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?  Spot.us 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.

A new idea for how foundations can support local news coverage

By Mary Lou Fulton

People who tune in to NPR or PBS news programs are familiar with sponsorship messages such as  “coverage made possible by support from the such-and-such foundation.”  The way this works in practice is that foundations give money to pay for the salaries, benefits and other expenses of journalists who report on a particular topic area.   It’s mutually understood that the purpose of this funding is not to elicit coverage of a foundation or its grant recipients.  The grants are a vote in confidence in the value of independent journalism, with decision-making authority resting solely with editors and reporters.

I learned more about this type of funding after joining The California Endowment last year as a program manager overseeing communications and media grants, which included support of California-based NPR stations.   The Endowment is the state’s largest health foundation, and my job is make grants that increase the quantity and quality of journalism about community health.  Working with our NPR grants made me wonder:  Could this approach also be used to support health journalism at local newspapers?

I come from a newspaper background, having started at The Associated Press and gone on to reporter/editor positions at The Los Angeles Times, digital media roles at The Washington Post and new product development work at The Bakersfield Californian.   I know that beat assignments play a large role in shaping news coverage, and I wondered whether local newspapers would be open to adding a new community health reporting position.  So I floated the idea to a few newspapers, and am pleased to report that we have funded new positions at The Oakland Tribune, Vida en el Valle (the state’s largest bilingual newspaper, based in Fresno) and at The Merced Sun-Star.   Mike Tharp, executive editor in Merced, wrote a column today telling readers about this new health reporting position and why he said yes to the idea.

With all the grants I make, I spend a fair amount of time up front to discuss the scope and objectives for the project.   To help introduce the concept to editors, knowing they might be a bit suspicious, I wrote up a short description of what I had in mind for this beat:

The California Endowment proposes underwriting the cost (salary and benefits) for a full-time journalist to cover a new beat called Community Health that focuses on the ways that health is related to where you live.   Public health research has found that factors related to your neighborhood – whether you live near a park, whether streets are safe, whether you have easy access to grocery stores that sell fresh foods, whether you breathe clean air – are much more reliable predictors of your health than whether you can see a doctor when you’re sick.  This beat would include topics that are commonly covered by local news reporters, but would look at them through a different lens – that of health.   For example, a City Hall reporter might go to a city council meeting and write a story about the politics behind the approval of a new housing development whereas the Community Health reporter would write about whether health issues such the provision of parks, walking trails, grocery stores and access to public transit were considered in the planning process.  This beat would shine a spotlight on how people living just a few miles away from each other experience a different quality of life and even life expectancy based on where they live.  But this beat also could highlight solutions from government, business and  community members working to improve conditions in their neighborhoods.

This beat is NOT for the purpose of covering anything related to The California Endowment or its grant programs. This proposal is consistent with The Endowment’s focus of increasing awareness of community health issues.  We envision this model could work in the same way as our support of NPR, where we’d agree on general coverage topics but are not involved with day-to-day operations.

I then asked interested editors to send me a list of story ideas for this beat, as a way to see if we had the same understanding of the beat and to offer a starting point for the reporter.  At Vida en el Valle, which serves Latinos in California’s Central Valley, the story ideas focused on topics that are especially relevant to Latinos such as obesity prevention in rural areas and environmental health issues.  You can see the work of Vida reporter Rebecca Plevin on this community health blog. At The Oakland Tribune, the beat will have a specific focus on how urban violence impacts public health.  And in Merced, the reporter will explore topics such as why Merced County residents out-drink and out-smoke the rest of the state, water quality and more.

I’m sure there will be some traditionalists in journalism who find this idea appalling.  Having worked in newsrooms, I can make the arguments against this concept as well as anyone, so let me spell them out for you here.

1.  Is this an effort to promote The California Endowment or its grant projects?  What is your agenda? The Endowment is a private, nonpartisan foundation.  We  are prohibited by law from lobbying and make grants based on the income earned from our core endowment fund (meaning we don’t solicit or accept funds from outside sources.)  We were created 14 years ago when Blue Cross converted from a nonprofit to a for-profit health care provider, and the state legislature decided to use the tax credits on the books to create two health foundations.   Our mission is focused on improving the health of underserved people who don’t have an equal opportunity to live a healthy life because they are poor, or live in an unhealthy environment, or are not a priority for the institutions that are supposed to serve them.    To me, this mission is consistent with this century-old quote by journalist Finley Peter Dunne, who said, “”The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I hope that’s what these new community health reporters will do.

2.  These are local news reporters working in communities where The Endowment is investing money in community health projects.   Won’t this be a conflict of interest for the reporter? This is a legitimate concern, but given that news decisions are in the hands of editors, we have to trust them to guard against bias toward or against The Endowment.   I also hope that newspapers will be transparent, as Merced editor Mike Tharp was, in telling readers about The Endowment’s support of these positions just as NPR does through its sponsorship announcements.

3.  Will you complain about stories or pull the plug on funding if you don’t like the coverage? No, we understand that reporters and editors will make independent judgments about stories.   Like all readers, we will find some stories more valuable than others, but we have no wish to control the day-to-day operations of a newsroom.  We fund independent journalism across California because we believe that more and better health reporting benefits the community, raises awareness about the importance of health and helps support media organizations that play an important role in communities.

4.  Won’t editorial independence be compromised by having this new reporter be a dedicated resource focused on community health, versus being able to pull this reporter to work the night police beat or any story that comes along? I suppose you could look at it this way, although I would argue that the community health beat concept is not a huge constraint because the definition is so broad that it could be applied to a wide variety of story topics, from local government to land use to violence or health care.   And I’d also point out that newsrooms  already face the even larger constraint of local advertising revenue determining the size of their staffs, meaning the number of reporters you have is dependent on the number of trucks the local Ford dealer can sell.  Revenue diversification is a big buzzword in media, and I think that editors have an opportunity to play a role here by being willing to explore non-advertising revenue such as foundation support.

Of course, foundation dollars are not the silver bullet for local journalism; nothing is. But I wanted to spell out my thinking behind these grants in the hope that others will take up this idea if it sounds appealing.  I would never suggest that the energy beat be sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation, but nonpartisan foundations that focus on news  topics such as education, health and the environment could find they have a lot in common with local media organizations.

Additionally, local community foundations are great potential partners for newspapers, and the Knight Foundation has created the Community Information Challenge fund specifically to inspire local news ideas and partnerships.   In fact, the Knight Foundation was among the first to support the idea of foundation-funded beats through a grant to the Arkansas Community Foundation.

We live in a time when the traditional economic models for media are crumbling beneath our feet, but the need for high-quality information is greater than ever.   I’m glad that editors like Mike Tharp in Merced, Martin Reynolds at The Oakland Tribune and Juan Esparza at Vida en el Valle are willing to take a chance on this new idea and hope it will pave the way for others — both foundations and news organizations — to do the same.

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