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.