Start with the public schools to build a successful local online news start-up

A short while ago I had the pleasure of meeting with some local journalism graduate students, who are working to create an online news site covering the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra.

You’ll find Alhambra a few miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Despite its proximity to the center of LA, the community is lost in the local media landscape. The Los Angeles Times ventures there only for feature and major crime stories. The Pasadena newspaper covers a few of its high school sports teams. Council? School board? Church activities? Lots of luck finding frequent stories about those. So there is an opening here for an entrepreneurial group of journalists, or journalism students, to provide regular coverage for a community that could use it.

Like many communities around Los Angeles, Alhambra is diverse, and that diversity sometimes impedes public discussion. The community includes a large percentage of people who’s primary language is Spanish or Mandarin, in addition to those who primarily speak English. This group includes students proficient in each language, giving them the opportunity to create a publication that is not limited to serving only part of the Alhambra community.

But where to begin? That’s the question I addressed when I spoke with the group. And it is a question that many journalists now face, as they consider a change for traditional print newsrooms to “hyperlocal” and community online news start-ups.

The importance of community

Newspapers used to make their money by taking advantage of their position as the best medium to deliver large amounts of information to a community on a daily basis. When the Internet took away that competitive advantage, newspapers had to rely upon the loyalty of the readership communities that they had built over the years, readers who would not abandon the paper in favor of new competitors.

Well, we see now how well *that* worked out.

Journalism ought to be an act of community building. News publications ensure their success by building strong, loyal communities of readers who will stick up for the publication as the publication sticks up for them. That’s why you need to live in the community you cover and have as deep an emotional attachment to it, and a will for it to survive, as do your readers. Having that emotional attachment does *not* mean you must turn off your brain and neuter your ability to criticize. I believe a passionate, engaged critic speaks with the most authoritative voice.

Start with the schools

No local institution involves more people, more intimately, more frequently and for more hours on a daily basis than the public schools. Parents don’t send their kids to hang out for six hours a day at the local planning commission. So the public school district is the logical beat to start with when building your coverage of a geographic community. Contain your coverage to a single school district, and don’t just show up for the board meetings. Be there for the games, the academic decathlon, the Odyssey of the Mind competitions and the open houses. Go to the PTA meetings, not to cover them, but to meet people and get story ideas.

Fill your webpages with photos and videos of school kids, learning, acting, competing and playing. That’ll bring to your site their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, helping you to build quickly a strong, loyal readership.

Within the context of covering the schools, and the many conflicts and potential resolutions you will encounter along the way, you will find a platform from which you can address many important issues confronting the community, including health care, nutrition, the arts, employment law, governance and taxes. But start with the schools and tell their stories well.

Cross language barriers

The United States grows more ethnically diverse each year. The ability to converse in the many languages of the community provides the Alhambra group with one strong potential advantage as a news start-up.

However, multi-lingual publications squander that advantage when their reporters cover only the events and issue within the community in whose language they write.

The schools affect families that speak Spanish, Mandarin and English. Members of all those communities should be presented with all those stories from their school community. So don’t limit the Mandarin reporter to covering “the Chinese community.” Let him or her write (or translate) all the organization’s news stories for the Mandarin-speaking readers.

Don’t stop with the stories. Ideally, you should be soliciting reader comments on all stories, engaging the community in conversation with itself. Assuming that you get comments in the same language as the article, a Spanish-speaking staffer, for example, should translate the comments in Spanish for a Mandarin-speaking staffer, who would then summarize those comments, in Mandarin, for those readers.

And vice versa. This way, the news organization becomes the go-between, enabling a cross-cultural conversation throughout the local community, one that otherwise would not have been possible and likely would not have happened. I suspect that some readers will be surprised to learn that folks from the “other” communities within their community share many of the same concerns and ideals.

Even if you see your community as strictly English-speaking, keep your ears open. With the country’s growing diversity, you shouldn’t be surprised to start hearing voices in other languages emerging within your town. Prepare now to provide this cross-cultural forum, before your community splinters along ethnic lines.

Look for local financial support

Of course, your site will need money to stay alive. A group of journalism students can operate with the support of the university. Maybe some local start-ups will find grants. But most will need to earn money the traditional way, with ads.

Here’s where those community connections you have built will, literally, pay off. Note who’s bought the banners lining the outfield walls at local Little League games. Check the advertisers in the back of the school yearbook or in school theater programs. Remember which parents you met at the PTA own local businesses. These are your potential advertisers, people who are engaged in their community and willing to support those who cultivate and sustain that community. Like you.

Those were the thoughts that I shared with the Alhambra group. But they apply to anyone considering a local news start-up. I hope those OJR readers considering that path will keep them in mind.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    While it seems obvious to connect local news startups to schools, I speak from acute personal experience in telling you it simply doesn’t work in practice. Concerns about privacy, lack of staff time and general suspicion of the media conspire to make schools pretty hostile to hyperlocal efforts. We tried it in several towns, and hit stone walls at every turn. It’s not as obvious and simple as it sounds.

  2. Again, if you are seen as an outsider, you are sunk. If you are a former student in the schools, or a parent of a current student, you have an established connection with the district that you can build upon as a journalist.

    Otherwise, the task becomes much tougher. But, again, if you can’t build connections within the largest, most active, most relevant public institution within a community, your chances of become a relevant chronicle of that community are close to zilch.

  3. Perry Gaskill says:

    I’ve been in the trenches with this, and although I appreciate the points made by the previous poster, I don’t offhand remember running into any particular stone walls due to unfairness or hostility. It seems to me that one of the things which has always hampered the school beat is that it has never been known as exactly a fast track for a reporter shooting for page one. And that’s something of a shame because in smaller unincorporated communities the local school board is often the closet thing the community has to a tangible local government body. For a writer, it’s a chance to watch democracy at a very low level. Here are some tips I found useful:

    1) Know the local laws governing open meetings. You can push for what school officials are supposed to tell you, but certain areas such as personnel are off-limits because of liability. For example, an unpopular and incompetent sixth-grade teacher, who also happens to be the town drunk, may be fired by a school board, but you’re likely not going to get the reason for the termination. You owe it to readers to ask the “why” question but need to ask it in such a way that it doesn’t annoy the source. And don’t sandbag the source in the story because of a non answer.

    2) A lot of school stories tend to be money stories such as “Do we buy the football team new uniforms this year or should the class play get costumes?” Point being that there are often no good guys and bad guys but only difficult decisions. Try to understand the story-behind-the-story in that a decision to support the football team may have little to do with whether there are more football fans than Shakespeare fans on the school board. It may in fact be because a football scholarship is a more likely prospect for a larger group of athletes than drama scholarships are for a smaller group of actors.

    3) Don’t depend on students for quotes. They’re not adults, and there’s a whole different rule set which applies. One frustration is that although you may want to attract younger readers, it’s sometimes difficult to use them as sources because of their lack of ability to separate fact from rumor and innuendo.

    4) Another kind of story that’s difficult to do is the one where a state releases it’s comparative testing scores and your local school district falls somewhere down at the bottom. It’s also a story you can’t not do. The bad news is that you’re likely to take a hit because readers want to shoot the messenger. The good news is that such a story opens up a range of story ideas which can act as preceeds for the next time test results come around. And if you do your job right it engages the community which takes more of an interest in schools which can help them get better.

    Loftier minds than mine may consider this a form of advocacy journalism, but it seems to me already tightly woven into the fabric of what we do. Balanced reporting would be in defense of what? Ignorance?

  4. “Newspapers used to make their money by taking advantage of their position as the best medium to deliver large amounts of information to a community on a daily basis. When the Internet took away that competitive advantage, newspapers had to rely upon the loyalty of the readership communities that they had built over the years, readers who would not abandon the paper in favor of new competitors.”

    That’s not the only thing that makes a difference. Some of the most successful newspapers are the small town ones who still print the local “human interest” type stories. Those are really the only print newspapers that will succeed. All the others are dying out.

    Landover Baptist Church

  5. I agree with much of what you said with one exception.

    Firstly, in agreement, people need to live in, or near, the communities they cover in the new world of hyper-local online journalism. This is one of the many reasons most of these new local online hybrids, including some run by newspapers seeking to upgrade technologically, are dead on arrival.

    Just one of many reasons I’m amazed at the rush of these new online attempts into what I believe to be costly failures. Other reasons include lack of understanding of how people get their news, lack of ability to connect technologically with audiences, lack of content connection with audiences, and overall inability to understand the nuances involved with continuing journalism in the beyond-Internet age.

    A second point in agreement, local sponsorship is key. In studying online journalism, I have concluded the only groups making money are not actually generating revenue through ads or subscriptions. They exist, and succeed, solely through the power of donations. Either a few heavy hitters or the likes of Knight Digital Media Center fund these sites. Knight even has given sites money with which to raise money, not me, but others. Advertising revenue is miniscule.

    Unless this model changes, a lot of these larger sites claiming hyper-localism through partnerships and user-generated content are doomed. In any event, the best way to generate sponsorships is to be accessible locally and relevant to the community, as you noted.

    Where I disagree strongly, your assertion school news would drive community involvement. NO!

    My career began by covering the governor of Texas; I covered giant, breaking stories, presidents (well, one) high officials and major events. Somehow, my career got downsized and for 20 years I worked in community news operations, including ones for major dailies, and edited several.

    I hate school news and believe emphasis on this is one of the major conceptual failings of many community news types.

    Let’s look at school news. Right away, at least half in your community has no connection with local schools. Look at school bond votes and demographics, and that 50 percent is lowballing, I suspect more like 70 percent. These groups have almost zero interest in school news, except in passing, or as components of the greater news presentation. So, you’re out half your potential audience, step one.

    Then you get to who has some interest. Parents of kids in a specific school, maybe a few friends and relatives. Parents at one school, however, will have zero, or little, interest in another school. Parents even within a school may have zero, or little interest in any children except theirs. And their own children certainly won’t be featured but a few times, if that, in a year.

    As for covering schools per se.: School news has two faces. Presumably, your comments on school news meant the good news. That’s all those cheery features, cute photos, success stories, sports. What happens when you get to the harder news such as school shortcomings, budget battles, layoffs. All of a sudden, you’re in the middle of a big debate with consequences for access and so-called school community involvement.

    Anyway, except for needing to upgrade our delivery platform — as purists, rather than blowhards, we have not yet generated grant or private money — we are at http://www.92067FREEPRESS.COM with our community online newsmagazine site 92067 Rancho Santa Fe Free Press