'Boyle Heights Beat' Tells Community Stories That Bigger Outlets Often Miss East of downtown Los Angeles, a group of high school students put out a community newspaper four times a year and tell neighborhood stories that bigger news outlets sometimes overlook.

'Boyle Heights Beat' Tells Community Stories That Bigger Outlets Often Miss

'Boyle Heights Beat' Tells Community Stories That Bigger Outlets Often Miss

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East of downtown Los Angeles, a group of high school students put out a community newspaper four times a year and tell neighborhood stories that bigger news outlets sometimes overlook.


Carmen Gonzalez is 17 years old, and her life took a turn a couple of years ago when a community newspaper called Boyle Heights Beat showed up at her high school in Los Angeles. They were recruiting students to work as reporters.

CARMEN GONZALEZ: And I saw that it was a commitment, and I was like, ooh. But then also I saw that there was, like, a laptop, and I was like, ooh, I'm poor, and I need one.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) The laptop came with the position.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, you had, like, a contract. You had to do two articles to get the laptop, so basically you kind of paid it off.

SHAPIRO: Last week, I met Carmen after school as she took the metro and the bus to her job at the newspaper.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Please, step back and allow customers to exit the train before boarding.

SHAPIRO: By this point, she's written more than enough to get the laptop. Now she's getting paid by the story. Boyle Heights Beat is a hyperlocal publication, reported by teenagers, edited by adults, funded by grants, telling stories in Spanish and English that bigger newspapers might ignore.

GONZALEZ: My first article was about a homeless community college student. And that was a story I don't think a lot of people, like, talk about. It changed my life in seeing, like, someone else struggle in a different way. And, like, it kind of checked my privilege. And I was like, oh, like, you know what? Like, my life isn't that bad. That story, like, really, like, kind of solidified the fact that I wanted to be a journalist and tell these stories.

SHAPIRO: Boyle Heights is a mostly working-class neighborhood with a long history of Latino culture and political activism. But when mainstream news outlets report on the neighborhood, it tends to be stories about gang violence or gentrification.

GONZALEZ: It's that's one.

SHAPIRO: When the bus pulls up, Carmen recognizes someone on board.

GONZALEZ: Oh, there's another Boyle Heights beat reporter.

SHAPIRO: Keven Almontes is a senior at a rival high school and a fellow reporter.

KEVEN ALMONTES: So what piece are you working on right now?

GONZALEZ: I have, like, three potential ones. And then...

SHAPIRO: We reach the office in an old, decommissioned hospital that now houses a bunch of nonprofit organizations. About a dozen teenagers are working on laptops at long tables.

GONZALEZ: So, yeah, this is Boyle Heights Beat.

SHAPIRO: One's doing a story about new regulations for food carts. Another article is about college options for undocumented teenagers. Adult mentors work with the students to shape the stories.

KRIS KELLEY: Jackie, let me talk with you first and see where you are.

SHAPIRO: The way they get their story ideas is untraditional.


CITLALLI LOPEZ: Right after every edition comes out, we present it to a community meeting just - such as this one.

SHAPIRO: This is tape from a town hall meeting organized and led by the staff of Boyle Heights Beat. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people talk through ideas in Spanish and English. A young journalist named Citlalli Lopez is speaking here.


LOPEZ: We are here to ask for feedback and to hear ideas for the future issues.

SHAPIRO: Four times a year, they hold these meetings. And four times a year, they print 33,000 copies of the paper. They get distributed to houses and apartment buildings, restaurants and coffee shops around Boyle Heights. Founder Michelle Levander works at USC's journalism school. When she and another journalist started this paper eight years ago, their main goal was to find a way to build a strong relationship between a community and its news outlet.

MICHELLE LEVANDER: And what better way to do that than through its youth, to have the youth be the storytellers for their community?

SHAPIRO: Why youth?

LEVANDER: You know, people feel very hopeful about youth, and they are nicer to them.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LEVANDER: And they really came to trust them with their stories. And so it was just a very powerful way for these young people to give back to their community and the community to give to them.

SHAPIRO: She gives an example of one community meeting where a father stood up.

LEVANDER: Just simply said - he was wearing his paint-spattered clothes. He was probably a house painter or something. And he just said, there's no place for me to kick around a soccer ball with my kids. That lead our reporter to look into that. You know, how many parks are there in Boyle Heights? Turns out, Boyle Heights is one of the most park poor neighborhoods in LA - and to really bring that to the surface and also to talk about the very interesting history of how what was once the dominant, like, the Central Park of Boyle Heights had been cut by a freeway being put over it and pylons sunk into the middle of the lake where people used to go boating.

SHAPIRO: Around 160 teenagers have worked on the paper since it started in 2010. And recently, Boyle Heights Beat has branched out.


GONZALEZ: Hey, y'all, it's your one and only Carmen Gonzalez and your girl Jackie Ramirez. Que onda, Jackie?

JACKIE RAMIREZ: Hey, Carmen. Everything's good. We want our audience to know that...

SHAPIRO: They now produce a podcast called "Radio Pulso." Carmen Gonzalez is one of the hosts.

GONZALEZ: And a lot of times, we have community members come on. And it feels, like, nice because I get to, like, hear what Boyle Heights is through their eyes.

SHAPIRO: Now that she's been working on the paper for a couple of years, I asked Carmen how this experience has changed her.

GONZALEZ: I think it's made me a more empathetic person. I can actually sit through someone, like, talking on a viewpoint that's not similar to mine.

SHAPIRO: She also says it's made her feel like there's an important place for her in this community. Back in June, she interviewed former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was running for governor. She says she asked him tough questions about toxic waste and charter schools. Then she shrugs and says he dodged them like a typical politician.

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