While the nation discusses race and policing in the aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., media business analyst Rick Edmonds argues that attention should also be paid to a problem of declining local news coverage and demographic shifts. Part of the solution he proposes is that towns like Ferguson should study Alhambra Source, and create a digital news site that integrates residents in the production process.
In his story for Poynter, a media news website and training center, Edmonds asks "Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?" He compares the town's low levels of mainstream coverage — until the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown — to those of Alhambra in the past.
I visited this phenomenon five years ago in a story “Alhambra, Calif.: The Little Town News Forgot.” Four times the population of Ferguson, Alhambra is a suburban community of small bungalows…It once had its own daily newspaper and subsequently was covered by a small Los Angeles Times bureau and the Pasadena Star-News until the early 2000s. Then coverage dropped from several stories a week in the Times to five or six a year.
Meantime Alhambra demographics, like Ferguson’s, changed radically. From a mostly white community, it became a center for Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with some white and a very small African-American population remaining. Indicators of civic vitality were remarkably low, in part because many in the major ethnic groups could not speak each others’ language.
Edmonds goes on to argue that a lack of local news coverage in suburban communities like Alhambra and Ferguson "undercuts democracy." He is careful to point out, though, that the solution is not printing more newspapers, but finding a digital approach that also integrates residents' voices. As Edmonds notes, this is the approach Alhambra Source took four years ago, after observing demographic shifts, a lack of local coverage, and indicators of low levels of civic engagement.
This prompted USC-Annenberg journalism professor Michael Parks (formerly the editor of the L.A. Times) to assemble grants and help from colleagues to build a new digital site with the Alhambra community from the ground up. The resulting Alhambra Source, with a professional editor coordinating a corps of citizen contributors, has had typical growing pains and financial sustainability challenges but is still publishing.
I can see something of the sort in Ferguson’s future once the current crisis settles.