One year ago, I watched nervously in a loft tucked away above Lovebirds café as our webmaster made the Alhambra Source go live. I was about to find out whether an experiment based on two years of research by USC scholars was viable: Could a local news website, staffed primarily by volunteers, not only provide valuable local information, but also engage diverse residents who often do not speak the same language?
When we launched, our Alhambra Source team was just six community contributors, a handful of local high school students, web developer Tim Ganter and graphic designer Ben Zhu, the owner of Gallery Nucleus, as well as a professional journalist (myself) and a team of scholars, students, and translators from USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism & Communication. Over the past year, we have grown to more than 50 local contributors, and more than 300 registered users for the site. Alhambra Source writers speak more than a dozen languages and range in occupation from an engineer to a teacher’s aide to community organizers to a mechanic to high school students. That diversity is our greatest strength. And it distinguishes the Alhambra Source from other news sources. Together, we have published more than 500 articles in the past year —all about this city of 85,000 residents.
Most of those stories would never have been reported without the site. One reason that USC created the Alhambra Source was that, similar to cities across the country, the area has faced declining local news coverage in the major regional newspapers like the LA Times, Pasadena Star-News and other San Gabriel Valley papers. The most active coverage is in Chinese newspapers, but that can only been be read by less than half of local residents — and a handful of city administrators or elected officials.
Our multilingual staff translates existing coverage into English and reports our own. In the past year, the Source has covered city issues from the cancellation of municipal elections because of a lack of challengers to residents advocating for more swimming pool time. We’ve reported on development on Main Street from the demolition of the Edward's Atlantic movie theater to make way for a new county office building to a young actress' joy at the birth of the new Mosaic Lizard Theater.
While most of our contributors do not have journalism training, they do have personal voices and Alhambra perspectives. Joe Soong took us to visit a trilingual yoga class on Main Street, a psychic and shed some insight on why the food rating systems may just be viewed differently in Chinese culture. When Blue Ocean Seafood burned down, Tim Loc reported an insightful account of the aftermath including a dim sum waiter who no longer had a restaurant. And Anthony Perez generated discussion when he asked why so few other Latino students were involved in leadership positions at Alhambra High.
This being Alhambra, food has been not only a subject, but also a way to explore the city’s varied cultures. Javier Cabral shared the "drowning torta" and how Wahib's introduced him as a lonely East LA kid newly arrived in Alhambra to a love of food. Pam Sosa reported on Soy Sauce Western Food delicacies such as spam spagetti. Kevin Chan takes us to the farmer’s market each week, demystifying Asian greens to fava beans (beyond horror flicks).
Although we publish on the internet, personal, face-to-face connections have been crucial. Contributors meet monthly for a potluck that is part newsroom meeting, part community gathering, and part journalism training ground. It’s also an opportunity for some uncommon exchanges.
At one point Michael Lawrence, who is a member of the Alhambra Preservation Group, wanted to write about all of the new “McMansions” going up around the city in a story about how Alhambra is identified as a “disappearing’ city because of the rate of development. He asked Zaiming Hu to translate for him, but she told him that she could not understand his problem with the homes. “I went to look at those mansions, and they were beautiful,” Michael remembers her saying. She could not understand why someone would prefer to live in the smaller, older homes they replaced. Michael’s story incorporated Zaiming’s perspective. And the piece changed to show that not everyone’s definitions of beauty and of what warrants preservation are the same.
This type of journalism takes time, particularly stories with strong reporting and personal voices, and it is a challenge for community contributors with other professions or who are students. But the site is having an impact on each of us who is involved — and on Alhambra. More than 65,000 people have visited the site to read what we have produced, and among our most dedicated readers are elected local officials and city administrators. Dozens of Alhambrans have thanked us. Nayomi Reyna wrote us “Thanks for the opportunity to be a voice for my community.” Ivan Ho wrote after one article on City Council that “This is the first time for me, an Alhambra resident for 18 years, to know something about the City Council Meeting.” He explained that many Chinese residents do not attend because they are afraid their English is not good enough to participate. And Andrew Kwok wrote, “Alhambra Source has helped me become more engaged and informed about my community.”
Our work is also being recognized beyond Alhambra. The youth journalism program won two Inter-Ethnic Journalism Awards and has worked with the Community Innovators Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Youth Media Los Angeles Collaborative, and the national multimedia documentary Mapping Main Street project. Other local news sites have turned to us for advice. Greg wrote from Kentucky, “In terms of content, this is one of the best I've seen. Unlike most, this site seems so authentic. The stories are well written and really capture the culture of the area.” And a special report of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University on community and journalism featured the Alhambra Source in an article titled “Reporting Pushes Past Language and Ethnic Divides: Alhambra Source has revealed significant lessons about the power of journalism to build community in diverse and underserved areas.”
Looking back on Year One, I'm proud to say that we have made tremendous progress. For Year Two, foremost is figuring out a sustainable model. A grant from the Annenberg Foundation to USC got us started, but it will run out this winter. We will be looking for local sponsorships in the year to come. If your business likes the Alhambra Source and wants to show its support, please contact me. We will also be seeking subscribers.
Getting word out is still our challenge. So, if you like the site, share it with someone else. If you have not already, register or sign up for the newsletter. If you have a story to share, don’t hesitate to let us know. And give us your feedback – what do you like, what should we improve?
Finally, thank you for letting me learn and report with you about your city this year.Daniela, [email protected]