Teaching Tool: Reporting via ChicoSol.org
Story by Brooks Thorlaksson, photo by Jason Halley
Leslie Layton, editor of the bilingual online news magazine ChicoSol, in her office last fall.
After many years as a journalist in Mexico, Leslie Layton began a second career teaching at Chico State in 1993 with the goal of bringing the world of professional writing and reporting to students.
She realized they would need an outlet for their work—writers write, to be sure, but they write to be read—and Layton saw a need for opportunities to publish. She began with large-scale class projects in collaboration with the Chico News & Review and the Chico Enterprise-Record, including a series of profiles of immigrant business-owners in Chico.
Layton knew print journalism would inevitably interact with the digital revolution.
“It was clear,” she said, “that online publishing would transform journalism, and it seemed logical to develop a teaching tool—a website—that would give student journalists another platform.”
With her computer-savvy husband, Henri Flores, as web developer, Layton began planning a bilingual online news magazine devoted to social and cultural issues. After several years, they launched ChicoSol.org. Its tagline: "Border-crossing journalism from the Sacramento Valley.”
ChicoSol was emblematic of a new kind of journalism—a nonprofit venture to reach non-traditional audiences, sources, and events to represent what is really happening in our communities, and to give a voice to stories not found in the shrinking print medium. Layton’s intent was to create a bridge between the campus and community, as well as become a niche platform for multimedia journalism.
“I recently heard from Jennifer MacDonald,” Layton continued. “She wrote an amazing piece on the Maidu that was published in ChicoSol and then picked up as a cover story in the Chico News & Review.”
MacDonald (BA, Journalism, '08), who went to law school and now works as a public defender in Orange County, said her background in investigative news reporting is put to work every day.
Layton’s students produced a wide variety of features, including a series on Chico Junior High Principal Pedro Caldera (BA, Spanish and Latin American Studies, ’96; MA, Education, ’06) North Valley Community Foundation CEO Alexa Benson-Valavanis (BA, Journalism, ’00), and bestselling author Jory John (attended) that first appeared on ChicoSol.org and then were published in the Chico News & Review in mid-2009.
Soon, ChicoSol began to attract an ever-expanding readership, including the New America Media (NAM), a national ethnic collaborative that runs a high-traffic wire service. NAM picked up a number of the online articles, including a 2010 commentary by journalism faculty member Dave Waddell about undocumented students who had lived most of their lives in our communities.
Meanwhile, Layton’s own writing, which centered on the bicultural issues of health, education, energy, and the environment, won several NAM reporting fellowships.
"What has been most meaningful for me was that ChicoSol created a bridge for faculty and students to publish in a bicultural venue. We featured students who published columns in both English and Spanish, faculty work on bilingual issues, and magazine articles by student writers,” said Layton, who is now semi-retired.
Changes in journalism are still playing out, but some critical elements remain the same, Layton said.
“The traditional skills—writing balanced news stories, assuming a watchdog role, working with an editor—are skills that ChicoSol can help develop,” she said.
Chico Enterprise-Record Editor and English alum David Little (BA,’85) agrees.
“Nonprofit models are catching on, in part because journalists recognize the importance of what they do and are trying every model to try to figure out what works,” he said.
Layton is committed to the changes. She has updated ChicoSol.org and plans to relaunch this month. It includes a platform for reader comments, user-friendly navigation and continued opportunities for writers—students, professionals, and community members—who are interested in feature writing and investigative reporting.
She has also continued her own reporting; in August 2015, she wrote a story for the Chico News & Review, which also published on ChicoSol, about Sergio Garcia, a local attorney and Chico State alum who came into this country undocumented as a child. He was on the wait list for a green card for 20 years when California finally passed legislation allowing him to practice law.
“I am committed to ChicoSol,” Layton said. “My hope is to build on the work we have done as a non-profit and cross-cultural community outlet, to tell more of the stories that are going untold.”
ChicoSol may be found online at ChicoSol.org and on Twitter at @ChicoSolNews.
Brooks Thorlaksson (MA, English, ’78) retired as associate dean of the CSU, Chico College of Humanities and Fine Arts in 2012.
Editor's Note: We originally reported that the Chico News & Review picked up Layton's story on Sergio Garcia, when in fact, the paper commissioned it. Our story has since been updated to correct the error.