How a youth Reporter Corps could help reinvigorate local journalism

Emma asked if I would write her a recommendation for AmeriCorps. Usually, I would have said yes without hesitation, but this request struck a nerve. The recent college graduate was among a dozen or so young adults who wrote about their predominantly immigrant community for the news site I edit, Alhambra Source. She told me that she wanted to join AmeriCorps to serve a city across the country that the federal government determined was in need. My instinct was that this was not the best use of her skills: She could probably make a more meaningful contribution reporting on her own Los Angeles community.

That conversation started me thinking about the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. Call it Reporter Corps. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community.

Just about a year after my conversation with Emma, I am very pleased that the first class of six Reporter Corps members started this month at Alhambra Source, with support from USC Annenberg and the McCormick Foundation.

Broadly speaking, the Reporter Corps goals are not that different from AmeriCorps, the national service-learning umbrella program that supports 80,000 people annually:

  • Get things done
  • Strengthen communities
  • Encourage responsibility
  • Expand opportunity

But unlike AmeriCorps, which addresses education, environment, health, and public-safety needs, Reporter Corps focuses on news and information needs. If journalism is a public service crucial to democracy, the demand for such a program is clear: Local news coverage — despite a recent flourishing of online community sites — has been in decline for years.

Reporter Corps members tour the Alhambra Police Department. From left, Captain Cliff Mar, Albert Lu, Esmee Xavier, Alfred Dicioco, Irma Uc, Jane Fernandez, Javier Cabral.

In many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, the result has been that mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. Alhambra, an independent city of about 85,000, lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers have slashed their coverage of the area. Local television rolls into town when there is a murder or the mayor’s massage-parlor-owning girlfriend flings dumplings at him in a late-night squabble (yes, that happened). The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the lack of quality news coverage, I found a ready supply of young Alhambra residents interested in reporting opportunities. Students navigating a depleted community college system or recent college grads un- or underemployed and facing the lowest employment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 60 years came to the Alhambra Source eager to contribute. Although they had limited journalism experience, in many ways they have proven to be natural reporters for a multiethnic community. They are all immigrants or children of immigrants, speaking Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalog and more. As a result, they can cross ethnic and linguistic lines better than many reporters. They also often have a deeper understanding of what stories matter to fellow residents, from the challenges of not being able to communicate with your parents because you’re not fluent in the same language to the need for a local dog park.

For the first class of Reporter Corps, we selected six high school graduates — four in local community colleges, and two recent college graduates — based on their connection to the area, growth potential, and passion to improve their community. In the spring we plan on expanding the project to work with another USC community news site, Intersections South LA.

The approach appears to fall into a larger trend in youth media initiatives to work increasingly with high school graduates rather than solely younger students.

“Within the youth media groups we’re hearing more and more a thirst that involves the grads. The job market in many of the neighborhoods these groups are active in is really abysmal. Some go to community college, some don’t,” said Mark Hallett, the senior program officer for the journalism program at the McCormick Foundation. “Neighborhoods aren’t finding coverage.”

Across the country, local news sites are working in diverse ways to put this population to work. Many have small internship programs. In an example similar in spirit to Reporter Corps, New American Media has teamed up with the California Endowment to work with 16- to 24-year-olds in California communities such as Fresno, Coachella, and Long Beach for youth-led media efforts.

The Endowment also funds some successful high school journalism programs, such as Boyle Heights Beat in East L.A. (which is also affiliated with USC Annenberg), but Senior Program Manager Mary Lou Fulton notes, “it requires a greater investment in teaching, mentoring and support.”

Unlike high school students, who tend to be busy and sometimes lack maturity or real-life experience, grads often have an excess of time and more advanced critical-thinking skills. “For these youth, this work is a part or full-time job, meaning they are able to spend more sustained time on reporting and develop deeper community relationships to inform their reporting,” Fulton told me via e-mail, noting that all of the students in their programs also receive either an hourly wage or stipend. “All of this increases the chances that the content they create will be more timely and have greater depth.”

What if we united efforts like this on an even larger scale — with the vision that Teach for America applied to failing schools in the 1990s — and adapt it to local journalism? Would the nation see a boost in engaged citizens, more young people at work, new jobs, and — we can dream — even new models for how local news outlets can make money? We see Reporter Corps as a step in that direction, with a focus less on taking smart, highly achieving young people and placing them in at-need communities, and more on training young people to report on their own communities. Whether or not participants go on to become professionals, they will be exposed to new opportunities in the government, legal, education, and social service sectors. In the process, local news, often considered a dying art form, might just be reinvented and reinvigorated by their energy.

Alhambra Source and Intersections South LA are cornerstone projects of the new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks spearhead the Alhambra Project, and Professor Willa Seidenberg directs Intersections South LA. Daniela Gerson heads the initiative and edits Alhambra Source.

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.