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.
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.
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.