Growing pains, part 2: Can grassroots journalism help underserved communities?

Part one – Life after death: newspapers and the re-invention of paper technology

While the newspaper industry struggles to find new definition in an Internet age, the population most at risk of being left behind is low-income communities. Local newspapers are suffering significant losses in the industry, and yet the medium is still heavily relied upon as a source of information for poorer areas where Internet access is minimal. Many of these communities are already under-served by the media, and as their newspapers disappear, the void is likely to widen. Eventually, these communities may benefit greatly from the communication tools the Internet and mobile news delivery will provide. But during this period of turbulence the digital divide could impede progress. In affected areas, the wealthy will be gaining a medium while the poor are losing one. Meanwhile, in areas with more universalized Internet access, impoverished communities will be given access to news on a scale never before extended by traditional media.

Community Journalism and Hyper-Local Markets

Communities in South Los Angeles have long been starved of media attention. Since the collapse of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1989, the newspaper industry in Los Angeles has been dominated by a single, powerful newspaper. The Los Angeles Times overshadows local newspapers such as the Los Angeles Wave and the Los Angeles Daily News, creating a monopoly on news coverage that favors broader stories over community-sensitive pieces. Stories from South Los Angeles are rare, and the Los Angeles Times has been criticized for limiting its coverage of the area to tragic or violent breaking news stories.

“The LA Times covers breaking news that they deem worth covering,” said Don Wanlass, news editor for the Los Angeles Wave, one of three newspapers based in South Los Angeles that makes an effort to cover news significant to residents in cities like Compton, Watts and Inglewood. “There’s a lot of sentiment out there that the Times only reports bad news, like political corruption scandals and shootings. They don’t go into the small communities and get some of the stories that are there to be had.”

In the mid-1990s, the Times established suburban sections, including the City Times section, as a response to the Los Angeles riots in 1992. It was partially due to the consistent lack of South L.A. coverage by the mainstream mass media that the riots were provoked, according to Henry Watson, a South L.A. resident and one of the “LA Four” responsible for beating a white truck driver almost to death on April 29, 1992. “April 29th allowed the world to come into South Central for the first time and take a look around and see,” said Watson.

The Los Angeles Times responded by attempting to bridge the information divide between L.A.’s diverse communities and extend conversation across cultural barriers. Since then, not only has the Times folded its suburban city sections, but it has also shut down its California section, folding its remaining local news into the “A” section of the paper. Watson says that lessened local coverage in the mainstream media inevitably breeds more tension in South Los Angeles. “The media only want to show the negative,” said Watson. “But they need to come here and see the positive.” It would not be inconceivable, he warned, for a repetition of the 1992 riots to emerge if South L.A. continues to be consistently ignored. Another resident, Tony Falley, says that the lack of balanced media attention has left the area to physically stagnate. “Our environment needs to be built up,” said Falley. “As far as Florence and Normandie, where the riots happened, we don’t have anything but the same stuff: a gas station and a liquor store.”

In some South L.A. cities, the Los Angeles Wave and other small community newspapers have attempted to fill the coverage gap, but declining circulation is threatening to destroy these smaller institutions faster than their national counterparts. “We try to cover the community the best way we can with the man power we have,” said Wanlass. “We have 21 cities and two reporters.”

Ironically, it is not for lack of reader interest that smaller newspapers are struggling. Although every traditional, offline news medium is suffering losses, a recent study of media consumption shows that local newspapers are more valuable to the public than national newspapers. Sixty-three percent of the public are still consuming local newspapers compared to 18 percent reading national dailies, according to the global public relations firm Ketchum. This makes local newspapers the second most valuable of the traditional journalistic mediums behind major network television, while national newspapers lag behind in 8th place. Local newspaper readership also reaches a wider age breadth, with 34 percent of people under the age of 24 reading community newspapers compared to 11 percent of the youth population reading national dailies. The disparity is dramatic in every age range, but perhaps the most extreme statistics are for the age range with the highest consumptive rate of national newspapers. A total of 26 percent of men and women between the age of 55 and 64 are dedicated to national newspapers, while 81 percent are reading local dailies.

In possession of a seemingly dependent readership, community newspapers have lost circulation at a slower pace than has, for example, the Los Angeles Times. The Daily Breeze, which serves South Bay Los Angeles, saw a 4 percent drop from September 2007 to September 2008, while the Los Angeles Times suffered a 5 percent cut in circulation. Another community newspaper, the Glendale News Press, saw a 3 percent decline, and the rural Antelope Valley Press, maintained its readership without loss.

But one of the major concerns for newspapers serving poorer communities, like the Los Angeles Wave, is the slow pace at which they are migrating into the virtual realm. Their online resources are minimal when compared to newspaper companies that serve more affluent parts of Los Angeles, and their readership still relies heavily on the print version of the newspaper. In South Los Angeles, in the urban, low-income areas that newspapers like the Los Angeles Wave serve, more than half of the residents do not have access to the Internet.

And yet, the Internet is the perfect medium for under-served communities craving attention. Already, local groups are finding ways to fill the historical media gap in their cities from the ground upward. “There are all kinds of blogs springing up in small cities,” said Wanless. “It’s becoming more and more a trend and way for people to keep up with what their city government is doing.” Blogs such as Lynwood Watch, which aggregates news from the city of Lynwood, have encouraged a new level of dialogue to emerge between residents. “It steers people to news they might not normally know is out there and encourages commentary,” Wanlass explained.

As a communication tool, the Internet has the potential to unite and integrate isolated communities with wider society and bypass some of the barriers traditional news organizations encounter, such as language. In Los Angeles, diverse cultures are alienated from the traditional media. “There’s a language barrier,” said Wanlass. “There are a lot of recent immigrants from Mexico and South America.” Not only are many of these immigrant communities cut off from media streams but, according to Wanlass, their isolation makes them more vulnerable to inaccurate or unreliable information. “They don’t speak English and they fear government intrusion,” said Wanlass. “They’re also willing to believe anything anybody tells them, and sometimes the rumors on the street aren’t always accurate.”

Being able to interact easily with one another in their own language could benefit these under-served communities greatly. In Lynwood, for example, the main form of communication is ground mail, and with so few reporters covering the area, lobbyists and politicians have seized the opportunity to exploit the lack of public awareness. In 2006, when the city government was contemplating a deal with a redevelopment agency to uproot thousands of families and build a football stadium, real estate agencies began mailing the community offering potential buy-out deals. According to one resident, some families sold their homes for fear of being evicted when the redevelopment agency took over. However, the deal with the agency was never completed. Instead, government officials were indicted for misappropriating public funds and the incomplete contract for development was overruled. Yet, a year after the indictment proceedings, Lynwood residents were still living in fear. The informational void had not only left the community “out of the loop,” but was seriously threatening their way of life. Families were contemplating selling their homes, and some already had, for lack of up-to-date news. Up to a year after the contract had been overthrown and the threat of a football stadium abolished, real estate agencies continued to play on public ignorance and scare them into quick sales.

The same thing happened during local government elections in 2007. Accurate information about the candidates was virtually non-existent, and instead, political action committees inundated the community with mudslinging campaign fliers. One candidate was accused of being a drug dealer. Another was accused of tax evasion and harboring illegal immigrants. Whether the accusations had basis in truth, it didn’t matter. Without a viable “watchdog” presence in the city, the uninhibited PACs could publish anything they wanted. Coupled with a lack of information from any other sources, these materials became the sole influencers in the campaign for much of the community. Unshakable rumors became ingrained in the public mindset, and still form much of the basis for opinion today.

Eventually, blogs may become a platform for under-served communities to create much-needed public dialogue, but until then, local newspapers remain the most important source of information for lower-income communities. Almost 50 percent of people with incomes lower than $25,000 rely on local newspapers as their main source of news, according to research by the Norman Lear Center at USC. Right now, Lynwood Watch is simply a news aggregation site, using newspapers like the Wave to provide content for users to comment on. Although it has been successful in encouraging more interaction between residents and local news topics, the site does not produce original content and much of the commentary is driven by rumors and bickering. The site is also controlled by a completely anonymous source. “The problem is that nobody knows who’s behind it,” said Wanlass. “You don’t know where they’re coming from or what their biases are.”

Grassroots Journalism

According to the blog search engine Technorati, a new blog is created every two seconds, bringing the running total in 2009 to more than 200 million individual blogs. One million blog posts are published across the world every day, and as the world of online publishing continues to flourish in accessibility and mass, a new species of journalist has emerged with it. The “citizen journalist,” belongs to no formal media outlet, has usually had little or no journalism training, but reports on the world he knows and self publishes his findings. Many mainstream media outlets have embraced this new journalistic democracy as a means of increasing the breadth of information. By syndicating reporting done by the general public, traditional media have access to a seemingly infinite store of content. Breaking news can be more fully reported immediately, thanks to photographs, video and information provided by “citizen journalists.”

“I think it’s marvellous,” said Geneva Overholser, director the journalism school at the University of Southern California. “The free press is a medium of democracy and involving people is terribly important. I like to believe in a collaborative, participatory process that will enrich the news report wherever you find it.”

Opinions vary as to the rights and qualifications of Citizen Journalists. Some, like Overholser, believe that the term “journalism” automatically assumes a certain set of ethics and practices. “What’s the point of calling someone a journalist unless they’re attempting to be reliable in their gathering of facts, attempting to present a picture as close to the truth as they can, and attempting to be transparent about their newsgathering, as well as making themselves accountable?” asked Overholser. But others say that any form of journalism, whether adhering to the formalized standards of most professional journalism or not, is better than nothing at all. “It’s just good that people are willing to participate in journalism and are interested in finding information,” said Marc Cooper, associate director of USC’s Institute for Justice and Journalism and former editor of The Huffington Post. “The more voices there are, the less oppression there will be.”

Catch-all websites, targeted at a more generalized audience in a way that emulates traditional mass media, will not replace disappearing newspapers. Instead, the future of community journalism lies with the citizens themselves. The “mass” in mass media is quickly vanishing and being replaced with niche markets and hyper-local news services. Newspapers hoping to migrate online will need to become hybrids of their former selves, involving the community they serve by opening up the news process with citizen journalists and becoming forums for public discourse. “Modern newsrooms have to engage in a never-ending conversation with their community, says Robert Legrand, contributor to the PBS and Knight Foundation-sponsored ideas lab, Media Shift. Community news coverage is fast becoming a two-way street, an intersection between those who tell the stories and those who live them.

About Emily Henry

Emily Henry hails from the rural "green belt" skirting London, and is a roving editor for in the San Francisco East Bay. She has a journalism master's degree from USC, and specializes in hyper-local news, social justice journalism and creative non-fiction.


  1. Emily,
    I appreciate your comments but wonder what drives you to the conclusion that “local newspapers are suffering significant losses,” and whether that’s outside the general revenue problems experienced across all areas of the economy.

    I’ve heard many other local newspapers editors indicate that readership remains strong at the local level, even as our metro market cousins see significant declines. Certainly revenues are a problem, but it’s a problem everyone is experiencing (not just newspapers). Indeed, our revenue problems are nothing compared to Twitter or YouTube, which lose millions of dollars every year.

    Also, rural areas of the country are among those places in which poverty is a growing concern. Internet access, particularly the high-speed Internet access needed to really utilize the tools available on the web, is a far cry from what can be found in urban hubs.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Steve.

    I did not mean to imply that local newspapers are suffering harder losses than national newspapers. In fact, the opposite is true (see the paragraph: “In possession of a seemingly dependent readership, community newspapers have lost circulation at a slower pace than has, for example, the Los Angeles Times…”) My point is that despite a slight advantage over mass-market newspapers, local news entities are, indeed, suffering with the rest of the industry. However, they are also threatened by their inability to compete online. They must rely almost solely on the print edition because their websites are so under-utilized, and they just don’t have the resources to focus on another medium. Local newspapers, therefore, are trapped in a limbo that could mean sudden demise.

    And yes, I agree that internet access in rural areas is inevitably worse than in the city, which is why rural newspapers are faring the best: their niche market is still intact and without competition.

    Thanks for reading.