob Reid/BenitoLink)

The best products and services are often the ones demanded and designed by consumers themselves.

Residents of San Benito County, Calif., about 60 miles south of the high-tech epicenter of Silicon Valley, are benefitting from their initiative, after expressing the need for a new source of information. That desire led to the creation of in the last year. The site, which received a $150,000 grant from Knight Foundation in May, is a free digital news resource for the county’s approximately 56,000 residents. BenitoLink has news, commentary, event listings and a classifieds section, all tailored to the local community.

County resident Bob Reid, who was recently hired as BenitoLink’s content director, said the area “has been in a media shadow for a long time.” Compared to adjacent counties closer to San Jose and San Francisco, San Benito County is more rural and sparsely populated. The county’s largest city, Hollister, used to have two newspapers actively covering the area. But much like other newsrooms across the country, the local papers have reduced their coverage or installed online paywalls.

Vision San Benito County, an initiative of the Community Foundation for San Benito County, spearheaded BenitoLink’s creation after nearly 1,000 county residents shared concern for the lack of sufficient local news and information. (Vision San Benito County received $20,000 in seed money from Knight in 2011.)

“Our goal is to connect our community,��� said Reid, who is also an experienced journalist , vocalist and guitarist. “BenitoLink was born out of people feeling that there was no place to go to find out what was happening in the community … So we’re hoping to not only fill that need but to help the community be aware of who they are by reflecting back who they are to them.”

Reid works full time on the site, alongside a part-time staffer.  A team of five volunteers and Vision San Benito County’s executive director also contribute by reviewing the site and making decisions on a weekly basis. Just recently, BenitoLink launched a redesign to make the the site’s presentation more engaging, easier to understand and simpler to administer. But Reid said BenitoLink’s sustainability relies upon community members contributing news and information.

“In BenitoLink, we’ve created this container for the community to put things in, and it is huge,” he said. “And the only way it will be of value is if we all put things into it that we value and that are of use to us.”

Reid and the BenitoLink team review citizen-generated content before it appears on the site.

Heatherly Takeuchi, a Hollister resident for six years, discovered BenitoLink within the last month, after finding it difficult to get a submission published in an area newspaper. Now, Takeuchi said, she can easily get her content published online.

“It’s opening possibilities to me that I didn’t think I had before,” said Takeuchi, who is a math and science tutor by day but is known for taking photographs around the community. On a recent weekend, she took pictures and wrote an article about the safety efforts behind this year’s San Benito County Fair, where BenitoLink staffed a booth.

Reid said the site is still determining the best ways to engage the community. BenitoLink celebrated its launch this past weekend with a party at a local art gallery. So far, about 300 people have registered on the site, he said. However, registration is only required to submit content, not to read articles.

Moving forward, BenitoLink would like to publish in English and Spanish to serve the diverse local community, Reid said. He also wants to optimize BenitoLink for mobile use and to incorporate video. Since the site is not-for-profit, it may depend on voluntary donations and sponsorships in the future, he said.

Judith Kleinberg, Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley program director, applauded BenitoLink for being “tremendously responsive to community interest.”

“The way this developed—the thoughtful, strategic approach to this—really made it all the more likely to succeed because it’s what the people wanted. They  had a say in what it would look like and how it would work,” she said.

Kleinberg said BenitoLink is propelling a very rural area of the Silicon Valley region to catch up and surpass other local communities. “It’s a very modern way for people to connect and voice their opinions,” she said. “They can share their thoughts and be involved with each other and involved with their community.”

Recent Content