USC Annenberg matches community news sites with research that measures impact of civic engagement

By Gretchen Parker

With the goal of making journalism more useful to civic life – by engaging residents and connecting them to their communities – USC Annenberg is connecting two of its community news sites with research that will explore and gauge their impact.

The Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative brings together Alhambra Source and Intersections South LA – and joins them with the research muscle of USC Annenberg’s Metamorphosis Project.

“One of the most interesting questions in journalism right now – and surely one of the most important – is this: How can we do journalism in ways that enable people to connect more richly with one another and with their communities?” said Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism. “That’s what this Civic Engagement Initiative focuses on.”

By merging scholarship with news, USC Annenberg makes the most of both, Overholser said.

“USC Annenberg is particularly fortunate in that we have, among our School of Communication colleagues, scholars who focus their research on these questions and — in the Journalism School — practitioners who lead news sites.  So now, with the initiative, we seek to bring the research to bear in both Alhambra and South L.A.”

While the number of community news sites has exploded across the country – up to more than a thousand today – few have any tools to measure their impact on meaningful civic engagement, said Daniela Gerson (pictured, above), editor of Alhambra Source and leader of the engagement and journalism initiative, at a recent USC Annenberg forum (full video).

“This affects the future of their operations, but it also affects the impact they can have on their communities,” she said, citing the findings of a recent national study from J-Lab on engagement. The new initiative “was created to look at these questions of how we can create sites that respond to local information needs and how we can measure them and make these sites better.”

Complementing the Metamorphosis analysis will be the analytics expertise of journalism professor Dana Chinn, who has been working with leading foundations to find ways to evaluate media impact projects.

The initiative will focus on the needs of diverse and under-served communities. The Alhambra Source, launched two years ago, is a trilingual news site that covers Alhambra, a predominantly Asian and Latino city of 85,000 east of Los Angeles. The site was developed as a response to the area’s low level of civic engagement and shortage of local reporting. Its roster of contributors has grown to more than 60 local residents, journalists, USC Annenberg students and high school students.

Alhambra Source is a unique collaboration between the communication research of the Metamorphosis project and digital news media. Researchers, led by communication professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach and journalism professor Michael Parks, worked in Alhambra for two years before building a site tailored to the community’s specific information needs. Next year, Metamophosis plans to lead a survey to measure civic engagement in the area and determine the impact Alhambra Source has had.

Intersections South LA is a community news site that covers South Los Angeles and surrounding areas, with contributions from residents, high school students and USC Annenberg journalism students. Created by journalism professors Willa Seidenberg and Bill Cellis, It has long emphasized the need for USC students to get to know their surrounding community and the mentoring relationships Annenberg students have with the high school contributors and the value that connection holds both for the site and for the community.

Now, Intersections will benefit from deep research that Metamorphosis brings – and both sites will benefit from comparing and integrating their best practices, leaders said.

“They (other community news sites) have their methodology and we have ours, but hopefully by talking to each other and working with each other we can discover how each other works – and that might give us a basis to maybe alter our methods to do our work better and more efficiently,” said Joe Soong, a community contributor to Alhambra Source who works as a labor analyst for the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Maybe they can give us additional thoughts we haven’t had on our stories and what we do. There will be a lot of sharing involved.”

Another element of Alhambra Source that will be expanded to Intersections South LA is Gerson’s “reporter corps,” a group of 18- to 26-year-old community contributors she’s been mentoring and who provide core coverage for the site. Gerson hopes to build a model for that training and gather a similar stable of reporters who can contribute regularly to Intersections.

Video of recent Journalism Director's Forum on civic engagement