I recently met Jasmin Lopez, a journalist from Los Angeles at the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. It’s a conference with a lot of schmoozing and boozing and talking about projects. Over dinner one evening Lopez told me about a new project she was heading up in Alhambra, California (not too far from where I grew up) called the Reporter Corps. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and StoryCorps facilitator naturally the name intrigued me and then when I heard more about the program — training young journalists to report in a hyper-local way on their community (Listen to what the Corps reported about Thanksgiving) — I had to learn more and share.
The Recollective: Why/how did you become a journalist/media-maker?
Lopez: Growing up in a low-income immigrant family, I became familiar with the challenges and barriers that exist in the lives of residents in underserved communities, both in the U.S. and Mexico. While living in San Francisco in 2007, my family’s experiences inspired me to create Project Luz – a collaborative effort that seeks to empower youth to share stories within their communities, utilizing audio and photojournalism techniques. In early 2008, I hopped into a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle with three photojournalists and headed on a month-long road trip through Mexico. We decided to stay indefinitely and ran storytelling workshops for youth in Ejido Hermosillo, my family’s hometown, and Nezahualcóytl, a city and municipality of Mexico state. During this time, I was fortunate enough to work with many journalists and media-makers who became my mentors, then colleagues. In 2009, I was unexpectedly propelled into a career in journalism when I was asked to report for documentary projects about families and communities affected by the H1N1 influenza in Oaxaca de Juarez, and those affected by the disappearance of the Colorado River in northern Mexico. Since then, my passion for community-based journalism has not ceased.
The Recollective: How did the idea for Reporter Corps come about?
Lopez: Daniela Gerson, editor of Alhambra Source and director of the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, saw the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community. Reporter Corps was launched on October 15, and is led by Daniela Gerson, Nasrin Aboulhosn, and myself.
The Recollective: How did you get involved in this project?
Lopez: While freelancing in Los Angeles, I recognized the need for community among LA area radio journalists and producers out of my own sense of loneliness in this field. I reached out via the Association of Independents in Radio (they’re amazing!) and dubbed the first group gathering as ‘Listen Up, Los Angeles’. Through Listen Up, Los Angeles, I met Daniela, became familiar with the Alhambra Source, and accepted the position of Coordinating Editor for Reporter Corps in Alhambra and South Los Angeles.
The Recollective: Tell me about the community of Alhambra. Why pilot this program in Alhambra?
Lopez: Alhambra is a predominantly Latino and Asian immigrant community in Los Angeles county. As with many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. The suburban city of about 85,000 lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers slashed their coverage of the area. The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.
The Recollective: Why are local/community-based stories important?
Lopez: In my opinion, local/community-based stories are important because they give community members a voice – an outlet they wouldn’t normally have access to. As you might know, under-served communities often lack exposure to public media or are overlooked in general. And, as journalists, we work so hard to tell a story and get our work to the “right” outlets, but often struggle with or ignore the need to reach the very community whose story we are telling.
The Recollective: What did you look for when hiring reporters?
Lopez: The first class of Reporter Corps members were selected based on their connection to Alhambra, growth potential, and determination to address social issues within their community. Often, this determination came from personal experiences – which provided them with unique insights into local issues. Since launching the program, the team of young reporters have already exceeded our expectations by applying lessons in communication research, multimedia reporting, and city government to their community and reporting.
The Recollective: What types of stories have your reporters covered that have been missed by the mainstream press?
Lopez: Reporter Corps launched on October 15, and recently began publishing work based on an assigned curriculum that addresses community needs, as well as the reporters’ questions about their community. For example, one hired reporter discussed her frustration with business/development issues in her community during her interview – she is now the business development beat reporter. Reporters are assigned to beats that cover business development, city government, education, environment, health, police/fire, transportation, and parks and recreation.
The Recollective: What stories have surprised you?
Lopez: The reporters are only in their second week of reporting but have already managed to impress the editorial team with their efforts. Most recently, they shared Election Day coverage with their community which led to a collaboration with KCRW.
The Recollective: How has social media and the internet influenced these young reporters ideas about reporting?
Lopez: Social media was not on the minds of the reporters until we introduced them to KPCC’s social media editor, Kim Bui, who led a workshop on social media. The reporters quickly began to incorporate social media into their reporting, and have most recently tweeting news from city council meetings to lessons learned during their workshops with local journalists. Check out the hashtag #ReporterCorps to follow them.
The Recollective: Many of the reporters you are working with are first generation Americans or immigrants themselves. How have you seen the immigrant experience influence these reporters?
Lopez: The young Reporter Corps members — all immigrants or children of immigrants — serve as natural translators for a multiethnic city. In addition, they are in great need of opportunities: Community college students are enduring cuts and recent graduates facing a challenging job market. With Reporter Corps, this often-overlooked group is developing skills and providing reporting on their community that a professional journalist could not achieve.
The Recollective: What have been the biggest hurdles in getting the project started?
Lopez: From creating curriculum to hiring the reporters to enlisting mentors to organizing the launch party, the program came together quite nicely in just a month. There were a few bumps along the way – we’ll call them lessons – but all fell into place. I think the most important thing to remember – a lesson I learned through Project Luz – is to always share what you’re doing and ask for feedback, keeping all parties in mind: the community, the reporters, the mentors, the supporters, and most importantly, your team.
The Recollective: What’s next?
Lopez: The first class of Reporter Corps will continue for the next five months, then welcome a new group of reporters from both Alhambra and South Los Angeles. Since this was the pilot, it is up to the current reporters and mentors to provide feedback on the program so that it is strengthened and can be replicated elsewhere. Personally, I look forward to learning more from my team, the reporters, and this community so that I may apply these lessons to my future work…always to be determined.