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.