Shining a light on chicoSol

Chico-based Web magazine seeks to connect cultures

‘BORDER-CROSSING JOURNALISM’<br>Leslie Layton’s Web magazine, chicoSol, is designed as a vehicle for her students to practice magazine-style journalism as well as a way to make an impact locally and beyond.

Leslie Layton’s Web magazine, chicoSol, is designed as a vehicle for her students to practice magazine-style journalism as well as a way to make an impact locally and beyond.

Photo By Katie Booth

Bilingual click:One of the more remarkable features of is a language button that enables the viewer to switch instantly between the English and Spanish versions of the site. It was programmed by Henri Flores, Leslie Layton’s husband.

When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times contacted Leslie Layton, the founder and editor of a small, obscure, 1-year-old Chico-based Web magazine called chicoSol (, wanting to do a big story on the subject of an article she had published, Layton knew she had been right all along: She had started a small ripple that created a big wave.

The story that piqued the interest of the Times journalist was about Reny Cabral, a local man who, while in custody at the Glenn County Jail and in the midst of a psychotic breakdown, pounded his head against the wall so severely that he became paralyzed from the chest down.

The Times article, a lengthy feature story by Scott Gold and Lee Romney that appeared on Dec. 7, 2007, was part of an 11-article series on mental-health care in California. It focused on Cabral’s case as an example of how law enforcement agencies are ill-prepared to care for mentally ill people.

For Layton, seeing her story go big in that way was exactly what she was trying to accomplish with her Web magazine, which touts itself as “border-crossing journalism in the North Valley.”

The Chico News & Review’s June 19 cover story, “Scientific study, or sacrilege?” about local Native Americans’ objections to the ongoing excavation of Maidu sites in the Lake Oroville area, is another example of a chicoSol story that was picked up and packaged for a larger audience—this time, in essentially the same form it had appeared on the Web site, as edited by Layton.

The author, Jennifer MacDonald, spent hundreds of hours and worked for months to research and write the piece. “It was a thoughtful and fair story,” Layton said. “I’m really glad it moved beyond chicoSol. It deserved a good read and big audience.”

Layton, a long-time contributor to the CN&R (she wrote a version of the Cabral story, “Breakdown in Mental Health Care,” for this paper’s Dec. 13, 2007, issue), is a journalism instructor at Chico State University. ChicoSol dovetails nicely with that role by providing her students with a platform for their stories and giving them an incentive to work on longer, more complex and investigative series.

ChicoSol is journalism the way it should be, Layton said. It can devote time to investigating, reporting and researching feature stories in a way that daily newspapers in the area almost never attempt to do.

Its stories often focus on social injustice, mental-health issues, gang violence and poverty. It deals with issues that affect people who don’t have a voice, Layton said. Its goal is to bring focus to these issues, and maybe make some waves.

It also has a strong multicultural emphasis, offering most of its stories in both English and Spanish. Layton sees it as a crossover publication that serves two purposes: connecting the Spanish-speaking community with the larger Chico community, and connecting young writers and student journalists with the community and other journalists.

The current issue features, in addition to MacDonald’s story, a profile of Luis Rodriguez, a former L.A. gang member who has written 13 books and is an inspirational speaker urging communities to give kids the support they need; a report on a May 10 Latino march in Chico; an update on the Cabral case; a story about grocery shopping on a minimum-wage budget; and a feature on ethnic-food dining in Chico.

After getting her master’s degree in journalism at Stanford University and working for a Fairfield newspaper for a few years, Leslie Layton was ready for something new. In 1982, California was in a recession. The Paradise native wanted to learn a second language to help further her career. She moved to Mexico City, intending to stay just a year.

There she became a reporter for the Mexico City Daily News. She covered the Mexican equivalent of White House press conferences, the Mexican presidency, a major earthquake and oil production, reporting in Spanish and writing in English for the English-speaking population of Mexico City.

She also sold stories to such U.S. publications as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle.

“It is a challenge for anyone to walk into a culturally new environment and write about it,” Layton said. But being a part of a new culture “always opens people up. … You learn so much about yourself. I’m a way better journalist and a way better human being” for having lived in Mexico, she said.

After 10 years in Mexico, she left with a husband, Henri Flores; a new-found love for Latin culture; fluency in Spanish, and an idea for the future of journalism.

Layton always knew she wanted to return to the kind of community she found in Chico. “I didn’t feel that [foreign news] had the impact that community journalism had,” she explained. started out as a WordPress Web blog, a learning tool for Layton’s Chico State students. She quickly saw its potential as a training ground and a place for them to publish their work.

“An amazing amount of publishable work comes out of students,” she said.

In today’s world, there is an urgency to develop new journalism models, Layton said. Media news outlets are “shrinking.” Newspaper subscriptions are dropping.

ChicoSol publishes articles by high school and college students as well as veteran journalists like Layton herself.

“My students are doing way better work because I am giving them this opportunity to write for a publication.”

Over the years, Layton had noticed the growth of the Latino culture and the Spanish-language press. This awareness, as well as her experience being in a Latino family, led to the development of chicoSol into a Spanish-language outlet. Layton and her husband translate virtually all of its stories into Spanish.

“Regardless of how you feel about immigration, California is becoming a bicultural state, and journalists need to address that,” Layton said. “Things that affect Latinos affect all of us.”

ChicoSol does have its obstacles—funding, for instance. It is a volunteer operation, subscriber-based through free, monthly e-mails. The magazine is dependant on people who want to contribute.

“I need money,” Layton said, to pay journalists for their professional work.

ChicoSol is established as a nonprofit through the North Valley Community Foundation, where donations can be made. It is currently waiting to achieve nonprofit status with the IRS so it can apply and compete for grants.

The independent magazine got a boost recently when it became a member of New American Media, a “collaboration of ethnic outlets throughout the country.” These outlets exchange content and syndicate work for chicoSol. It has statewide and nationwide significance for the small publication.

Layton’s vision for the future of chicoSol includes a monthly web magazine, a news bureau and news distributor. She wants to see chicoSol become an “advocate for discussion on social issues.”

In the year it has been in existence, chicoSol has published articles in three newspapers, established close to 100 subscriptions and received international exposure. It has subscribers in Mexico, England and the Northwest.

The name chicoSol means “little sun"—a perfect description of Chico, Layton said: “small and formidable.”