Work­ing­class town the me­dia for­got

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Farhi

EAST PALO ALTO, CALIF. » Lots of news­wor­thy things hap­pen in this city of nearly 30,000, lo­cated in the heart of Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s just that many of them don’t make the lo­cal news.

Last fall, for ex­am­ple, vot­ers went to the polls to elect a new city coun­cil and to weigh in on three bal­lot mea­sures, in­clud­ing two that would raise lo­cal taxes. The is­sues were “crit­i­cal” to the city’s im­me­di­ate fu­ture, Mayor Larry Moody said. But with­out even a weekly news­pa­per in town, it was hard to find out.

The nearby Palo Alto Daily News men­tioned the coun­cil race just once be­fore Elec­tion Day; the ri­val Palo Alto Daily Post listed the can­di­dates’ names in Au­gust - and then didn’t re­port an­other word un­til af­ter Elec­tion Day.

“We do the same things in this city that ev­ery­one else does,” says Moody. “We just don’t seem to get the same at­ten­tion.”

In many re­spects, East Palo Alto is a news “desert,” a com­mu­nity over­looked, if not en­tirely ig­nored, by the me­dia. It’s one of thou­sands of towns across Amer­ica in which com­mu­nity re­port­ing is shrink­ing and some­times dis­ap­pear­ing. The big­gest fac­tor, ac­cord­ing to a Univer­sity of North Carolina study of the phe­nom­e­non: cut­backs, con­sol­i­da­tion and clo­sures of daily and weekly news­pa­pers, the tra­di­tional lifeblood of lo­cal re­port­ing in Amer­ica since be­fore its found­ing.

The dis­ap­pear­ance of hun­dreds of daily and weekly news­pa­pers re­duced news­pa­per em­ploy­ment by more than half be­tween 2001 and 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Bu­reau of La­bor Statis­tics. The pres­sures on lo­cal news out­lets have been build­ing for years, driven by the twin devils of re­ces­sion and the dis­rup­tion caused by the shift to dig­i­tal me­dia. The im­pact was noted in a fed­eral study in 2011. It con­cluded, “A short­age of re­port­ing man­i­fests it­self in in­vis­i­ble ways: sto­ries not writ­ten, scan­dals not ex­posed, gov­ern­ment waste not dis­cov­ered, health dan­gers not iden­ti­fied in time, lo­cal elec­tions in­volv­ing can­di­dates about whom we know lit­tle.”

The “desert” phe­nom­e­non holds a spe­cial irony in East Palo Alto, a mul­ti­eth­nic, largely work­ing-class com­mu­nity. The city sits amid, but largely apart from, the bustling cor­ri­dor of com­pa­nies that have rev­o­lu­tion­ized and con­quered the global in­for­ma­tion mar­ket. Google’s cam­pus-like com­plex is just five miles to the south in Moun­tain View. Ap­ple, maker of the de­vices on which so many get their news, is 13 miles away in Cu­per­tino. And Face­book - the be­he­moth that fa­cil­i­tates the trad­ing of GIFs and gos­sip among 2 bil­lion hu­mans each day - is head­quar­tered in Menlo Park, lit­er­ally across the street from East Palo Alto’s north­west­ern bor­der.

••• East Palo Alto isn’t en­tirely ig­nored by the Bay Area’s news­pa­pers, TV sta­tions and many news sites. Crime sto­ries get some at­ten­tion. But there’s far less about city pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, lo­cal arts, hu­man-in­ter­est sto­ries and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns and eco­nomic-de­vel­op­ment is­sues. The city’s mayor was men­tioned by name just three times in the Daily News dur­ing all of 2016, ac­cord­ing to a search of the Nexis data­base. The po­lice chief and schools su­per­in­ten­dent rated just five men­tions, col­lec­tively. Most of th­ese sto­ries were just a few para­graphs long.

The sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent just across the Bayshore Free­way (U.S. High­way 101), which runs like an asphalt river sep­a­rat­ing East Palo Alto from its larger neigh­bor, Palo Alto, home of Stan­ford Univer­sity and Sil­i­con Val­ley’s ver­i­ta­ble cap­i­tal.

Palo Alto is a wealthy, cos­mopoli­tan hub, dec­o­rated with grace­ful res­i­den­tial streets and a thriv­ing down­town filled with cafes and bou­tiques; houses rou­tinely sell for mil­lions of dol­lars.

East Palo Alto, with a pre­dom­i­nantly His­panic and African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, is dom­i­nated by mod­est sin­glestory houses and rent-con­trolled apart­ments. It used to be home to a mas­sive garbage dump (now a re­stored shore­line park) and a pes­ti­cide man­u­fac­tur­ing plant. The me­dian house­hold in­come in the city ($52,012, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Cen­sus es­ti­mate) is barely a third that of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto’s pros­per­ity en­sures that it doesn’t want for news about it­self. The Daily News (owned by the par­ent of the re­gional San Jose Mer­cury News) is on­line every day and in print each week. The in­de­pen­dently owned Daily Post ap­pears six days a week. The Palo Alto Weekly op­er­ates a lo­cal-news site, in ad­di­tion to its pa­per edi­tion. The nearby San Ma­teo Daily Jour­nal cov­ers the re­gion, too. Nine more papers and web­sites cover the Stan­ford cam­pus. A branch of the Patch chain of “hy­per lo­cal” news sites cov­ers the city, too.

Aside from the po­lice blotter, East Alto of­ten isn’t men­tioned at all in the Post, Weekly or Daily News. None of the Palo Alto papers has a beat re­porter as­signed to cover the city full time. The Daily Post doesn’t even list East Palo Alto as part of its “cover­age area,” de­spite a news­room lo­cated less than a mile and a half from the city line. Patch doesn’t have an East Palo Alto site, ei­ther.

This means peo­ple in East Palo Alto of­ten wait days to find out some­thing about them­selves, if they find out at all.

In late April, the school dis­trict serv­ing the city and part of nearby Menlo Park was convulsed by a wide­spread teach­ers’ protest. Nearly 80 per­cent of the dis­trict’s 184 teach­ers signed a pe­ti­tion ex­press­ing no con­fi­dence in the su­per­in­ten­dent, whom they said had mis­man­aged a school re­or­ga­ni­za­tion. The pe­ti­tion was pre­sented to the dis­trict’s board at an emo­tional meet­ing on April 27.

Yet it took al­most a week be­fore the first re­ports of the meet­ing sur­faced. A news site run by Stan­ford grad­u­ate stu­dents was first to re­port it, six days af­ter the fact. The Daily Post and Palo Alto Weekly picked up the story two days later, fol­lowed four days there­after by the Daily News.

And that . . . was that. Nearly three months later, none of the papers has writ­ten a fol­low-up story.

“If this was go­ing on in Palo Alto, it would be cov­ered every sin­gle day,” said Ruben Abrica, a long­time East Palo Alto res­i­dent who is vice mayor. There were no re­porters at the meet­ing, he said, and none in­quired for days. “When no one pays at­ten­tion, it’s al­most like it didn’t hap­pen.”

East Palo Alto’s mayor, Moody, says the em­pha­sis on crime sto­ries may be a legacy of the early 1990s when the city

had 42 mur­ders, the high­est per capita rate in the coun­try. He notes that East Palo Alto has re­duced vi­o­lent crime more than any city in San Ma­teo County (there were three homi­cides last year), but few sto­ries note the long-term trend.

••• East Palo Alto once had two weekly papers pub­lished in and about town. The Penin­sula Bul­letin and the Ravenswood Post both closed in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to the Menlo Park His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and long­time res­i­dent Frank Omowale Sat­ter­white. There have been pe­ri­odic ef­forts since then to fill the void, such as the found­ing of a small monthly mag­a­zine, called El Ravenswood.

A lo­cal jour­nal­ist, Hen­ri­etta Bur­roughs, started a non­profit pa­per called East Palo Alto To­day in 2006. But the pa­per has strug­gled fi­nan­cially; it is pub­lished just once every two months.

Bur­roughs says at­tract­ing ad­ver­tis­ing sup­port has been dif­fi­cult, in part be­cause of East Palo Alto’s lim­ited re­tail base. As a re­sult, she can’t af­ford to hire a full-time re­port­ing staff or in­crease the pa­per’s fre­quency. “I was sur­prised when I started at how much was go­ing on here,” she says. “Some­times for me it’s over­whelm­ing. I know so much is hap­pen­ing and I can’t get to it.”

Even across the free­way in pros­per­ous Palo Alto, the long mi­gra­tion from print to a dig­i­tal me­dia has hurt lo­cal re­port­ing.

In the mid-1990s - flush years in the news­pa­per busi­ness - the San Jose Mer­cury News main­tained an 18-per­son news bu­reau in Palo Alto that cov­ered the cities and towns on the Penin­sula, said Dave Price, a lo­cal news en­tre­pre­neur. Price took on this re­gional Go­liath by start­ing the Palo Alto Daily News, es­tab­lish­ing a news­room in a build­ing owned by a plumb­ing com­pany.

The Mer­cury News’s then-owner, Knight Rid­der, bought the pa­per from Price and his busi­ness part­ner in 2005. But by then, de­mand for print ads had be­gun to soften, never to be fully re­placed by their dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent. As a re­sult, the Daily News’ cur­rent owner, Bay Area News Group, be­gan to pare both the Mer­cury News’ re­port­ing staff and the Daily News, too.

Price sensed an op­por­tu­nity, and when a non­com­pete agree­ment with the Daily News’ owner ended in 2008, he started a new pa­per, the six-days-per-week Palo Alto Daily Post. He now boasts, “We have more ads and rev­enue than any­one in the mar­ket.”

But af­ter all that, “the mar­ket” has far fewer re­porters and a lot less ac­tual jour­nal­ism.

Mean­while, the Daily News — which at its peak had five Penin­sula edi­tions put out by 20 full-time and 20 part-time jour­nal­ists - cut its print­ing sched­ule back to just one day a week in early 2015, though it main­tains a full-time web­site.

The old Mer­cury News bu­reau is long gone, re­placed by the News’s staff of six. The Daily Post em­ploys just two re­porters in its eight-mem­ber news­room.

Abrica, the East Palo Alto res­i­dent and vice mayor, says a com­mu­nity loses its iden­tity when it doesn’t see or hear news about it­self. “It hurts our over­all well-be­ing,” he says. “It’s in­com­pre­hen­si­ble that peo­ple don’t know such ba­sic things. This is the mid­dle of Sil­i­con Val­ley. How could they not know?”

PHOTO BY BIZ HER­MAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“We do the same things in this city that ev­ery­one else does,” says Larry Moody, mayor of East Palo Alto, where the pop­u­la­tion is largely African Amer­i­can and His­panic. But news cover­age is scant.

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