Menus Subscribe Search
alhambra

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

July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


July 17 • 4:00 PM

A Way for Feminism to Overcome Its ‘Class Problem’

A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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