More than six years ago, I was invited to join the “Alhambra Project,” a research group at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. I was a student in a new specialized journalism program with a focus on immigration and demographics — and in Los Angeles for what I thought would be a nine-month program that would enable me to better report on the topic. After that, I assumed I would return to the East Coast, or would report from abroad.
I never imagined that I would stay in Los Angeles, let alone spend years working in Alhambra. But I am learning life often takes us on unexpected journeys, and sometimes those are the best ones.
I am very grateful for the warmth and support with which Alhambra residents welcomed this endeavor, and me as an outsider. In what on appearances could look like any suburban city, I found a dynamic global community – and learned how residents can often tell those stories better than me as an outsider. I am proud of what we have contributed to local digital journalism in this multiethnic city, from our published academic research to impactful youth stories to a police initiative linked to the Chinese version of Twitter.
Monday was my last day as editor of Alhambra Source. I am thrilled to be taking the lessons learned here to a new position of community engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times. Tim Loc will be the interim managing editor as we look for a new managing editor to take the site to the next level. (If you are interested, please let us know; Loc plans to continue on as a consulting editor.)
USC Annenberg has committed to funding Alhambra Source for another year, but if Alhambra Source is to continue, it also needs to find an alternate funding model. From the beginning, this site has relied on community contributors to fuel it, and the intention has been to ultimately turn it over to the community. If the site is important to you, and you see its potential for further growth, I urge you to get involved. We could use expertise in business development, marketing, as well as writers, photographers, videographers, and more!
We recently published Alhambra Source: Voices from the New American Suburb a collection of more than 40 stories from Alhambra Source over the past five years. Below I have included an excerpt of the introduction to that collection where I share more about the impact the site has had, and the impact it has had on me. If you’re interested in having your own, we have limited copies left. Here is how to get one.
To get involved in the next stages of Alhambra Source, please contact Tim Loc at email@example.com. And if you would like to keep in touch with me, and I hope you do, you can find me @dhgerson or danielagerson.com.
***Alhambra Source launched in an era when the idea of hyperlocal digital journalism was taking off across the country, responding to new digital opportunities to publish at low costs and engage with readers. Editors, many of them veteran journalists impacted by cutbacks at mainstream outlets, pledged to bring news to media-deprived areas and to increase civic engagement in the process. Alhambra Source was part of that trend, but it was also unique in its research-based foundation and effort to bridge three ethnic groups.
As editor, I had the advantage of a tremendous amount of information about the community to shape our project, but also faced the challenge of a very small reporting staff of one. We wanted the site to be participatory in nature, and todo that I knew I needed to recruit residents to join the effort. I started a search for contributors on the Internet, at community meetings, at Alhambra High School, at the farmers market, and in coffee shops.
Before the first community contributor meeting, I was concerned the site was not sufficiently developed to ask residents to work on it — or worse yet, nobody would want to spend their free time reporting. But then Kerrie and Javier Gutierrez arrived, two long-time Alhambra residents whom I had connected with via Javier’s photography on Flickr. Eric Sunada, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer and local activist who I met at a community meeting about water safety, soon joined them. Then came Neel Garlapati and Karin Mak, younger, more recent transplants who had moved to Alhambra in part for the Chinese food and community and had connected with us because of Neel’s journalism background. We had our first community contributors; soon we would have our first stories.
Over the years, my favorite part of running the Alhambra Source has been our monthly community contributor meetings—part journalism training, part editorial meeting, and part potluck dinner. It was around that table, with residents of Alhambra exchanging ideas, that most of the stories in this collection first developed. Their ideas reflected diverse experiences: contributors present on any given day may be a long-time Los Angeles Police Department employee, a community college student with a love for photography and politics, and a grandmother working on her bachelor’s degree. Without Alhambra Source, they would have walked by each other on the streets as strangers, but because of the site they came together. As editor I have had the opportunity to help shape the stories, but these residents bring the ideas and energy to catalyze the endeavor.
A key challenge was how to cross linguistic barriers. While the site has select pages in Chinese and Spanish, and automated Google translation as well, we knew we never would be able to produce a steady stream of content in all three languages spoken in the community due to limited resources. Instead, we relied upon building connections with existing ethnic media outlets, cultivating a multilingual team, and working with USC students and community members to translate select content.
One of our most successful efforts at crossing language barriers demonstrates how a stronger and better integrated storytelling network can facilitate communication that impacts civic life. Contributor Siye Walter Yu urged in an opinion piece that City Hall and social service organizations adopt social media as a way to reach Chinese residents. Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama read the story, invited us for a meeting, and we collaborated on creating the first Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) account for a local government agency in the United States. A year later, the Weibo account has more than 40,000 followers, calls from Chinese residents to the police increased, and the Alhambra Police Department received an “Excellence in Technology Innovation” award from the California Police Chiefs’ Association.
Alhambra Source has also impacted the relationship between City Hall and residents. Elected officials read the stories and comments, even if they sometimes disagree with them. They often use the site to disseminate information to constituents. And since canceling local elections in 2010, Alhambra has hosted two dynamic council races featuring new, progressive candidates. In both cases the challengers lost by a few hundred votes, but the close races generated discussion about local issues and priorities that the Source covered closely. A challenger in the most recent race, Eric Sunada, was among the community contributors who sat around the conference table for the first meeting five years ago. After losing the election he went on to launch a new organization, Grassroots Alhambra, to further resident involvement in municipal affairs.
Representatives from a new generation have engaged in local issues via Alhambra Source, and introduced key questions. In one of our first stories, Anthony Perez, at the time a recent high school graduate from Alhambra High, asked why no Latino students were elected to student government in 2010 when the school was 50 percent Latino, 50 percent Asian. His piece triggered discussion, and the school effectively pushed for more Latino participation such that almost half the students elected in 2014 were Hispanic. In a story looking at representation through a different lens, Albert Lu asked why Asians of his parents’ generation were voting at lower rates than the general public. His piece prompted City Councilman Luis Ayala to invite him to serve on an Alhambra government committee, where Lu has cultivated a personal interest in politics.
Alhambra Source demonstrates how community members can tell Alhambra stories and impact their community in a way that no traditional newsroom, or reporter, from the outside possibly could. On the site, their work has provoked a virtual public forum with readers debating whether development on Main Street is good for the city, providing support to a Chinese immigrant father whose daughter was strangled to death, or even sharing knowledge of where coyotes have appeared last in our popular “coyote map.” In multilingual live events, these digital discussions have taken on a human dimension, sometimes leading to additional stories. And whether it be online or around a table, Alhambra Source has paved a way for residents to connect to their leaders and each other, and in doing so transform the communication fabric of their city.