California Journalist Moves from Writing Health Care News to Making It

Portrait of reporter, Anna Gorman standing outdoors, against a green hedge with yellow flowers.
Former California health care journalist Anna Gorman now is a Los Angeles County health official. Photo: Nick Agro.

Anna Gorman has been an award-winning reporter in California for two decades, focusing on health care for the last 10 years of that. After spending most of her career at the Los Angeles Times (L.A. Times), in 2013 she joined the staff of Kaiser Health News (KHN), the editorially independent publisher of CHCF’s California Healthline. Last year she earn a master’s degree in public health from UCLA, and now Gorman has left journalism to become director of community partnerships and programs at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS). She will lead My Health LA, a no-cost health care program for uninsured county residents who lack access to health insurance. I talked with Gorman about the dramatic changes she witnessed in California journalism and about how her reporting background has prepared her for her new career. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: When you joined the L.A. Times, big city newspapers were at the pinnacle of journalism. What happened?  

A: When I started at the L.A. Times in 1999, the staff was huge, but over many years and many rounds of layoffs, it became a shell of its former self. Now the L.A. Times is seeing a resurgence and is growing again, but lots of other papers are not. Newspapers have closed their doors or seen their staff shrink. Many papers don’t have enough staff to have dedicated health reporter, so that has opened the door for KHN and their great health reporting. For young journalists there are a lot of opportunities, despite what’s happening with mainstream organizations. I’ve seen so many start-ups and new media models, such as Vox, ProPublica, and the Texas Tribune, that didn’t exist when I started my career. That’s exciting. Another big change is the cooperation among news organizations. When I started, we rarely collaborated with other news organizations. They were the competition and we just wanted to beat them to stories. Today, while there’s still competition, there’s  also cooperation — especially on big projects. There’s crowdsourcing too, because we’re seeing that readers and listeners are an integral part of news coverage.

Some examples include KHN’s collaboration with NPR on Bill of the Month, where they reached out to readers and listeners and solicited their health care bills. That wouldn’t have been done in the past. Another example: the California Dream on public radio. Readers, listeners, and TV news viewers don’t care where the coverage comes from, they just want it. Looking back on it, I think this competition that we embraced for so many years was mostly unnecessary and a vestige of a different era.

Q: You sound optimistic.

A: I am. The industry has been shrinking for years, and journalists continue to be underpaid — and under attack. But there are a lot of interesting developments in journalism, and the profession is not going away. When I talk to students, I say, “There will always be a need for reporters; there will always be a place to have an impact.” Most people don’t get newspapers delivered to their doorsteps any more. And by the time my kids have kids, there may not be print newspapers at all. But journalism will always be there. Journalists are essential. They educate society, hold powerful people accountable, and give voice to the voiceless. Right now we get news on our computers, tablets, phones. Who knows what future formats will be like?

Q: Some of these new models of journalism are supported by philanthropy. How important is foundation funding to setting the course for journalism?

A: It’s critical! I think foundations are essential to help fund journalism. There are news organizations today that depend on the support of foundations. I’ll use KHN as an example. I moved to KHN in 2013, and it was a great move. It was a completely different model of journalism from what I experienced at the L.A. Times. For starters, it was a nonprofit and was based on partnerships with other outlets. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) invested heavily to launch KHN 10 years ago, and later KFF got outside funding to support more journalism. One of those funders is CHCF, whose support enabled more expansion. When KHN started producing California Healthline for CHCF, it hired more reporters and editors and could produce more and more high-quality health coverage in California. Now KHN is expanding in Missouri and Colorado in collaboration with local foundations. I believe we’ll see even more foundation-funded journalism around the country in the coming years.

Q: What will you be doing in your new job leading the My Health LA program?

A: In addition to providing free health care to low-income people in LA County who can’t get health insurance, My Health LA is expanding mental health and substance use disorder treatment to its participants. I’ll be working closely with the Department of Public Health and the Department of Mental Health to ensure these patients have access to that care as well. I also will be forming and strengthening partnerships between DHS and clinics, nonprofits, county agencies, funders, and other organizations. The hope is that through those partnerships, we will find new ways to improve access to care, to address the social factors that affect patients’ health, and to help patients became healthier.

It’s a big job and really exciting. There are so many possibilities, and Los Angeles County is really the place to do this work. DHS is invested in population health, and the department has already done so much work with people in jails and those recently released from incarceration as well as those who are homeless or have mental illness.

Q: How have 20 years in newsrooms prepared you for public service?

A: As a journalist, I’ve been able to evaluate issues from a 10,000-foot level and on the ground at the individual patient level. That will come in handy. I can weigh in from the program level  on what can be improved or strengthened, and from the patient level what barriers prevent them from getting care. I’ve also gained a deep understanding of local, state, and federal government health systems. And I’ve learned a lot about the safety net, from the shortage of providers to funding that is dependent on government programs. That knowledge will be very helpful.

Safety-net clinics and hospitals are essential, and they’re also where we see innovative programs and partnerships to provide better care and address health disparities. My Health LA is one of those programs because it helps people get access to preventive care so they don’t just end up in the emergency room. It’s also become more important for health care leaders to consider how much people’s health is affected by what happens outside a doctor’s office. As a journalist, I could write about all of these issues, but now I can be hands-on in creating and implementing solutions to some of the biggest problems in health care today.

Leaving the news business is bittersweet, because reporting is gratifying and important work, and I will miss my journalist colleagues around the nation. But I’m really excited about taking on a new challenge and using my skills and knowledge in a new way. And I’m looking forward to having a direct impact on the people I’ve been writing about for a long time. I hope to help improve both their health access and their health status.

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