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Publishers: Neighborhood papers write vital social history

A group of longtime publishers gathered in San Francisco recently to discuss the role of neighborhood newspapers in an age of newspapers' decline. When asked what defined a neighborhood paper, the publishers characterized their publications not just by geographic boundaries, but by a sense of historical and social purpose. They agreed that their papers help define the city's eclectic neighborhoods in a way that larger papers cannot.

Meeting at the Mission's CounterPulse theater on Dec. 10, the publishers of El Tecolote, The New Bernal Journal, The New Fillmore, and The Potrero View swapped stories of struggle, community and history. They made it clear that this city is cobbled together with distinct neighborhoods, and to read the neighborhood papers is to look through a San Francisco kaleidoscope.

 

The stories in these papers are often too small or too local for the citywide paper to cover. Some just may not be interesting to a citywide audience. As an example, Thomas Reynolds of The New Fillmore said he might print a story on James, the counter guy at the area convenience store. "Not a fire-burner of story,"  Reynolds said, but it “reveals something about the fabric of the community."

The publishers said the city is too big and diverse to be adequately covered by one paper. The evening's host, Chris Carlsson of CounterPulse, went further, arguing the San Francisco Chronicle is the voice of capital, not labor or the everyman, in the city. Whether by intent or limitation, stories important to the local community go uncovered by the city paper -- in any city.

"The Chronicle is failing," added  Juan Gonzales of El Tecolote, "because they don't serve the community." Like all of the local publishers at the event, Gonzales struggles to keep his paper afloat, sometimes even paying the bills out of his own pocket. Gonzales said he runs a mission-driven newspaper. He said he doesn't believe in journalistic objectivity and has never been afraid to advocate for his community, Latinos in San Francisco. He argues journalists can be fair, but never objective.

These publishers have been printing neighborhood stories for decades. Gonzales started El Tecolote with a group of student activists in 1970. Both Thomas Reynolds of The New Fillmore and Steven Moss of The Potrero View took over old operations started by longtime residents.

The longevity  of the neighborhood papers roots them in a historical tradition, with the publishers saying they attempt to record the social and economic histories of the neighborhoods they cover. Moss explained The Potrero View in terms of the fluctuation of industries in his neighborhood. Blue-collar workers founded the paper in the shipyards and heavy industry of the city's southeast side. Now, downtown is beginning to spread into SOMA and Mission Bay. It's The Potrero View's job to write the "people’s history" of these important transformations, Moss said.

El Tecolote practices a more activist journalism. The paper carefully watches trends in housing and immigration, and Gonzales said he tries to promote understanding of violence in the Mission. He has marched in street demonstrations and organized on the community's behalf. The paper has even uncovered corruption and incompetence in city government. On two occasions, stories in El Tecolote, which is printed in English and Spanish, spurred public agencies -- the phone company and San Francisco General Hospital -- to offer Spanish-language services.

The paper's provocative, muckraking approach hasn't always won accolades from readers. Some stories put Gonzales in danger. He has been threatened, received hate mail, been put under surveillance and even been attacked.

Although it is also a mission-driven paper, the New Bernal Journal is published by the nonprofit Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, and is therefore more confined in its politics. Printed in English and Tagalog, and sometimes in Chinese and Spanish, the paper tries to overcome socioeconomic divides in the community by addressing economic and geographical divisions. "Sometimes neighbors don't even know how to talk to one another," said Joseph Smooke, editor of the Journal.

Reynolds said he takes a more traditional journalistic approach with The New Fillmore: no agenda, just the facts. That doesn't mean the paper's without social benefit, though. Reynolds recounted his most valuable journalistic lesson, facing the people he writes about. "When you pull punches, you are accountable to those people," he said. But "if you don't pull any punches, then you have other people mad at you."

The New Fillmore covers Pacific Heights, parts of the Western Addition, Japantown and the heart of the old Fillmore jazz district. Reynolds explained the paper allows people in the neighborhood to know and understand those around them, like James the counter guy.

The publishers suggested such community connections might be key in the future. With the economic downturn, they said, it will be the connection with your neighbor who knows how to grow vegetables in her backyard that will lower your food bill, and your friendship with the plumber that might save your toilet one day when you can't afford to pay.

Expanding the publications' presence on the Internet might be one way to foster more community interaction. A group of online journalists from UC Berkeley, who started a site called Mission Loc@l, asked the publishers how they might put more of their newspapers online. "You're the ones that need to tell us," Moss said of the incoming generation of tech-savvy journalists. Reynolds suggested online forms of journalism should be an extension of, not a replacement for, the printed page.

But even with the Internet's possibilities, the publishers insisted neighborhood papers will continue to print. There are challenges to going digital, but publishers of local papers will continue to stuff the corner news boxes mostly because they print stories that capture the uniqueness of their neighborhoods. And that, they said, helps people understand where they are and who they are.


Jared Marchildon is a radio reporter for the KPFA evening news and a freelance photographer. See more of his work at jareducation.com.

Comments

print vs digital

until print dies of its own accord, let the behemouths have it.

go digital and do not incur the prohibitive startup costs.

we can all pretend we want to do tthe heavy lifting, but will in all liklihood fail to anything.

focus on the content.