LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — When conservative Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly needs a sparring partner on immigration issues, his producers occasionally turn to a totally under-the-radar nonprofit news site, Intersections South Los Angeles.
The two-year-old site, a hybrid of hyperlocal reporting and user-generated news, runs on grant and university funds and operates out of the University of Southern California. Editor-in-chief Willa Seidenberg, a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, says the operation’s goals differ from those of a normal news organization.
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“When I came here eleven years ago, generally our students didn’t go to south L.A. for stories. Obviously they are fearful of it,” she says. “It felt even more dangerous to them than a war zone.” Intersections was initially started to help USC journalism students learn how to report from under-served and poor neighborhods; but the site’s existence has also helped ease tension between the glitzy private university and poverty-stricken south L.A. “Our first priority was to get students out there to get the sort of cultural confidence to be in the community,” she says. “It’s such an amazing place for journalists to find stories…. This is a community that just does not get covered.”
In 2008, Seidenberg and USC associate professor Bill Celis pitched their idea for a site that would combine USC j-school reporting and user-generated community news with a robust media literacy program. They received a $10,000 grant from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, a $25,000 grant from J-Lab, two McCormick grants, and a USC University Neighborhood Outreach grant. Annenberg students built out a content management system for Intersections using ExpressionEngine in 2009, and the enterprise took up residence in the j-school that year, where it could receive in-kind support like phones and photocopying services.
Celis dropped out of the project in January 2010; Seidenberg now heads the operations part-time, along with a soon-to-be full-time managing editor. Two to three j-school grad students work part-time on site updates, recruiting mentors and volunteer reporters, copy editing, and social media. Two grad or undergrad students facilitate mentoring and news literacy training at local schools. Anywhere from eleven to thirty volunteers report, mentor citizen contributors, and write pieces for the site. (The time devoted by these volunteers varies depending on the time of year, from a few hours per week to full-time, with summer generally being the slowest season.)
While the site doesn’t shy away from covering poverty, gangs, drug addiction issues, and violence, it deliberately chooses to focus on “the happy news”, Seidenberg says. “We’re trying to do stories that show the vibrancy of the community, too. There’s a great arts community here in south L.A. There’s theater here and there’s dance here. There are huge problems, and we in no way want to minimize them, but I also don’t want to overlook what the great things are and that sense of cultural and spirit and energy that are here.”
Seidenberg says she expected some pushback from USC’s neighbors, a community that has been repeatedly ignored by the media. “The Los Angeles Times made various priorities after the riots, then they pulled back. Residents are used to having people come in and then leave,” Seidenberg says. “I really expected a lot of pushback from the community. And that hasn’t been so much the case. Not nearly on the level I expected. We get more thank yous for covering the community and telling their stories, because there is just so little of it.”
Seidenberg says she is proud of the site’s oral histories of neighborhood hotspots. The site also publicized an investigation showing that regional grocers withheld higher-quality food from poor neighborhoods. Maintaining the level of community content is always a challenge, she says. The site is working on plans to reach more locals by being available not only on expensive smart phones but via text message on cheap, ubiquitous “feature” phones.
Intersections South L.A. staffers also help nearby Manual Arts High School put out a newspaper called the Toiler Times, and some of that content is posted to the High School Notebook section of Intersections. “It sort of empowers [kids] to think they can have a role in speaking up about their community,” says Seidenberg.
The site averages over 16,000 page views a month, but local opinion articles draw heavy comments. And the site has landed two guests on Fox News. In the first incident, says Seidenberg, “Bill O’Reilly somehow was on our site and through us invited [teacher Jose Lara–an active immigration blogger] to be on the show.” Staff urged Lara to avoid the conservative attack pundit, but Lara went on anyway and held his ground. Lara has not been back on the show. The other guest: Althea Shaw, an anti-immigration activist whose nephew was killed by an undocumented immigrant.
In 2011, the site plans to boost its profile through increased marketing, says Seidenberg, as well as developing a business model less dependent on university and journalism grants. Other forms of success will be harder to measure. “I do want the community to feel ownership of it,” she says. And while many local residents still resent USC students, town-gown relations seem to be getting better. “A lot of kids [from the community] are coming onto campus for after-school programs,” Seidenberg says.” Some of those barriers are being broken down.
However, she says, “I don’t think it’s ever going to be done.”
Intersections South L.A. Data
Name: Intersections South Los Angeles
City: Los Angeles