Cityview: Start the Presses

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Fourteen-year-old Yaritza Rivera is annoyed that the press never comes to visit her community. “Most of the news is about New York, Manhattan, but there’s nothing about Highbridge,” she says. But for Rivera and her neighbors, what happens in the small, hilly Bronx neighborhood just north of Yankee Stadium is important, even if it doesn’t wind up on the nightly news.

For example, a number of car accidents in front of local elementary school CES 73 galvanized Highbridge residents to launch a letter-writing campaign and meet with city officials to demand speed bumps near the school.

That one didn’t make the dailies. But it did get reported, because Highbridge residents wrote it up themselves–in their new community newspaper, the Highbridge Horizon. Launched last winter with the help of a couple of VISTA volunteers at the Highbridge Community Life Center, the monthly just printed its fourth issue in March.

The Horizon is mostly written by local residents–including teens like Rivera. It’s one of only a handful of nonprofit local papers published in the city. I edit another, the Norwood News. Our publisher, the Mosholu Preservation Corporation, a community development corporation in the northwest Bronx, started the paper 10 years ago to help residents keep up with each other.

All politics may be local, but most media are not. The dailies and local radio and TV stations occasionally parachute into a neighborhood to cover a murder, political scandal or ribbon-cutting ceremony, but they simply don’t stick with those issues long enough to have an impact.

In 1993, after it was reported in the Norwood News that the foundation of a new elementary school under construction in the Bronx’s overcrowded District 10 was built on the wrong grade of fill, it made the Daily News. “Sinking School!” screamed the front page. But that was pretty much it; the next day, the paper moved on to other headline grabbers.

The Norwood News stayed with the story for three years, writing dozens of articles, filing Freedom of Information requests with the School Construction Authority, keeping the story on our front page with a countdown to the day that the school was supposed to open. By the time the school was completed, it had been postponed six times and the project was millions over budget. The Norwood News was widely credited with preventing even more delays. Our coverage also spurred the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition to organize around the problem and follow other education issues.

More often, the paper follows the lead of local residents, helping community groups get the word out about their work and keeping the heat on politicians and bureaucrats by reminding them that someone is watching.

In smaller ways, too, community papers can make their mark. A tenant in a drug-plagued building can learn which community group can help her start a tenant association. Announcements of upcoming events get people connected to their neighborhoods–going to a play, participating in a park cleanup, joining a senior citizen or youth program.

There’s supposedly an information revolution underway, but it’s easier to get news about a flood in Bangladesh than it is to find out when the next precinct community council meeting is. Most neighborhoods don’t have a local paper–there isn’t one in any other Bronx community south of Fordham Road, and even a paper like the Amsterdam News focuses more on citywide stories than local news in Harlem.

Part of the reason that community papers are rare is that there isn’t much advertising revenue to support them. That’s where nonprofits can help. Like youth programs, job-training classes, and economic development, community-based newspapers might not make money, but they make a neighborhood a better place to live. It can even go beyond passing along information. For example, the Horizon also helps train resident writers to report, write and use computers.

Even without a full-time staff person, a group can start a paper with neighborhood volunteers, VISTA workers or college interns. (For its first six years, the Norwood News was edited by a part-time staffer.) Desktop publishing software makes production relatively easy for beginners. And some foundations–notably the New York Foundation and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation–have already recognized the importance of these papers by giving financial support. If enough nonprofits started papers, they could refer advertisers to each other and even collaborate on stories that cross neighborhood boundaries.

If you doubt the power of local journalism, visit Highbridge, where the excitement over the paper is palpable. Neighbors are recognizing each other from stories in the paper and chatting on the street. As Horizon contributor Yolanda Romero puts it, the paper “is a chance for the community to learn about itself.”

Still skeptical? Then pass by CES 73. If you’re driving, you’ll have to slow down: The city just installed a speed bump there.