By Linh Nguyen
In 2006, David Greenwald fought a lonely battle against “everyday injustices” in Yolo County, publishing articles on policing and criminal justice issues on his budding publication the Davis Vanguard. In 2010, he began recruiting small groups of interns to help him expand coverage into two more counties to hold prosecutors and law enforcement accountable. In 2020, despite all impediments the COVID-19 pandemic presented him, he overcame those obstacles and continued to fight the good fight. Now having expanded coverage across the state with over 50 interns by his side, Greenwald’s beloved publication is the most successful it has ever been, and the success does not stop here.
Raised in San Luis Obispo, California, David Greenwald received his undergraduate education from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (known as Cal Poly SLO) and went on to attend and graduate from the University of California, Davis, where he earned a graduate degree in political science. In 2006, at the age of 34, without any formal training as a journalist, lawyer or businessperson, Greenwald decided to begin the Davis Vanguard publication based in Yolo County.
“Back in 2006, in response to issues around policing, I made the decision that social justice issues didn’t get fair coverage in Davis, and so at that point, I decided that it’s a good idea to start the Vanguard up,” Greenwald said. “At that time, I had no idea what it would become. I simply thought it was a way to get some of my thoughts out there and correct some of the misinformation around the issue.”
Over the past 15 years, the Vanguard grew exponentially, exceeding Greenwald’s expectations. In 2010, Greenwald began the first major expansion of the Vanguard, one that would set its course for the next decade: the court watch internship program. The internship initially welcomed UC Davis students interested in pursuing careers in law or journalism, sending them into the Yolo County Superior Courthouse to cover criminal hearings.
Subsequently, in 2012, Greenwald created an editorial board for the Vanguard and turned the organization into a non-profit. Since then, the Vanguard “ramped up” what they have done, including expanding coverage into the Sacramento and San Francisco Superior Courthouses.
Most unexpectedly, in the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vanguard had its largest expansion yet.
“The pandemic has served as a catalyst for being able to really, really expand what we’re doing,” Greenwald explained. “We had no idea when they shut down the world that actually it was playing into our strengths, the ability to be online, the ability to be very opportunistic, very flexible.”
The pandemic restrictions initially proved to be a challenge for the Vanguard. It forced Greenwald to change nearly everything about his publication. For example, prior to the pandemic, interns sat in courtrooms to cover trials and hearings. On a typical Monday evening in February 2020, Greenwald met with a group of 10 interns in his office on G Street in Davis. Those were no longer possible after March 2020.
“I was really worried,” Greenwald said. “All of a sudden, the rug was pulled out, less than sure what we were going to be able to cover during a pandemic. Is everything going to be shut down and are there going to be court proceedings? There were lots of questions as to what was going to happen. I was extraordinarily worried. And the exact opposite of what I feared is what happened.”
Because the publication could not stop abruptly, Greenwald learned to make the best of the circumstances to keep producing and publishing content, starting with Zoom and video conferences. He initially thought it was “almost absurd” to have a conversation over the computer. For him, it raised questions like, “Can you actually communicate with interns?” and “Can you give them instruction?”
After realizing the potential that online meetings bring, Greenwald used it to the Vanguard’s advantage and found ways to build the Vanguard around online meetings during the pandemic.
“All of a sudden, we’re not limited to the places we can drive to,” Greenwald explained. “We were able to reach out to a broader intern base. We have interns now in places like UCLA, Berkeley and the Bay Area. We have people that have logged on from Connecticut and New York to attend our meetings. We could never do that before. We have check-ins around the clock so that we can talk with interns and be able to help them craft their articles better. We could never do any of this before because we didn’t have the infrastructure, we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the personnel to be able to do it. And all of a sudden, we went from having most of the time eight to 10 interns to 40 to 70.”
Moreover, with the world transitioning to being mostly online, this provided an opportunity for the Vanguard to expand its content and coverage. “We launched the UC Davis project last September. We just launched one at UCLA and hopefully are launching the Berkeley one,” Greenwald shared. “We also have big projects that we’re working on. We’ve had the 1437 project for a while, we have the COVID Behind Bars project, we just launched the San Francisco project where we have some student writers who have recruited some interns to be able to beef up our coverage.”
Better yet for Greenwald, this model alleviated his fears of not having the funding to support his publication.
“We can implement that model anywhere we want,” he said. “It’s a low-cost model, and the best part is that we’re producing a pretty high-quality product. Whereas before we looked a little amateurish with some of the students, now some of the work we’ve produced is just outstanding work that I would consider submitting for awards.”
However, over the past 15 years, Greenwald’s journey with the Vanguard has not been all success. Like with any small business, hardships laced the Vanguard’s growth since its founding.
“There’s a lot of struggle. One is that this is a lot of work and sometimes it’s very stressful,” Greenwald said. “Davis is not a forgiving town. I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a bit of blowback, some deserved, some not deserved.
“Money’s always been an issue,” he added. “We’ve never had a tremendous amount of money. A publication like The Appeal started when they got a grant for $2 million. If I had $2 million, I could do a heck of a lot because we’ve worked so long on so little. We’ve never been able to get that kind of resource.
“Just trying to gain credibility,” Greenwald shared as the last of the struggles. “We’ve never been an organization that… I don’t know. You see people that all of a sudden do something big and it thrusts them from this person who was in the background to all of a sudden having two million followers. We never really did something like that. What we’ve done is slowly over 15 years ramp up what we’ve done, and so it’s kind of slow and steady.”
Greenwald faced the largest struggle with the Vanguard during the unprecedented times of the pandemic, when the courthouses halted operations amid ever-growing public fear of the implications of the virus, not to mention personal difficulties.
Rather than being deterred by the struggles and weaknesses, Greenwald worked to overcome these struggles to bring the Vanguard to where it is today.
“The way you approach those kinds of things can turn those things into a strength or a weakness,” he shared. “One of my strengths that I’ve brought to the table is that I approach this from a standpoint that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve always been open-minded and trying to figure out how to make it work.”
During the pandemic, Greenwald stated that it helped him think creatively on how to continue the Vanguard despite circumstantial difficulties. Furthermore, it helped him realize the Vanguard’s untapped potential of what it could have been all the years prior. He admitted that he “was always kind of limited by [his] imagination and by the lack of [their] resources.” Though, after fifteen years of trial and error and figuring out “how to make it work,” Greenwald and the Vanguard emerged more successful than he could have imagined. Furthermore, Greenwald learned valuable life lessons from 15 years of directing the Vanguard.
“We’ve built on our successes,” he said with pride. “One of the things I would say is that failure is a good thing and that everyone’s going to fail. Some things that you do aren’t going to work. If you’re afraid of things not working, then you’re never going to find things that do work. You need to embrace failure and accept failure so that you can learn from failure.”
Greenwald reflected on his own life and shared that he realized that some of the best things that ever happened to him have been when he did not succeed at something rather than when he succeeded.
As for his future plans with the ever-growing success of the Vanguard, Greenwald shared that he essentially has no plan. Rather, he shared his endgame goal.
“One of my philosophies is that you always have a big picture,” he said. “If you try to have a plan, it’s kind of problematic. We have this good idea, it’s the right idea, but we don’t have the way to make it work at first. One of the things I’d like to do is really expand what we’re doing now to more and more areas. That’s where I really see the Vanguard, is being able to expand to more areas, being able to cover more, being able to improve what we’re doing so that the resources will come in to be able to sustain this thing. It’s a matter of increasing audience, increasing our coverage and being able to get more resources as a result, then pump those resources back into the Vanguard.”
David Greenwald continues to publish to the Davis Vanguard daily, committing to his fight against “everyday injustices,” which is also the name of his podcast, Facebook group and newsletter. He often writes his own reports and shares articles written by his student interns, running on his mission that “this is about making an impact. This is about helping people.”
Linh Nguyen is a third-year Political Science student at UC Davis, also pursuing a minor in Professional Writing. She is an aspiring investigative journalist from San Jose, California, who also shares interests in literature and baking.