Translating research theory into a multilingual local news website

Facing City Hall in Alhambra, California, a predominantly Asian and Latino suburb just east of Los Angeles, a life-size bronze statue of a man sits holding a newspaper. A plaque says the statue is dedicated to the memory of Warner Jenkins, “Alhambra’s beloved journalist/chronicler.” That is the closest a journalist gets to Alhambra’s City Hall most days. Local news coverage in the municipality of roughly 90,000 is severely lacking. What exists tends to be in Chinese or crime coverage in the area’s larger dailies.

USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, responding to the dearth of reporting on Alhambra and the challenge of creating a media outlet in an ethnically and linguistically diverse area, launched the Alhambra Project in 2008. Michael Parks, former director of the journalism school and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a communication researcher and director of the Metamorphosis Project, collaborated with support from the Annenberg Foundation. Parks was interested in investigating how local news coverage could better serve communities. Ball-Rokeach, whose research had previously found that the Alhambra area had one of the lowest levels of civic engagement in Los Angeles County, wanted to explore how creating a news product grounded in local needs could improve that level of engagement.

I joined the project in early summer of last year. As a journalist with a background in immigration reporting – and with a smattering of community organizing skills, including managing a Brooklyn farmer’s market and running a small non-profit magazine – my assignment was to take the research ideas and help translate them into an online news source grounded in local needs.

Mapping the contours of a community

While communication doctoral students conducted focus groups, media monitoring and field research, my job was to research an appropriate fit for our news product. Every day last year a new local site seemed to appear online, giving rise to a range of hybrid approaches where professional journalists worked with residents to create new versions of the community newspaper.

From studying these other models, I realized we would face some major obstacles in creating our theoretical goal of a “common storytelling network.” In particular, to function in Alhambra, where roughly a quarter of households have no adult who speaks English well, multiple languages were needed. But how to create a hybrid site that is multilingual, and, of particular interest to me, how to do it with a full-time staff consisting only of myself?

Putting technology to work

To answer some of these questions the Alhambra Project hosted a “deep think” which brought together a select group of USC Web engineers and news innovators. The workshop led us to focus on how a news website could serve communities of interest across ethnic groups. Although it would, at times, be easier for me to just report and write the stories myself, another focus was making this a community project, and using digital tools as much as possible to encourage participation.

It was increasingly clear that we would not, at least initially, be able to translate all of the pages on the website. Automated machine translation, available through Google and other providers, has gotten to the point where meaning can be conveyed, but nuance is lost. We decided to translate static pages, such as those explaining the workings of the site, but at least in the initial stages, we would have to rely on automated translation, paired with a disclaimer, for the rest.

Even without being able to translate all stories into three languages, other linguistic methods to bridge community information sources appeared. As I met with government officials, I learned that almost none were reading what the relatively active Chinese media said about them. In the spirit of New America Media, one of the first elements we added to our site was a selected aggregation and translation of stories, at least half of which come from the ethnic media.

Seeing the results on Main Street

Despite great effort on all sides, it took us a year to complete our multilingual site, the Alhambra Source. For me this has been a major source of frustration, but as we approached launch date I realized that perhaps it might have been to our advantage. We needed time to create a team of collaborators of both community members and students from a high school program that could inform site development and feel a real sense of ownership. A significant component of the communication research, as well, needed that time to come together. This fall, USC will be conducting a major study of civic engagement levels in Alhambra, with the intent of updating it in two years to see the effect of the news product.

On a recent Saturday evening, I was very encouraged to hear what Kerrie Gutierrez, a mother of five who has gone back to school to complete her bachelor’s degree, had to say. We were at an outdoor festival on Main Street Alhambra, when the founding community contributor for the Source approached a woman holding an infant. Using an iPad from USC Annenberg, Gutierrez showed the woman a story on Alhambra artist Yolanda Gonzalez. “I wrote that article,” she told the woman, “and I’m not a journalist.”

She then explained the collection of stories, including one about how Alhambra had recently canceled its elections for the first time ever because no challengers had stepped up to run against five incumbents. Other stories, Gutierrez said, had been translated from Chinese, and soon most local news and events would be there, in whatever language was necessary. The woman nodded enthusiastically about the prospect of this website, and signed her name to subscribe to our mailing list.

Until that moment, so much of the site had been theoretical, even if it was well-researched theory. But when Kerrie Gutierrez explained the Alhambra Source, I began to see how this type of journalism initiative could affect lives in this community. The site is just barely launched, and even I’ve been surprised how exciting it is to watch the site begin to develop and take on a life of its own.

About Daniela Gerson

Daniela Gerson edits the Alhambra Source and directs the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities.