South Los Angeles community news website offers lessons for all

A century ago, The New York Times routinely ran short items on its inside pages about church socials, fund-raising efforts by community groups, programs at public schools. These news nuggets defined the robust neighborhoods of Manhattan and the city’s four other boroughs. Though eventually lost as the daily emphasized foreign and national news, these news blurbs from neighborhood are in vogue again a century later, this time on hyperlocal news websites.

These intensely local news sites, now firmly established on the emerging journalism landscape, offer readers more than news about chicken dinners and church functions, of course. Many of them devote energy and money to produce meaningful journalism from and about under covered urban neighborhoods and isolated rural communities. These places are not the easiest communities to write about; distrust of the media runs high, especially in urban communities of color. But enhanced coverage of urban, working-class neighborhoods of color — long ignored by mainstream media — is one of the emerging trends of hyper local news sites, including the new USC Annenberg School for Communication news site, Intersections: The South Los Angeles Reporting Project, recent winners of a $25,000 grant from the J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism through its New Voices program, a community news initiative funded by the Knight Foundation:

Intersections: The South Los Angeles Reporting Project,, is a multimedia news site with multiple layers of community engagement, classroom instruction and different forms of news delivery. Willa Seidenberg, a colleague and director of the award-winning Annenberg Radio News, and I have collaborated for the last year on this project, building community and school ties, constructing infrastructure, rethinking our classes and offering new courses designed to give students a deeper understanding of urban America and its institutions. It’s all an effort to engage residents in telling their own stories and to train a new generation of journalists to see communities as a whole.

Or as Seidenberg puts it: “Urban communities like South Los Angeles are often neglected by the news media, or only covered in relation to the poverty, violence and problems that plague these neighborhoods. But beyond these facts of urban life is a vibrant community that contributes to making Los Angeles an exciting city in which to report and live. South Los Angeles may not have the money and clout that other LA neighborhoods have, but it has a wealth of characters, stories and lessons to be learned about the ways in which we have let our cities down. As the journalism industry moves from traditional forms of media to digital delivery systems, residents in low-income neighborhoods cannot be overlooked. The Intersections website and its experiments with mobile delivery of news offers a chance to pull together all sectors of this dynamic and changing community to create a meaningful dialogue and a source of valuable news and information.”

These “new voices,” as billed by the J-Lab, were always there, of course. Mainstream media either weren’t listening, or weren’t listening closely. But Intersections, among other hyperlocal websites, hopes to take readers to a place where South LA residents can consume all the news about their communities – good and bad — on a computer, on radio, or via cell phone. The news, too, will be framed and written by residents themselves, in addition to USC Annenberg journalism students, who also need to learn the lessons mainstream media have long forgotten: Local news that reflects all classes of urban and rural residents matters. Further, explanatory journalism about the nation’s urban condition, with intersections of race and class may, in fact, be more important now than ever.

Some see the emergence of the hyperlocal site as a mixed blessing. Jack Driscoll, a 40-year veteran of the Boston Globe, and a scholar at the MIT Media Lab, is the recent author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism Driscoll contributes to Rye Reflections, a citizen journalism site run mostly by retired residents of Rye, New Hampshire. He shared his views about community news sites with the official blog for the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication,

“It’s almost like the old-time discussion clubs where people want to have some sort of substantive activities,” Driscoll told the AEJMC blog. “I think this meets civic needs and intellectual needs and social needs.” The payoff for participants, he says, is the kind of intellectual stimulation that studies show lead to longevity and better health. “For the participants, there’s value. And for the community, because the participants are reporting on their communities, the communities benefit.”

But beneath the hype over hyperlocal, Driscoll sees a futility in overly relying on citizen journalism: “I do have this huge concern that a lot of people have misunderstood the value of good reporting. I’m afraid we’re going to lose a whole tier of quality professionalism in the media. The impact of that, I think, is going to be huge. What I’ve been involved in is hyperlocal. But who’s covering state government? Who’s covering the courts? Who’s covering science and medicine? The Globe just closed its science and medicine section, and when I heard that I nearly died. I was the one who started it.”

Exploring untold stories

We don’t propose to supplant any of the three weekly newspapers or the daily La Opinion now serving South Los Angeles. Nor do we pretend to be able to make up for the loss of manpower at the Los Angeles Times, whose ranks have been thinned by repeated buyouts and layoffs. We will offer a tangible news product to the community; residents themselves will have a great voice in determining our news coverage through their contributions and feedback.

Our website may differ from most on several fronts. Intersections supports three disparate but related concerns: filling a void in South LA news, better multicultural training for our journalism students and a high school mentoring project that addresses media literacy. To this we add a critical component: the deep study of urban communities through research conducted by Annenberg colleague, Dr. Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her doctoral students for the Metamorphosis: Transforming the Ties that Bind Project,

The Metamorphosis Project, one of the Annenberg School’s signature research projects, explores the multi-layered characteristics of immigrant and working-class neighborhoods in South LA and across the city; it deftly analyzes the socio-economic differences between first-generation and second-generation immigrants, and its research has been used by public officials and policy makers. Sandra’s research may be LA-centered, but its fundamental lesson for journalism students and journalists is universal: Understand the communities you cover.

Buoyed by Meta research, South LA’s untold stories have found a home on Intersections. USC second-year print graduate student Adriana Venegas-Chavez produced a well-crafted profile of a young woman recollecting herself after a life of drugs and gang affiliation. The story was accompanied by a stirring slide show of the young woman’s life, narrated by the young woman herself. Undergraduate Timothy Beck Werth explored the rising tide of homelessness in South Los Angeles, as downtown development has pushed men, women and children to an area of the city with the fewest resources for the most unfortunate of our citizens. And undergraduate Kaelyn Forde Eckenrode complimented Timothy’s story with a magazine-length article about how South LA storefront churches are shoring up the lives of residents in tangible and intangible ways; her report, like others found on Intersections, includes a slide show with both video and still photography in which residents and ministers talked about the adhesive provided by the area’s numerous churches.

Our citizen journalists include teachers, students, South LA residents, all writing about the rhythm of urban life in its various incarnations. They also include high school bloggers who also produce slide shows as part of Intersection’s high school mentoring program spearheaded by USC Annenberg second-year graduate journalism student Emily Henry. One 12th grade student group at Crenshaw High School, just south of the USC’s main campus, explored the impact of the plummeting economy by interviewing day laborers. Others reported on teenage pregnancy by visiting with Crenshaw’s teen mothers. Racial profiling was scrutinized by yet another Crenshaw group, with students interviewing security guards and people who believe they had been racially profiled by the police. The ninth grade class also produced radio commentaries documenting their aspirations, as well as answering the question (which they chose themselves) “why don’t youths take their education seriously?” In the months ahead, we hope to significantly expand contributions from seldom-heard South LA youth.

The last piece of our South Los Angeles initiative is significant. Addressing the digital divide. we forged ties with yet another USC Annenberg colleague whose cell phone delivery of stories and blogs by immigrants embodies the spirit of “citizen journalist.” Mobile Voices,, recent winners of a $135,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, features rich observations from a perspective seldom explored by mainstream media. The day after Barack Obama’s election, for example, one Mobile Voices blogger used her cell phone as she rode the bus to her work as a cleaning lady in West LA to interview fellow passengers about Obama’s election. Another Mobile Voices correspondent submitted a photo and audio, alerting readers to a reasonably priced clothing store in South LA. The vozmob site has created space for Intersections,, allowing undergraduate and graduate students in the South Los Angeles urban affairs reporting class I teach to experiment with delivering their stories by cell phone; in time, we hope to pair reports by vozmob community reporters with stories produced by USC students. The collaboration with vozmob also will serve as a pilot for the citizen journalists we hope to recruit for Intersections.

Training cultural-savvy journalists

The power of technology greatly enhances news coverage, but Intersections has always been about fundamentals. From the beginning, the community website was designed to offer a community more and better coverage, while also producing young journalists who bring deeper understanding and more sophistication about coverage of urban America. The second goal meant the study of history, reading academic papers about wealth building in urban communities, becoming familiar with the conclusions of the Kerner Commission, studying the disparities in public education and why they exist, examining the health care divide, among other issues. We are, in short, educating community residents about disparities even as they educate us.

“South L.A. is by far the most interesting part of Los Angeles,” Henry told fellow graduate student Amanda Rossie for a project Rossie produced about South Los Angeles.

“It takes a really good journalist, and a very specific type of person, to report South LA. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think many mainstream journalists want to deal with the hassle of coming out of their comfort zone. Instead, they let people stew in the stereotypes perpetuated by minimal and negative reportage. I’m just about as different as can be from most of the people I spend time with in South L.A., but the similarities between us all far outweigh those superficial differences. Fundamentally, we’re all struggling against the same things.”

About William Celis

I am an associate professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. I teach media history, education reporting and urban affairs courses. My work has appeared in a number of general-interest and academic venues, including the Boston Globe, Columbia's Teachers College Record, Education Week and USA Today. I am a former education correspondent for The New York Times and a former reporter and columnist for The Wall Street Journal.