April 23, 2009

For much of the 20th century, Alhambra, Calif., was a little Los Angeles suburb with a lot going for it. There was that romantic name, evoking Washington Irving stories and the fabulous Moorish fortress in Granada, Spain. There was an eclectic roster of famous Americans who grow up there — Cheryl Tiegs, Kenny Loggins and Dorothy Rodham (Hillary Clinton’s mother). Norman Rockwell married an Alhambra girl and is said to have drawn inspiration for his small-town vignettes from its Main Street.

Alhambra present, population 87,000, hangs on as a working-class town of small bungalows bordering on chic South Pasadena and pricey San Marino. But a couple of things have disappeared along the way, among them newspaper coverage. That has led Michael Parks, recently retired dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, to christen Alhambra “the town that news forgot.”

Parks, picking a couple of projects as he shifts back to academics at USC, has set out to create a news Web site for the community. He gave a talk on the undertaking at a future-of-news conference we both attended at the Massachusetts School of Law in March, and I checked for an update by phone this week.

Alhambra’s white-bread past has given way to an exotic ethnic mix — 45 percent Chinese and other Asians, 35 percent Latino, 14 percent white and a tiny cadre of African-Americans. It is a mix of people, Parks said, who literally may not speak to each other given language barriers. A first test of civic involvement by USC colleagues, he added, found that except for voting, Alhambra was off-the-charts low.

In the course of the 40-year demographic transition, newspaper coverage dwindled, then disappeared. The Alhambra Post Advocate, a Copley daily at which Nixon communications director Herb Klein got his start as a copy boy, is long-gone — though it lingers on in a fabulous YouTube home video of a 60’s-era staff Christmas party.

The Los Angeles Times, which covered Alhambra and a host of smaller communities as recently as when Parks was editor in the late 1990s and first years of this century, has cut all those bureaus as its news staff has been halved. MediaNews’ Pasadena Star-News does not venture in Alhambra’s direction. Ethnic media are present, but that doesn’t knit the community together.

Parks is aware that a hyperlocal launch is nothing unique, but he has specific ideas to make this one distinctive. “We will be building more carefully,” he said, “involving the community in a more participatory way. We are spending a lot of time trying to determine what they want to know — say, about schools … so I hope we end up with some new definitions of news.”

Though Parks is a veteran newspaper man, with decades as a Pulitzer-winning foreign correspondent, he thinks most news sites look too much like a newspaper. He plans to get something less conventional from USC techies and Web designers.

In fact, the entire project has an academic flavor, drawing heavily, at least in the planning and development stage, on the work of journalism grad students and MBA candidates. The project is supported by a multi-year grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which like many foundations is focused more on the end result of community-building than journalism per se.

Right now the launch is just in the “mid-planning phase,” Parks said. Among his initial findings is an interest among Chinese businesses in adding Latino clientele, and vice versa. A full plan and start-up are not expected for at least another year. Basic questions remain, such as how to finesse the language problem and whether to reverse-publish into print.

Taking on Alhambra’s news needs might seem an odd choice for Parks, who could easily write essays on trends in foreign coverage and the like. But it is quite deliberate. “The challenge for J-schools now is, can they reinvent things,” he said. “We tend to be way too retrospective — even identifying best practices is a form of that. What I want to do now is to try something prospective.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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