Charles Jones was a 17-year-old homeless street hustler who sold drugs and was an aspiring rapper. Fariba Nawa was a 16-year-old Afghan refugee and high school journalist. Andrew Lam was a Vietnamese refugee and graduate student trying to make the switch from biochemistry to creative writing.
Each was invited to attend one of the weekly editorial meetings at Pacific News Service (PNS) in San Francisco and then was encouraged, mentored, published, and ultimately paid to write articles by the news service’s longtime director, Sandy Close.
For 45 years, PNS and its subsidiary, New America Media, functioned as intellectual salon, journalism incubator, support group and, most importantly, publisher of news and perspectives on everything from the wars in Central America to issues facing gay Latinos in California’s Central Valley.
Last week, New America Media closed its doors for good, a victim, in part, of its own success. It had grown greatly in recent years, bringing some 3,000 ethnic publications nationwide into its orbit by hosting forums and briefings on critical issues, conducting training, and acting as a clearinghouse for shared news articles. At its peak in 2012, it had 90 employees; by the end, having lost several large grants, it was down to about 15, all of whom have found new positions, Close said.
“If I had been smarter on the financial management, maybe we could have avoided closing,” Close said as she sat in the organization’s offices on Ninth Street amid rows of empty desks and banker’s boxes ready to be packed.
Genius at Work
What Close was a genius at, say the people who worked with her over the decades, was cultivating intellectual ferment and creative tension by bringing together people from enormously disparate backgrounds to interact, report, and write — and then challenging them to think deeply and write more clearly. In fact, in 1995 she was awarded a five-year MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius” grant, and used the money to fund a documentary on a poet, Mark O’Brien, who had polio as a child and was confined to an iron lung. The documentary won an Academy Award in 1997. New America Media was a grantee of the California Health Care Foundation and has been working on a health journalism project to teach young writers how to cover depression among young adults.
Her success as an editor able to spot and mold journalistic talent can be seen in the sheer number of PNS alumni now working as journalists and writers, a group that includes A.C. Thompson, an investigative reporter at ProPublica, and John Markoff, a technology writer for the New York Times.
Close came to PNS a few years after her husband, UC Berkeley professor Franz Schurmann, founded the service in 1969 with Orville Schell, a journalist and China scholar. They aimed to produce deeper reporting on the war in Vietnam. By then, she’d already served as Hong Kong editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review and co-founded a newspaper in Oakland, The Flatlands, which focused on poverty, displacement, and police brutality.
In Asia, she grew bored with being a China analyst and preferred to write about criminal justice in Hong Kong and report uncovered stories from Laos and Vietnam.
“I was restless for an intimate relationship with the people I was reporting about,” she said. “I wanted to be engaged.” At The Flatlands, she embedded herself in Oakland and came to love the city, becoming a “total Oakland chauvinist.”
New Voices in the Mainstream
At PNS, she pursued “journalism from the inside out” by bringing people into the newsroom to report on their own communities and cultures. She also forged relationships with more than 100 mainstream newspapers that carried PNS stories, including the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register, and the Los Angeles Times. In the mid-1980s, she pulled in young people from around the Bay Area to start a Youth Voices page in the old San Francisco Examiner. Later Close helped spawn a standalone youth publication called YO! — Youth Outlook — and a youth-led community newspaper, the Richmond Pulse. At the time, the epidemic of crack cocaine and violence was shaking inner cities, and young black men were being labeled as predators by politicians and in media reports.
“I wanted kids who had that stigma to realize they could also have a voice,” Close said. Hip-hop was exploding, “and we hit into this huge surge of youth energy where kids discovered communication.” In those days, Charles Jones, who grew up in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood, was rapping and selling drugs, after his father threw him out and he became homeless at 17. One day in 1995, a friend of his, a fellow dealer, invited Jones to a Monday editorial meeting at PNS.
Jones went, sat in on the animated conversation, and then came to a few more. One day, as he rode the bus to a Monday PNS meeting, Jones rolled by a funeral gathering outside a church and spotted a friend. “Who passed?” he yelled out the window. It turned out that another friend, who Jones had known since he was 5, had been shot to death. “It touched and hurt me deeply,” he said.
He got off the bus, attended the funeral, and then came to the PNS office, visibly distraught. Close asked him what was wrong and then encouraged him to write about his feelings. The result was his first article, “Eulogy for a lost friend,” which was published in YO! virtually unedited and then distributed on the PNS newswire to publications across the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reacting to Success
The day the Chronicle published it, Jones was riding on a BART train and saw an older white man – “nice suit; smelled like money” – reading his article. He was excited, then angry when the man didn’t believe he had written it.
“I didn’t know what a journalist looked like,” he said, but he decided that he was one and he wasn’t going to conform or dress up. In other ways, though, he made huge changes, and Jones credits PNS and Close for inciting them. One was his attitude toward women.
“At that time, literally every person in a position of power at PNS was a woman,” he said. “It was hard for me to accept women having power but it opened me up. I gained respect for women, gay people, transgender people.”
He often sat next to another Sandy Close recruit – “a heroin addict who was nodding over the keyboard all day but produced brilliant work,” he said. “I learned that everyone’s story has validity and to stop judging people and just deal with them.”
If his first article sailed through unchanged, future stories went through a more typical editing process — painful but rewarding. “Sandy challenging me and asking me to rewrite — it changed me,” he said. “It bettered me as a person, not just a writer.”
Close did something else for him, too. She offered him a room in her own house in San Francisco, enabling him to get off the street. He lived with the Close-Schurmann family for three years before moving to Oakland with Close’s help.
Venturing Beyond Journalism
From its founding in 1996, New America Media (NAM) grew steadily, gathering ethnic media publications into a network that expanded the collective voice and influence of the individual outlets. It also ventured into new territory outside the traditional confines of journalism.
For example, New America editors had been hearing for years from student journalists that depression was common but unrecognized on community college campuses, especially among Latino students. So in 2015, NAM secured funding from the California Health Care Foundation and launched a project at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley.
Journalism students who had received special training surveyed 200 classmates and found that half had experienced depression. They produced a collection of stories, published as a booklet, that reported on students’ experiences with depression and promoted counseling services and mutual support efforts. The result, said Close, was “peer-to-peer messaging that breaks silence more effectively than one article that appears in the local newspaper.”
That project is now being replicated at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton under a new fiscal sponsor and will be evaluated by a team from Stanford Medical School. Other NAM initiatives are also being spun off. Youth Voices Beyond the Bay, a youth publication for the outer Bay Area suburbs, will be run out of a youth center in Brentwood.
Close has had an abiding interest in youth and in fostering interaction between people of different cultures. Andrew Lam left biochemistry behind for good after Close read an essay he’d written about his refugee experience and then published it. He went on to write many more, along with three books, and to join the staff, where he remained almost until the end as an editor helping manage the NAM website. Fariba Nawa had a similar experience with her first assignment. The Afghan refugee from Fremont went to San Francisco’s Mission district for a story on why kids join gangs.
Norteños and Sureños
“I hung out in Dolores Park and talked to Norteños and Sureños, trying to understand kids from El Salvador,” Nawa said. The piece was published in the inaugural issue of YO! and Nawa became one of its editors, as well as an editor at the Logan High School newspaper.
In early 1991, Nawa, still in high school, wrote an op-ed for PNS about anti-Muslim discrimination that erupted after the Gulf War. It was published in the San Jose Mercury News. “I was ecstatic,” she said – and hooked on the field of journalism.
Today, Nawa is a foreign correspondent based in Istanbul and has written for scores of publications. She has published one book and is at work on another. She credits Close for unflagging support and tough-minded editing.
“I’m disappointed that New America has died,” Nawa said by phone from Istanbul. “But it isn’t dead to me because the people — we are still here. The people Sandy supported and advised are still producing the kind of work she taught us to produce. I have this inner voice in my head: ‘Would Sandy like this? Would Sandy approve? Is it too wishy-washy?'”
Rob Waters is an award-winning health and science writer whose articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Mother Jones, STAT, San Francisco magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. He lives in Berkeley.