Q&A: Sergio Cortes on the creation of ‘uSpark Valley’ and the Importance of Amplifying the Voices of Young People in Fresno

Fresno is California’s poorest major city and suffers from a massive income disparity separating Black and Latinx residents from more well-off White residents. A legacy of discrimination, segregation, and red-lining has left Black and Latinx residents in the city’s southern neighborhoods with poverty rates around 40% and life expectancies around 20 years shorter than white residents on Fresno’s north side. 

As a response to this, in 2019, the James Irvine Foundation awarded Internews a $175,000 18-month grant to implement a local media and information project in Fresno, CA. As a result, Sergio Cortes created uSpark Valley.

What is uSpark Valley?

uSpark Valley is an independent, community-led news organization that informs and mobilizes Millennial & Gen Z residents in Fresno, Central Valley. Using video clips and social media posts, we aim to give our readers the facts and context they need to take action—covering stories focusing on how young people can and do transform the places they care about.

What inspired you to start up uSpark Valley?

Several years ago, my partner and I formed No More Slumlords, a multimedia and social media campaign launched to raise awareness about the slum housing conditions in Fresno. We interviewed tenants and documented substandard rental housing conditions in our city. We produced videos and articles featuring the voices of tenants and community advocates. This resulted in increased media coverage, community organizing, and changes in policy in Fresno. 

So uSpark Valley was a direct product of No Slum Landlords, which is interesting. The LAist did a lengthy report on slum housing in L.A. Tell us more about No More Slumlords? 

No More Slumlords was instrumental in pushing for the Fresno City Council to pass a long-overdue routine interior inspection program for all rental units in the city of Fresno. This was when I realized how local media could affect change in local government. 

Many of our volunteers for No More Slumlords were Millennials or Gen Z, and I saw first-hand how passionate they were about getting civically engaged, but many didn’t know where to start. This revealed to me that, contrary to popular belief, young people want to get involved politically at a local level—and I wanted to make sure they have the information and resources available to do that. I then decided to rebrand No More Slumlords as uSpark Valley to provide coverage of local political, social, economic, and environmental issues to a demographic currently being ignored. 

Last year, a Statistica survey revealed that Gen Z news consumers most frequently get their news from social media, with a general presence for online news sources. Do you think mainstream news platforms should make more effort to create accessible digital content for young people? 

Yes! Whether we like it or not, digital content is the future of news. Making digital content more accessible to young people is the key to creating a well-informed public, and it also helps combat misinformation. 

Numerous studies, reports, and essays claim that local media is threatened. Why do you think this is? Lack of funding? People having more trust in mainstream media platforms etc.? 

I feel like local media has been misunderstood and taken for granted. People don’t realise how important it is for our community and how it works to hold local government accountable. That misunderstanding has made it easier for certain groups to attack local media and spread misinformation on different platforms. 

The Patreon platform has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Giving content creators and media platforms the opportunity to secure financial support from their audiences through a monthly subscription. With all the news about local media being under threat, do you think platforms like Patreon will be the go-to for local media platforms in the future? 

Patreon can be a useful tool for local media, and I have already seen it benefit independent journalists and podcasts. It makes it accessible for the public to give to individuals and groups they support. Again, it all comes down to accessibility.

As I’m sure you know, for a local media platform to be successful, the locals have to engage with it. What has the response been since you started up uSpark Valley? 

We continue to receive a lot of positive feedback. Our initial aim was to help increase voter registration and voter turnout in local elections in the Central Valley. Within the short time, the publication has been around; it has significantly impacted Fresno locals. 

The Listen and Seed report revealed that: 91% of respondents said they access news and information from uSpark at least once a week, and 79% of respondents trust uSpark more than other publications. 

We also hosted a focus group to find out more about the direct impact on the uSpark readers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. So yeah, the response has been great so far!

It sounds like uSpark Valley will be around for a long time! What are your plans for the future?

The future for uSpark Valley looks bright, and I hope to expand our team and provide more coverage of local issues—this is just the beginning for us!