Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


alhambra

(ILLUSTRATION: GENTLEMAN DRAUGHTSMAN)

The Melting-Pot Gazette

• May 13, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: GENTLEMAN DRAUGHTSMAN)

Can a sociologist and a journalist get an ethnically fractured city engaged?

Seventeen people squeeze around a dark wood table in a low, redbrick office building on the outskirts of Los Angeles, picking at a potluck dinner of fried chicken, pad thai, and Cherry Coke.

The group is as oddly matched as the menu. There’s Eric Sunada, an engineer who also runs a small environmental non-profit. Kerrie Gutierrez, an instructional aide and mother of five. Joe Soong, an analyst for the Los Angeles Police Department. But they do have one thing in common: They are all newly minted journalists, contributors to a novel kind of local news outlet in the ethnically fractured, news-starved city of Alhambra, California.

The focus of this month’s meeting of contributors to the Alhambra Source website is to brainstorm ideas for their next getting-to-know-you meeting with the community. Someone suggests a journalistic version of speed dating, in which reporters conduct lightning-round interviews with regular Alhambrans. Paul Chan, a young entrepreneur, suggests an eating-with-chopsticks contest during the city’s Chinese New Year festivities.

This fixation on community interaction is part of the site’s DNA. As city newspapers inexorably decline, a smattering of new “hyperlocal” news outlets have sprung up, from Aol’s Patch network to bootstrap start-ups. But the Source has an unusual ingredient: more than a decade of research by University of Southern California communications expert Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her team.

USC communications professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach: "You must help people imagine an area as their community" (PHOTO: JOEL SMITH)

USC communications professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach. (PHOTO: JOEL SMITH)

Ball-Rokeach studies what she calls “communication ecologies”—the web of ways in which different communities get and spread information, from Facebook to the grocery-store bulletin board, from the local tabloid to chatting with neighbors. She’s found that these networks can differ dramatically from community to community, ethnic group to ethnic group.

One of her recent surveys, for instance, showed that most Armenians in the city of Glendale get their news from mainstream TV. Anglos, meanwhile, mostly get theirs from newspapers and interpersonal connections. Within the Latino community, Ball-Rokeach has found that Angelenos of Mexican origin rely more on ethnic radio and less on interpersonal connections than those of Central American origin.

Understanding those differences is crucial for anyone, be they advertisers or political parties, trying to reach specific communities. Ball-Rokeach believes it’s also important for civic engagement. Strong cities with plugged-in citizens tend to have dense “neighborhood storytelling networks”—crisscrossing lines of media outlets, community groups, and other institutions that hold a running conversation about what it means to live there.

“There’s the critical link between democracy and media,” she says. “You must help people imagine an area as their community, to create a sense of belonging, and that’s done through media.”

If anywhere can use such a connective network, it’s Alhambra, a tidy bedroom community of roughly 83,000 just east of Los Angeles. In a 2001 study conducted by Ball-Rokeach’s team, Alhambra showed low levels of voter turnout and civic engagement. The city’s 2010 city council and school board elections were canceled because not one of the five incumbents on the ballot faced a challenger.

While Alhambra used to be largely white, the demographics have changed in the last 30 years. Today, the population is a little more than half Asian (mostly ethnic Chinese), about a third Latino (mostly Mexican), and 10 percent Anglo. These groups, research showed, didn’t talk much to each other.

Nor did they have a common source of news. The Los Angeles Times rarely reports on the city, and the nearby Pasadena Star-News cut back its Alhambra coverage. That leaves only the occasional article in local Chinese-language newspapers and Around Alhambra, a cheery English-language monthly published by the Chamber of Commerce.

In 2006, Ball-Rokeach was approached by Michael Parks, a former editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times and now her colleague at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Parks was interested in how the deterioration of local coverage by big newspapers might be dragging down civic engagement. The two joined forces to test her communication framework and his hopes for grassroots online journalism with a community news outlet.

“Journalism tends to ride in and say, ‘We’re here to help,’” says Parks. “We wanted to know what were local people’s information needs and how could we meet them.”

Instead of simply sketching out the usual beats—city council, business, sports—they sent out a team of USC researchers who interviewed and held focus groups with residents in all three local languages. Their exploration showed that residents wanted to know more about education, local businesses, dining and entertainment deals, crime, and traffic and parking. “Many of them just said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening in Alhambra,’” says Ball-Rokeach.

Alhambra Source editorial fellow Nasrin Aboulhosn edits the story of reporter corps member Alfred Dicioco (PHOTO: JOEL SMITH)

Alhambra Source editorial fellow Nasrin Aboulhosn edits the story of reporter corps member Alfred Dicioco. (PHOTO: JOEL SMITH)

Because their mission was to engage the community (and to save money), the Source would be written largely by a team of amateur, minimally paid community contributors. In 2009, they brought in Daniela Gerson, a multilingual journalist who has reported for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Der Spiegel, to help run the site. Gerson believes they’ve begun to make a difference. Although readership has plateaued at about 9,000 per month, their regular readers include at least some city officials.

The site’s commitment to using community contributors rather than professional reporters has produced some journalistically unorthodox but popular stories: first-person accounts of being a second-generation immigrant, for instance, and a piece by the Alhambra High student body president, who explored the question of why he was the only Latino in a leadership position in a school that was half Latino. More conventional coverage of bicycle activism and a youth college prep program that was facing cancellation have also drawn a lot of eyeballs and online comments.

“It doesn’t necessarily always lead to action,” says Gerson, “but it leads to discussion where there wasn’t discussion before.”

Still, while relying mainly on unpaid community contributors may strengthen the local communication ecology, it’s a constant struggle to get them to produce professional-grade journalism. And the original idea to provide stories in all three local languages never went further than a handful of pages, due to a misplaced faith in the efficacy of Google Translate.

The Source is funded by the Annenberg Center and various grants, but that funding will eventually run out. Ball-Rokeach and company have begun looking for other ways to survive. That will be tough; recent years have seen many local news operations fail, including NBC’s EveryBlock, which went dark early this year.

Still, even if the Alhambra Source goes the same way, there’s an intriguing idea in this relationship between newspaper and university. What could embattled major dailies from The Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times learn about their readers by teaming with sociology grad students? Tailoring a news outlet to reflect its community might not always produce the most in-depth journalism—but it might at least help the news business survive.

Joel Smith
Joel Smith is a web producer at Pacific Standard. His previous work includes seven years as a staff writer and media editor at the Pacific Northwest Inlander, the alternative weekly in Spokane, Washington.

More From Joel Smith

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.