EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH EAST COUNTY MAGAZINE’S EDITOR AND FOUNDER
Mount Helix resident Miriam Raftery is an award-winning journalist and the founder of East County Magazine, East County Wildfire & Emergency Alerts, East County Magazine Radio Show, and the East County Dining Club.
Q: How did you get started in journalism?
A: I sold my first freelance article, an interview with a child rodeo star, to an Idaho newspaper in the early ‘80s. After moving back to San Diego, I wrote mostly about real estate and home remodeling for magazines and the Union-Tribune, before getting hooked on writing news stories that make a positive difference.
Q: How did you get “hooked” on stories that make a positive difference?
A: A writing friend needed a liver transplant and his family had
been told he wouldn’t get one in time. So I wrote a story on the
desperate need for organ donors, interviewing patients and doctors. The next day, the organ bank called to thank me because organ donations had quadrupled! My friend got his transplant on Easter Sunday, four days after my article ran–and so did a woman I’d interviewed who had two small children. It was a very rewarding feeling!
Q: What else did you cover before starting East County Magazine?
A: I wrote for national and local news organizations covering everything from presidential campaigns to California wildfires. Although I authored thousands of stories, some on big national topics, I really enjoyed local news coverage the best, where I could make a real difference.
Q: Why did you decide to start East County Magazine?
A: In 2007, I got an email at midnight from a woman I’d interviewed in Potrero for a local paper. She told me there was a huge wildfire blocking some roads and she hoped I was awake, because phone lines and cell phone towers had burned down, so there was no way to get info on evacuation routes or shelters. There was nothing on TV or radio.
Fortunately I was able to e-mail her the info that she needed to escape. That turned out to be the biggest fire in California history at the time, and I went behind fire lines to cover it. I
realized we needed timely news online. So I wrote a grant to start East County Magazine online, and also started an e-mail wildfire and emergency alert service. We’ve since expanded that to Twitter (@EastCountyAlert) so people can get alerts on cell phones, too.
Q: Were there other reasons?
A: Yes. A lot of important stories in East County weren’t being covered elsewhere. Small town print newspapers were going under. Others were censoring news based on what advertisers wanted. I started our online site as a nonprofit, so we’re supported mainly by donations from our readers, with grants and a few community partners. We reflect the public interest, not special interests, and we also cover lots of local events such as festivals, parades and concerts..
Apparently the public appreciated our efforts, since we were soon deluged with requests for coverage. So within our first month, we became a daily publication—and as an online news site, we could cover a lot more stories for less, since we don’t have printing presses, delivery trucks or news racks.
Q: What geographic areas do you cover?
A: Inland San Diego County, including the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, El Cajon and Santee as well as the mountains, deserts and rural areas of unincorporated San Diego County east of I-15. You can find news about your area in our community sections, or find news by topics in our special sections.
Q: What are your special sections?
We have Top News for our local news stories, as well as a Roundup of regional and statewide news and World Watch which includes national and global stories each week. Locally, we also have special feature sections such as Festivals and Events, Arts and Music, Bookshelf, Food and Wine, Health, Education, Crimebeat, Business and Labor, Green Scene, Politics, Sports, Best of East County and Weekend Getaways. Then we also have people-oriented stories in People Power, Tribal Beat, Refugee Voices, Latino Voices, and Reader’s Editorials. And we’re probably the only publication anywhere with a special Wildfires and Emergencies section.
Q: How many awards have you won now?
A: To date, we have 105 major journalism awards. We started in 2008 and that first year, we won best news website from San Diego Press Club in 2009. Since then, we’ve won the top awards presented locally by Society of Professional Journalists and Press Club for investigative reporting, governmental reporting, breaking news, multicultural reporting, and community journalism making a positive impact. We were named League of Women Voters best media outlet in 2012 and we even won an international award for environmental reporting.
Q: How big is your readership?
A: We average over 6 million hits and 250,000 visits every month, so we’re one of the most widely read online news sites in San Diego County.
Q: What are some of the stories you’re most proud of that made a positive difference?
A: There are a lot of them! Our investigative reporting resulted in fire stations closed for months during fire season due to budget cuts getting reopened. We got ambulance services improved for our region. When Governor Brown announced plans to close 70 state parks due to budget cuts in the recession, we came up with an idea to save Palomar State Park by fundraising with a nonprofit – and the state park service loved our idea so much, the approached other nonprofits and were able to save 69 parks from closing.
Q: What else has your reporting accomplished?
A: After we revealed there were no veterans’ services in East County, Supervisors approved plans to bring veterans services to county libraries. When we reported on a proposal by developers, to eliminate all community planning groups as “red tape”, citizens spoke out and Supervisors voted down the scheme. When we published video of illegal dumping in Cleveland National Forest by county road crews, our Supervisor took action and got it cleaned up within days. When our reporter learned that the East County Performing Arts Center might be torn down, we published a story and citizens organized to save the public’s theatre. Of courses, we’re also proud of our emergency alerts, which have helped save lives.
Q: How did the radio show get started?
A: A new public radio station, KNSJ 89.1 FM, got licensed locally with a transmitter in Descanso and asked us to produce a show. We started in 2013 and have been on the air ever since. We interview a lot of people, from community members with important local issues to candidates and elected officials, musicians, authors, and more.
Q: How can we hear your show?
A: You can hear us on Mondays and Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. There are also podcasts on our site later. We’re always looking for new volunteers who want to “be the media,” and get broadcasting experience, too.
Q: How does the East County Dining Club fit into your organization?
A: People were always asking us for good restaurants to try. So we launched the dining club to bring our readers to local restaurants, which donate 15% of the proceeds to our nonprofit media. In our first six months, we’ve visited French, Italian, Himalayan and Russian restaurants as well as a steakhouse, and we’ve sold our or nearly sold out each event.
We also have prize drawings, silent auctions, and sometimes musical entertainment so it’s always a fun evening. People love meeting their neighbors and discovering great new restaurants here in East County.
You don’t have to be a member of the club to come to the dinners, but for $10 a year, members will receive a “Best of East County Cookbook” we’re creating, plus two free drawing tickets and first invitations to future events, including some member only special occasions coming up.
Q: How deep are your East County roots?
A: I was born and raised in La Mesa, graduating from Helix High and Grossmont College before going to U.C. Santa Barbara and then working in the state capitol in Sacramento and Idaho for a couple of years. My husband and I came back in the ‘80s and raised our two children here. We’ve lived on Mt. Helix for the past 20 years, and love the area and the people here!
Q: What’s next for East County Magazine?
A: We have some great ideas, but also some “growing pains” as part of a larger nonprofit organization, since their priorities aren’t always the same as ours when it comes to grants and funding. Instead of being a little fish in a big pond, we want to take the leap and start our own nonprofit so we can take charge of our own future, choose our own board of directors, and make our own decisions. This would enable us to raise more funds to hire more reporters and meet our readers’ growing demands for news, plus hold community educational events and forums, and launch some new ventures to serve our readers. But we really need some seed money to afford the legal start-up costs to make that dream a reality, plus some folks experienced in serving on nonprofit boards and helping nonprofits grow.
Q: Are you concerned about the future of media locally and nationally?
A: Deeply so. Media consolidation has resulted in nearly all the news most people see and hear being produced by just six corporations at the national level. Some have biases or are providing more entertainment than news.
Here in California, Cal Matters just reported that our state’s biggest newspapers are laying off reporters, some going from hundreds of staffers to just a handful of news reporters left. Locally the Union-Tribune is struggling financially, and two of our local TV stations just got bought out by national corporations. That means less focus on local news that’s so important to communities such as La Mesa, El Cajon, Spring Valley, Mount Helix and other neighborhoods in our region. While other news organizations are contracting, we’re growing – because hyper-local coverage and nonprofit news are what people want and trust today.
Q: How can people find East County Magazine and subscribe to your alerts? Is there a cost?
A: No, all of our news and alerts are free to the public! You can sign up to receive our free weekly e-newsletter with top news and events from East County Magazine each week, as well as our East County Wildfire and Emergency alerts, at www.EastCountyMagazine.org. You can also read our news daily at our site, post comments, or donate.