Yesterday, the journalistic non-profit Spot.us and La Opinion convened a roundtable of journalists, community leaders, non-profit workers, police and local governmental officials to talk about the state of our communities in Los Angeles and how journalists can better cover them. A lot was discussed, to be sure, but perhaps most interesting for me was listening to the people journalists write about in their stories tell us what they expect of the media and how we can better cover the city.
Frank Kwan, the L.A. County Office of Education's director of communications, said he wanted to see more journalists "stay with a story. Don't just publish a quick pop. Keep talking to us and follow up three months or so down the road." Kwan is a former education beat reporter, so he knows what he's talking about. He said despite covering education for years, he really "didn't know anything about it" until he actually got into the education field. And that is why staying in touch with experts is so important--because when news breaks, the reporter will be up to date with the expert consensus in the field, rather than having to play catch-up or botch the facts.
Captain Bill Murphy of LAPD's Northeast Division also suggested reporters need to "build relationships" with the people they cover. For the LAPD that means checking in with your local captain on a regular basis as well as the community relations officer. Murphy also suggested reporters interested in covering their community should identify the major players in the community. "In the Northeast," he suggested, "the church groups have a lot of power in the community."
Aquil Basheer, who runs the gang intervention training academy Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, suggested speaking "to more people on the ground" instead of experts. Journalists often quote academics or prominent officials, "but do these people really have credibility?" Basheer argued.
And finally Paulina Gonzalez, executive director for the social justice nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, said she wanted to see more positive stories about people doing good works in their communities. "Tell stories from the human aspect. Cover solutions, not just problems."
All of the above are certainly reasonable expectations of the media--ones most of us are familiar with. And many are certainly doable. Kwan's plea for journalists to follow up on stories is certainly good advice that not enough of us pay attention to. And Basheer's suggestion to get out and speak to people on the ground is certainly well taken. It's certainly way easier to call an expert in this field or that for a quote than it is to find, fact-check and quote less high-profile community leaders.
That all said, the type of journalism these individuals described does go on in Los Angeles. But it's getting harder and harder to find. Getting to know a neighborhood and all the players in town used to be the domain of the newspaper beat reporter. And it still is. Unfortunately, with the recent economic troubles in the industry, especially here in LA, there aren't too many reporters like this left. And the sheer lack of reporters creates other problems too. Less beat reporters means the journalists who do still have jobs need to file more stories to cover for their laid-off brethren. This, of course, means less--if any--time to devote to enterprise reporting.
Are niche blogs the answer? Ones that cover micro-specific beats in specific communities? They certainly could be. But, as it stands now, for-profit blogs rely on daily page views to make money. Which requires feeding the beast. Perhaps even more than the aforementioned swamped beat reporters, bloggers have even less time for enterprise reporting. Even aggregating someone else's reporting into 7 or 8 posts per day is a full-time job.
Is it possible to live up to the standards of textbook community reporting in today's media environment? On an isolated basis, absolutely. But as a matter of standard practice, I'm not so sure. There's a model out there waiting to happen in the new media world. Non-profit online journalism perhaps. But it's not there yet.
The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's SoCal Focus blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the Cailfornia Endowment.