Tired of Gang Violence Headlines, Los Angeles Teen Reporters Boost Community with Newspaper

Fourteen teenagers in Boyle Heights, California have had enough of reading stereotypical headline after headline about gang violence and housing projects in their neighborhood.

Eighteen-year-old Alejándro Rojas is tired of how outsiders view his neighborhood, and so he is doing something about it.

"We have good things but you have to look for them," said Rojas, who will be studying engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz in September. "It's really important to show there's more than one side to a community."

That's what he and 13 other local teenagers aim to do as reporters for the Boyle Heights Beat, a new quarterly newspaper that launched last month. Some 22,000 copies were delivered to homes in this heavily Hispanic neighborhood tucked in the eastern shadow of downtown Los Angeles' skyscrapers.

The Beat underscores how new models of local journalism are cropping up to fit communities' needs, combining new and old forms of media, alternative streams of funding and even nontraditional editorial staffs.

The bilingual, 20-page tabloid, which has a companion website, is a project funded by The California Endowment, a health foundation. Spanish-language daily La Opinion and the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism are lending technical expertise. La Opinion is printing and distributing the paper.

The strategy behind the Beat is to portray the community as residents know it, not as how outsiders see it. On the rare occasions that Boyle Heights makes headlines, it's usually for the notorious. That rankles local residents.

"Yes, we hear the shootings, we see the graffiti, the tagging. How about some of the positive stuff?" said Joe Díaz, who grew up in Boyle Heights and runs a local community center.

Community news coverage has often been scant in inner city neighborhoods, and with deep cuts in newsroom staffs in recent years, coverage has grown thinner. The Los Angeles Times' investigative reporting that revealed government malfeasance in Bell, Calif., however, underscored a need for media watchdogs in largely uncovered communities.

AOL/Patch.com has stepped in with a local news Internet template across the country, but it focuses largely on middle class communities with robust advertising bases and higher income consumers, although it does have two sites in Newark, N.J. and one in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The nonprofit news model could be an answer to close the widening inner-city information divide. Some foundations, more inclined to support traditional charities in the past, now see journalism as an endangered public service to those on the lower rungs of society.

The California Endowment has more than doubled the number of grants to media outlets over the past two years, focusing on 14 low-income communities, as well as regional initiatives.

"We see the information health of a community as directly related to the physical health," said Mary Lou Fulton, the Endowment's program manager. "These are communities that have been largely abandoned by the mainstream media."

Boyle Heights, which ranks among Los Angeles' most densely populated neighborhoods, with about 99,000 people crammed into 6.5 square miles, is one of them.

The area has always been a way station for working-class immigrants — Jews, Japanese and Mexicans form the threads of the community's multicultural tapestry. These days the area is 94 percent Hispanic with Salvadorans comprising the most recent group of arrivals.

Residents spend evenings chatting on front porches, but also protect their bungalows with window bars. The area is dogged by a long history of gangs, housing projects and crime, but it's also famed for cultural landmarks like Mariachi Plaza, where traditional Mexican musicians stroll waiting for clients, and the historic synagogue, the Breed Street Shul.

The downtown business district boasts a bookstore and a bright, artsy Internet café where customers tap away on laptops. There's a local historical society and a neighborhood blog.

The debut issue has stories about a redevelopment plan for a sprawling apartment complex, a native daughter — writer Josefina Lopez, author of "Real Women Have Curves" — giving back to her roots through an arts center, a mom's devotion to coaching kids, and the success of a local band with an eclectic sound.

Features give tips and recipes for making Mexican food healthier and the lowdown on a local farmer's market.

But it doesn't shy away from tackling grittier issues — merchants and musicians feeling the economic pinch, crime rates, the effect of domestic violence on children, and an old Sears building turning into an eyesore.

Residents said they were surprised to find the newspaper on their doorsteps. "It was very original," said longtime resident Richard Romero. "This paper is putting Boyle Heights on the map. People live here, but they don't even realize they live in a community called Boyle Heights."

At a recent community meeting, residents said they'd like to see future issues include stories on crime watches and personal stories of local residents.

Others are trying similar type of publications in urban neighborhoods. In predominantly black South Dallas, Shawn Williams launched DallasSouthNews.org two years ago after feeling his community was unfairly portrayed by the mainstream media and coverage waning.

So far, he hasn't tapped philanthropists, but has cobbled together funding from reader donations, advertisements, and fundraisers such as a golf tournament. "It's going to take diverse streams of revenue to get it done," said Williams, president and editor.

DallasSouthNews, like most media startups these days, is online only, but in low income areas, where Internet penetration lags more affluent communities, newspapers remain important to reach readers.

"Latinos don't have the same access to online as the general population. Print still has a lot of weight," said Pedro Rojas, editor of La Opinion who's mentoring the Boyle Heights Beat journalists as co-editor and co-publisher along with USC's Michelle Levander. They meet with the students on Saturdays and after school to decide on their stories and to map out how to report and write them.

In South Dallas, Williams said he's exploring potential partnerships to figure out a way to fund a print publication.

Boyle Heights Beat readers are already clamoring for more frequent issues and voicing concern that it may not last long because there's no advertising. Several businesses have called about buying ads.

That points to the hardest part of nonprofit models — sustaining them when the grants run out, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"There's always going to be a handful of foundations that will support journalism in these communities, but very few foundations support projects in perpetuity," she said.

Fulton, of The California Endowment, said the foundation will study the Beat's impact before deciding how long to fund it.

Residents hope it's going to stick around. "Whether we speak Spanish or English, there's not enough information in Boyle Heights," said Theresa Marcus.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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