After the last journalism prize is awarded, what happens to coverage of Bell?

By Mary Lou Fulton

I had mixed feelings about the Pulitzer Prize awarded to The Los Angeles Times for coverage of the financial scandals in the city of Bell.

Of course, I was glad to see recognition for this story, which not only led to major changes in the city leadership and to legislative reforms aimed at guarding against such abuses in the future, but also became a source of pride for journalists everywhere who have always known the value of watchdog reporting.  And I loved the back story of the two reporters who brought this story to life.

But after the last city official has been sentenced and the last journalism prize is celebrated, I’m left with this troubling question:  “What’s going to happen to coverage of Bell?”   Without another eye-popping scandal to drive attention, my guess Bell will soon fade into the background because, as LA Times media columnist Jim Rainey wrote last summer, “The Times doesn’t have enough reporters to regularly cover the county’s 88 cities, not to mention myriad other agencies and beats (like transportation, education and healthcare) that loom large in the lives of our readers.”

It wasn’t always this way.  I worked at The L.A. Times when the newspaper had reporters assigned to cover the cities of Bell, Maywood, Lynwood, Bell Gardens and other Southeast Los Angeles County communities. There were a half dozen reporters based in the Southeast bureau, and we were spread thin; there was so much territory to cover each of us were assigned to three or four cities.   But we knew that the top priority was to cover city government, and in the pre-Internet days of the late 1980s I remember walking into the offices of city clerks every week to ask for copies of the city council and redevelopment agency agendas.  Those agendas, expressed in the arcane language of bureaucrats, held the clues to important and sometimes great stories.  Picking up those agendas, along with binders of documents describing proposed government actions, was an act that sent city officials a signal that they were being watched.  It makes you wonder how much earlier the Bell story would have been uncovered had these city documents been scrutinized sooner by experienced journalists with a practiced eye for spotting bureaucratic shenanigans like redevelopment council meetings that lasted only one minute.

But beyond city hall coverage, the job of reporters in the news bureaus was to tell stories about community life.   Local stories written by Southeast bureau reporters were published in a twice-weekly local news section inserted into copies of The Times delivered in the Southeast area.  Stories that were deemed to be of regional interest were “picked up” for publication in the Times’ Metro section delivered to all subscribers.

This range of community reporting has largely gone by the wayside as geographic beats have given way to topical beats.  The most overlooked communities are the poorest ones, like Bell, where I would bet that the combined total of L.A. Times subscribers and advertisers is only in the double digits.  (See my previous post, “Murders and Festivals: Understanding What Drives News Coverage of Poor Communities.”)

In fact, in looking at The Times’ coverage of Bell, I couldn’t find a single story that connected the financial scandals to  community life.  Where are the stories about how corrupt city management affects bread-and-butter local services?  Where was the cost-benefit analysis that compared how the money spent on outrageous salaries could have been invested to improve the well-being of local kids in a city where the median income is just under $30,000?  Or stories that asked whether the money squandered by city officials could have been used to extend the hours at the local public library, which is now closed three days a week?

As someone who worked in the media business for 20 years before moving to the foundation world, I am well aware that media companies can’t afford to cover every single community and issue like they used to, and I’m not writing this in an effort to browbeat The Times into assigning a full-time reporter to Bell.  The problem is bigger than The Times, and is not the responsibility of any one news organization to solve.

However, the Bell scandal offers an opportunity to talk about how to make this situation better.  To help uncover the Bell scandals of the world sooner, and tell meaningful stories of community life, it’s going to take a different and more cooperative effort among lots of civic-minded folks.

Some hopeful ideas and approaches are emerging.  In East Los Angeles, La Opinion, USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and two local high schools are working on a new bilingual community newspaper written by and for residents of Boyle Heights (with support from my employer, The California Endowment.)  I’m encouraged to see this kind of cooperative effort among universities, foundations, news organizations and local schools, also seen in USC’s South LA Intersections project and UC Berkeley’s Richmond Confidential.

The statewide investigative reporting startup California Watch is pioneering a new kind of collaborative journalism, as described by industry analyst Ken Doctor, working with a range of commercial, nonprofit and ethnic media to tailor and distribute their projects.   Could there be a local or regional version of California Watch established in L.A., with a priority placed on local watchdog reporting in communities that lack robust news outlets?  Maybe this organization could take a “time share” approach in which news organizations from throughout L.A. could contribute the time of journalists and editors as a way to share costs and stories.

Could communities band together and contribute the funds that would pay for an experienced reporter to cover their community? already offers a platform that could make this happen, and has relationships with media outlets throughout Los Angeles that could carry the reporting.

My hope is that the story of Bell won’t begin and end with shamed public officials and journalism prizes.  I hope the story of Bell can become the story of how people who care about local media recommitted themselves to finding new ways to bring important local journalism to the communities that need it most.

Hey LA Times and other newspapers: please give me a way to give you money to support journalism (vs subscribe to a product)

By Mary Lou Fulton

This week, I canceled my L.A. Times subscription. Though I only received the newspaper four days a week, on most days the print edition went from the porch to the recycling bin without being opened.

However, I do read LA Times content online, and believe in doing my part to support local journalism.  So I offered to simply give the newspaper the same amount of money I was paying for the print subscription (about $60 a year) so that I could support LA Times journalism in the same way that I support programming on my local National Public Radio station.

Unbelievably, this wasn’t possible.

When I asked the very polite subscriber services representative if I could simply give the newspaper money, she first asked me if I wanted to switch to a Sunday-only subscription, and then told me about an e-edition that allowed me to read a digital version of the newspaper layout online (but only if I also subscribed to the print edition).   In response to my explaining, again, that I just wanted to donate money to help offset the costs of journalism, she put me on hold for a few minutes and then returned to say that I could give money to Newspapers in Education, which provides newspapers to schools as a teaching tool.  But I wanted to do none of those things, and so the call ended with the cancellation of my subscription and her suggestion that I contact the LA Times reader’s representative to see if there was anything that could be done with my idea.

I can explain what to do in one word:  PayPal.  All that the LA Times or any news organization needs to do is set up an account on PayPal that allows people to give money.  Have this money go into an account specifically designated to support the costs of running the newsroom.   If the LA Times has the technology expertise to build an iPhone app, then setting up a PayPal account is a no-brainer. Every nonprofit news organization I know has a Donate button somewhere on its web site and is counting on this kind of support as an important source of revenue.  And if you really want to make me happy, throw in some extra perks, like giveaways for event tickets,  or maybe even forge a partnership with Zocalo to stage some events of your own to highlight issues reporting by the newsroom.

If 30,000 people gave the LA Times $60 each per year, that would be $1.8 million.  That’s about a third of what local NPR station KPCC raises in individual donations per year, according to an LA Times report.

This membership concept is not going to be a silver bullet for local media, but what is the downside to making it available?  It just doesn’t make sense that the only way for a consumer to support newspaper-based local journalism is through subscribing to an unwanted print edition or buying a classified ad.

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