5 lessons learned: Improving civic engagement through a local news site

Four years ago a team of communication scholars, researchers and journalists set out to create a community news website that would increase civic engagement and cross ethnic barriers in a predominantly Asian and Latino immigrant city. Since Alhambra Source launched in 2010, it has grown to more than 60 community contributors who speak 10 languages and range in age from high school students to retirees. Their stories have helped shape local policy and contributed to a more engaged citizenry within a diverse community. Below are five lessons we’ve learned about creating a community news website that fosters civic engagement.

1. Investigate your community’s news and information needs before you launch.
While few news organizations are likely to have a dedicated team of researchers and scholars at their disposal, they can — and should — identify community information needs to guide the development of their site. On the simplest level, that means a reporter should know his or her beat well and do some investigating before launch.

As a journalist in Alhambra, for example, I witnessed firsthand the civic participation gaps and the barriers between ethnic and linguistic groups that our researchers had identified. The lack of civic participation was made evident in 2010 when five incumbents ran unchallenged, prompting officials to cancel the elections.

The need to cross language lines became clear when school and government officials, police officers and other community leaders all told me that they could not understand the most active press coverage of Alhambra: the Chinese-language newspapers. These newspapers target about a third of the city’s population, and yet city leaders had no idea what was being reported. Identifying basic communication needs such as these can help define the goals of a local news source and also establish a baseline that can later be used to demonstrate the site’s impact to funders or other supporters.

2. To effectively build a community contributor team, hold regular meetings, play to contributor strengths, and remember they are volunteers.
We work with community contributors — in our case that means Alhambra residents who volunteer and tend not to have professional journalism experience. Initially, I set about recruiting Alhambrans to report stories that might interest them or their neighbors. I searched for people already producing content online, talked to leaders of community organizations, and spread the word about our new site. Once we launched the site, we featured our contributors prominently with a call for others to get involved.

Monthly meetings in our office space have been crucial to the strength and expansion of our team. They are part newsroom story meeting, part community advocacy, and part social gathering (we always include a potluck dinner). After the first few meetings and the site launch, I no longer had to actively recruit contributors — at least one new candidate would contact me each month. As our reputation grows, so has our team. That doesn’t mean everyone sticks around: like any volunteer community, we have to work to keep people engaged and interested in giving their time. But enough new people come to keep up the site’s content and energy, while a regular base of contributors provide a core continuum.

3. When it comes to community contributions, a personal perspective is often crucial to a story.
Community contributors often want to report because they have an agenda they want heard. Obscuring that under a veil of objectivity just does not work on a community level. I’ve found community contributors are great for insight stories and features, sometimes providing our most creative articles, ranging from a critique of the local food rating system (“A=American, B=Better, C=Chinese”) to a call for new bike laws to a visit to the local psychic “Mrs. Lin.”

One story type that I have found community contributors can consistently produce better than outside reporters is a first-person piece incorporating a wider perspective. The stories that have received some of the highest traffic on our site and met our research metrics of increased civic engagement have tended to be of this type. Some examples include a story on the challenges of inter-generational communication for a child of immigrants, one about growing up Arab or Muslim in a mostly Asian and Latino community, and one about why a church community organizer takes issue with a city ordinance.

Finally—and this is important—keep in mind that these are not professional reporters. Everyone needs an editor, and working with community contributors often means multiple drafts and intensive fact checking. Many times it would have been easier for me to have done the story myself, so it is important to match volunteer reporters with pieces to which they can add value.

4. Crossing language and ethnic divides cannot be achieved through multilingual content alone.
Before we launched, we intended to be a site in the three languages most spoken by our readers — English, Chinese, and Spanish. We quickly discovered that we lacked the resources. And as it turns out, such a plan might not have been worth the effort.

About a quarter of Alhambra residents live in households where no adults speak fluent English. There is a clear need for foreign language media, particularly in the ethnic Chinese community. But that does not mean that the community would be interested if we created a multilingual website. From anecdotal interviewing, we found that these residents are satisfied getting their news from ethnic publications and are less likely to go to a website.

Instead, we found many other important ways to bridge the language divide. Here are four:

  • Building a multilingual team, which helps expand the range of stories we can cover and the types of people we can interview
  • Translating local foreign-language coverage into English
  • Translating selections of our own original content into Spanish and Chinese (through two means: high-quality human translations for select articles and Google Translate function across the entire site)
  • Establishing relationships with ethnic press so they print versions of our articles in their newspapers.

5. Use feedback loops as engagement and learning tools.
We use polls and surveys extensively on the site to engage residents, create a link between them and city officials, and improve our coverage. Some of our most successful surveys have ranged from where to find the best local burger or boba to whether the city should ban fireworks sales to which supermarket should come to Main Street.

We often incorporate the findings from these informal polls into stories. It enables more residents to participate on the site in a simpler way than writing a story, and in public policy issues, it offers a means for us to share community feedback with the government. For example, when the city council recently acted to limit pay-for-recycling, less than a handful of people from the public came to the meeting (like most days). But on our site more than 100 people voted to express their opinions, the vast majority against the ban. The city council then decided to grant a reprieve to one market.

We also use the polls to gauge our impact and to see on which topics residents would like more coverage. We have surveyed residents about what stories they would like to see, research questions they would like answered, and even improvements we could make to our website. Engaging the community this way enables us to better respond to their needs. After all, a community news site, like a city itself, is a work in progress.

Alhambra Source is the pilot project of a new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg. The project aims to link Communication research and Journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. The Metamorphosis Project is the primary researcher, and Intersections South LA is another project site. This is the first in a series of articles on the topic of creating and evaluating local news websites that strive to increase civic engagement.

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.