By Gretchen Parker
Photos by Gus Ruelas and Daniel Vidal
A group of 14 high school students has banded together to learn about journalism and use it to shine a light on its native east Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, a deep-rooted Latino community of 90,000 that garners little positive attention from news media.
The news project, a collaboration between USC Annenberg and La Opinión, the Spanish-language daily, publishes its first edition this weekend, June 3-4. The 20-page bilingual tabloid, distributed to 22,000 homes in Boyle Heights, aims to educate residents about the culture, personalities and news of this vibrant neighborhood. Over the last semester, the student reporters delved into their community and interviewed artists, activists, L.A. city officials, police, teachers, business owners and victims of domestic violence to craft in-depth stories about their conflicts, struggles and successes.
The Boyle Heights students who signed up for the project said they were motivated by a desire to change the stereotype of Boyle Heights as a center of gang activity and poverty. Instead, they herald its rich immigrant culture, its long history of civic activism and its arts scene.
“The core premise is that having an engaged public is good for the health of the community. A newspaper can spark conversations and get people thinking about what they can change in their community. It also can make a neighborhood more cohesive,” said Michelle Levander (pictured, above center), co-editor and publisher. She also serves as founding director of USC Annenberg’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
Levander teamed up with Pedro Rojas (pictured, above left), executive editor of Los Angeles’ La Opinión, to launch the newspaper, which the students named Boyle Heights Beat/Pulso de Boyle Heights. The project is funded by The California Endowment, which supports Levander’s premise – that the work is a way to improve the overall health of Boyle Heights’ neighborhoods by enriching their sources of information and promoting community involvement.
The news team, which is helped by a half dozen adult advisors, including a number of volunteers, is already at work on its next edition. It also launches English and Spanish online sites this week, boyleheightsbeat.com and pulsodeboyleheights.com. But the heart of the project is the print edition, which will reach an audience that primarily relies on print and broadcast sources for news.
From the start, students showed an unanticipated passion for an intense project that has demanded much of their spare time. At the initial informational meeting, 70 students showed up to apply on a rainy Saturday. After a competitive application process, organizers narrowed the pool to 20 high school students from Boyle Heights Technology Academy, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Puente Learning Center and Mendez Learning Center.
Fourteen saw it through, attending twice-weekly news meetings after school on Tuesdays and on Saturdays and reporting in between. They’ve researched government policy, secured interviews with high-level Los Angeles politicians and policy makers, conducted dozens of on-the-street interviews and mastered Google mapping.
“It’s been pretty hectic, but I guess I see it as preparing me for life and learning to put priorities first,” said Franklin Granados, a 17-year-old junior at Mendez Learning Center who has lived in Boyle Heights since he was 9. “Right now I’d probably be relaxing with my friends and not doing much with my time, but instead I’m being productive. It’s more important than just messing around.”
It’s not, Levander and Rojas emphasize, a paper for an audience of high-school students. It’s written with a larger audience – the entire community – in mind.
One story will explore the politics and background of a debate over a proposed $2 billion redevelopment of Boyle Heights’ 1200-unit Wyvernwood apartment redevelopment project. The proposed redo has split Boyle Heights between those who see it as progress and those who consider it the razing of a landmark, a rare urban green space and a community that has become a neighborhood of its own over the past 70 years.
Another article delves into crime trends and uses interviews and statistics to tell the story of the dramatic drop in violent crime in the neighborhood. Others cover domestic violence, a fledgling new playhouse and the local farmers market, including a look into whether it’s economically viable enough to survive.
Whether or not students decide to pursue journalism, they’re learning to work in a way that will help them in any field, Rojas said.
“They’re learning how to meet deadlines, how to interact with other folks – including the people they interview – and discipline, work, commitment and how to operate as team,” said Rojas, who said he didn’t expect the level of dedication he’s seen.
“I was expecting that some of them would be committed, but all of them – all 14 – have been coming to every meeting and to interviews and have been working. Always, working,” he said.
Even beyond deadlines, students are learning critical thinking skills that they’ll use later, Levander said.
“They’re learning to follow a story and research topics, how to gather and build a persuasive case,” she said. “They’ll use those skills when they’re filling out an application for college and beyond.”
For many of the teens, writing about their own neighborhoods has been more complicated than they would have imagined. They’re assigned to cover the complete story – including the controversial elements – without showing an overt bias one way or the other.
“It’s a very tense issue,” said Cinthia Gonzalez, the Roosevelt High student who covered the Wyvernwood controversy. “Whenever I interview, I have to question everything. And question more and more. It’s important to hear both sides of the story. The development company and the tenants have something to say.”
She and her peers have learned a crucial lesson of journalism and communication: that their stories will be more powerful if they’re well-researched and tell both points of view.
“Just getting the news out there is important for the people of Boyle Heights, so they’ll be aware of what’s going on in their community. That it could change for the good or the bad – but that it’s important for them to be aware and be prepared,” Cinthia said.
The students’ stories will carry weight with their readers, because they’re authentic, Rojas said. That tie into Boyle Heights and direct engagement with the community will mean something to the residents, he said.
“For the community and the parents and families, it will be a point of pride to have their kids, their students, produce something tangible,” Rojas said. “They will have a print edition with their bylines and they’ll know they worked so hard to produce this. And it will be information about their community, delivered by their sons and daughters.”
Boyle Heights is one of 14 underserved communities around the state that has been targeted by The California Endowment as it works to improve neighborhood health and vitality and in turn increase residents’ life expectancy and quality of life.
Increasing news coverage of those areas is key, said Mary Lou Fulton, program manager for the health foundation.
“The role of media and information is essential in the public policy debate,” she said. “It’s really easy to dismiss the concerns and needs of people who live in low-income communities. But if you know who they are and their lives and struggles, you know their hopes and dreams are really the same as yours.
“When you think about how to make a rising tide – how to create a city in which we all prosper together, that requires information and conversation and a shared understanding of why certain neighborhoods aren’t as prosperous as others and what we can do to change that.”
The Boyle Heights Beat will show how important it is to have local journalism and “high-quality information” to spark conversation and action in communities, Fulton said. The California Endowment is now looking to use this project as a model for others around the state.
With all of the change happening in journalism, Levander says, a project to put out an old-school newspaper is turning out to be an application of the values and practices that will be crucial for new journalism.
“In this project, they’re finding a way to create accountability for elected officials and to perform a public service in the classic way a newspaper does. It’s hard to match that experience. But will they become journalists?” she said, then paused. “Doesn’t everyone have some potential to be a content producer? When you think of how fractured journalism is becoming, it makes these kinds of projects all that more important and exciting.”
Boyle Heights Beat advisors and contributing editors (including community volunteers) are: Luis Sierra Campos, Veronica Hurtado, Jessica Perez, Kris Rivera (M.A. Broadcast Journalism '95), Augustine Ugalde, Jr., Rocio Zamora (M.A. Print Journalism '07 and a Boyle Heights resident) and Gene Dean.
Senior editor is Anabell Romero, an incoming graduate student at USC Annenberg. Online editor is Gabriel Lerner, News Editor for La Opinión. Web designer is Jennifer Harris (M.A. Online Journalism '10) who works at latimes.com.
Boyle Heights Beat reporters are: Alejandro Rojas, Ángel Lizárraga, Cinthia Gonzalez, Diana Arellano, Diana Ochoa, Franklin Granados, Jonathan Olivares, Karissa Reynoso, Melissa Martínez, Yazmín Núñez, Rosa Solachi, María Vera, Charley Patiño, and Daniel Vidal.
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