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A (Web) site to behold

A (Web) Site to Behold
The Alhambra Source functions as a local newsmagazine covering politics, events, education, health, food and art.

The USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism has launched an innovative news site that aims to cover news and be a multilingual voice for local storytellers.

In a unique collaboration between communication research and new media, researchers will gauge the impact by measuring levels of civic engagement now – and after two years of operation.

Alhambra Source, based in the multiethnic city of Alhambra (52 percent Asian, 36 percent Latino, 11 percent Caucasian), just east of Los Angeles, uses content from journalists, USC Annenberg students, local contributors and high school student reporters.

The multilingual site ( posts content in English, Chinese and Spanish, functioning as a local newsmagazine covering politics, events, education, health, food, art and more.

The genesis of the site is the Alhambra Project, which was created in 2008 by USC Annenberg researchers responding to the area’s low level of civic engagement and shortage of local reporting. The researchers were attracted to the challenge of building a community news Web site – in a linguistically diverse area – that could bolster civic engagement in measurable ways.

The idea for the site came from Michael Parks, former director of the USC Annenberg Journalism School and former editor of the Los Angeles Times. He wanted to explore how local news coverage could better serve communities, after he concluded that traditional, metropolitan news outlets like the Times were not enriching civic participation.

“One question in all of this is: Does journalism matter?” Parks said. “We’ve had the assumption for a long time that an informed citizenry, informed by the press, would take an active part in the decision-making in the community. We’ll see if we can move the needle there.”

Researchers, led by communication professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach, worked in Alhambra for two years before building a site tailored to the community’s specific information needs.

“We’re embedding the site into the fabric of that community,” said Ball-Rokeach, who also directs the Metamorphosis project, a collaborator with the Alhambra project. “We’re reaching out to where they are, not saying, ‘Here we are. Come to us.’ Or, ‘This is what you should know.’ Instead, we learned what the major issues are.”

Ball-Rokeach’s team monitored the Chinese and Spanish-language media and also conducted focus groups to determine the communities that need information: parents, drivers and foodies. (Food blogs already are among the most popular coverage on the site.)

Ball-Rokeach is preparing to launch a major survey of civic engagement in Alhambra, to offer a baseline for comparison when researchers do a follow-up study in two years. The surveys also will explore how attached residents feel to their community, including how much meaningful interaction they have with their neighbors and whether they feel empowered to join together to address common problems such as potholes or an unsafe park.

It’s that kind of engagement that is the heart of the Alhambra Source, said managing editor Daniela Gerson. The point is not just to present stories in multiple languages, but to spark dynamic interaction.

“We don’t want to just have three parallel sites in three languages,” Gerson said. “We want to have a site where people can comment in Chinese, and people who don’t speak Chinese can read them and add their own ideas. So these populations interact.”

Project leaders know they have a tough job ahead of them. They point to one obvious barometer of Alhambra’s low civic activity: This fall’s elections in Alhambra were canceled after no one stepped up to run against any of the five incumbents up for re-election on the City Council and the school board.

Although the site just launched, Gerson already is hearing enthusiastic feedback from residents.

“It’s been very rewarding to watch Alhambra residents from diverse backgrounds interact with the site and use it to address public issues such as high-speed rail, development on Main Street and emerging local artists,” Gerson said. “For a year this was mostly theory, but from the feedback we’re receiving, it’s evident that the Alhambra Source is filling an information void and Alhambrans are grateful for the opportunity to have more voices heard.”

A (Web) site to behold

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