I was trying to figure out what “civic media” is the other day. My friend Henry Jenkins helped coin the term – as well as co-founding MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media – and he told me that civic media is the media citizens need to make decisions about their communities. More provocatively, Henry suggested that civic media might refer to “all the community information we get after we lose newspapers.”
Henry wasn’t being triumphalist about the death of the newspaper – just articulating his fascination with the various forms of media that are emerging to allow communities to discuss, debate and decide in a digital age. A caution for everyone who’s fascinated by new civic media, myself included, is that newspapers continue to do a great deal of the critical work in reporting the news and information citizens need.
Recently the city of Bell, California has been in the news, not just in the LA area but across the country. Bell is a small city in the southeastern suburbs of Los Angeles, whose population of roughly 37,000 is majority Latino. In late July 2010, Bell became infamous for the extremely high salaries city officials were being paid. Robert Rizzo, the city’s Chief Administrative officer, collected a salary of almost $800,000 a year, with a benefits package that totalled $1.5 million annually. (The Los Angeles County Chief Executive, by contrast, earns just under $340,000 annually.) Many other city officials were earning inflated salaries, and all but one city council member was making nearly $100,000 a year. To pay the exorbitant salaries, Bell residents were paying the second-highest property tax rate in the LA area, a surprisingly high rate for a city with few services. As stories of corruption in Bell came to light, Rizzo, the council members, the mayor and other city officers were arrested for misappropriation of government funds.
The corruption in Bell was vigorously reported by the LA Times, specifically by Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb. David Folkenflik, reporting for NPR, explains that Vives discovered the story when reporting on neighboring Maywood, which had proposed contracting certain of its city services to Bell, including policing. He talked to Gottlieb, who remembered a pending investigation on pay to Bell’s city council. The two began demanding documents from the city and discovered an amazing tale of corruption and government malfeasance.
Writing in the LA Examiner, Nicholas Pell (sorry about that, Nicholas!) makes the case that the Bell story points to the ongoing importance of newspapers capable of doing high quality investigative reporting in an age where such newspapers are endangered. He’s right – the sort of reporting Vives and Gottlieb did requires a great deal of persistent inquiry, something that’s more realistic to expect of paid reporters than of engaged citizens. The Times’s coverage package on Bell is incredibly thorough, and the paper is now investigating other cities in Southeastern LA, like Vernon, where similar corruption seems to have taken place. This was a critically important story to break, and it’s worth pointing out that it might never have forced the elected officials out of office had the story not been legitimated by the LA Times and brought to national attention.
On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning, as Folkenflik does in his piece, that there’s a citizen media component to the story as well. “Pedro Parramo” is the nom de guerre of the blogger behind WatchOurCity.com, a blog that focuses on Bell and environs. Folkenflik reports that the blogger in question is frustrated that his role in helping expose the story has been little discussed, but admits that his blog has dozens of readers, not the hundreds of thousands the LA Times has, and that the corruption only stopped when the bigger paper got involved.
The Bell story is important not just because it will lead to fairer taxes for the citizens of that beleaguered city, but because it points to a large set of cities where corruption might be taking place. Bell was a perfect target for Rizzo and cronies – many of the residents are illegal immigrants, unlikely to get involved with politics. Many are recent legal immigrants and don’t speak English. The city is far from the action of downtown LA and managed to avoid scrutiny until a lucky coincidence and journalistic persistence broke the story. While California’s penchant for charter cities makes it particularly likely to fall victim to such shennanigans, this would be a good time for newspapers around the country to be checking up on local municipal governments… and as critically, for citizens to check in on whether their newspapers are capable of doing that sort of sustained investigative work.
The difficult truth: corruption in Bell went on longer than it should have, and it took an excellent and prestigious newspaper to bring it to light. Not every city is lucky enough to be in the shadow of that calibre of newspaper. And the work that “Pedro Parramo” did to expose the story wasn’t sufficient to stop the corruption until a big paper got involved. As we untangle what’s involved with citizen media, we need to think about more than reporting stories from disadvantaged communities – we need to think about how they get heard and acted upon.