What I Learned Covering San Diego at the Hyperlocal Level
While chronicling La Mesa and other cities throughout San Diego County, I was awed how my town of 60,000 was famished for local insight.
Was I invading privacy? Or was I exposing a legitimate news story? By revealing in July 2011 that “a member of a longtime La Mesa pizza family” faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, I revived the age-old debate: What should media report?
The case of Delina Sanfilippo — whose parents founded the landmark Sanfilippo’s Pizza restaurant on La Mesa Boulevard — caught my interest after she allegedly waved a knife in a police officer’s face.
As editor of La Mesa Patch, I was struck by the irony: Sanfilippo worked as a waitress at a restaurant that displayed Police Department plaques of appreciation. The eatery’s owners were widely revered.
Not everyone appreciated my news judgment.
“The Sanfilippos have worked hard for nearly 40 years in La Mesa, and have earned our community’s respect,” wrote local bookseller Deena While. “The family deserves privacy as they deal with this traumatic situation.”
Said another commenter: “Until the judicial process is complete, there is no story. Instead, what we have here is an editorial double standard, small town sensationalism and a wholly gratuitous smear on a local business.”
In my 18-month tenure at La Mesa Patch, I was accused of “stirring the pot,” “yellow journalism” and making Patch “a “tabloid media source.” I had plenty of defenders, but the presence of a reporter in many of these settings was a shock to the system.
I’d been here before. As editor of the weekly San Marcos Courier in the late 1970s, I knew what it was like to shine a light on long-ignored facets of an insular, clubby community. Expect blowback.
But as founding editor of an AOL-owned site, I also was awed how my town of 60,000 was famished for local insight. They devoured our graduation galleries. They feasted on our football game photos.
They wanted to know: Why is the sheriff’s helicopter flying over my house? What caused that traffic jam? Where is that billowing smoke coming from?
Hyperlocal news goes where traditional media can’t or won’t. How often do you see an elementary school talent show on TV? When did a paper ever cover a 7:30 a.m. meeting of the Grossmont Healthcare District board?
La Mesa Patch did both — many times. Northmont Elementary families saw their dancing kids online. And after we challenged the health care board about a Brown Act violation in late 2010, it conceded the error and held a previously closed meeting in open session.
La Mesans were treated to a series of revelations:
• That the La Mesa Police Officers Association used a third-party fundraising service not listed as lawful by state authorities. (The police union quietly dropped the service after my report.)
• That the year-round La Mesa headquarters of Comic-Con was operating for five years without a business license. It got the license after my report, but didn’t have to pay a fee. It was a nonprofit with millions in the bank.
• That the Party of the Century climaxing La Mesa’s centennial celebrations was a pricey, exclusive affair meant as a fundraiser and not a wide public event.
In fall 2010 — after being laid off by The San Diego Union-Tribune after 24 years there and hired by Patch — I made the rounds of La Mesa city, school and civic leaders and boards, promising a Jack Webb “Just the facts, ma’am” style of journalism.
The vast majority of La Mesa Patch stories were feature-focused — with a major sprinkling of galleries and videos. My wife, Chris, a photojournalist, and I shot countless events. Chris became a familiar face at sports venues.
Our theory: Rather than tell people what they should be interested in, reflect their lives and activities. We showed up everywhere — Sunday concerts in Harry Griffen Park, Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, Little League opening days.
At games, we shot the spectacle, not just the athletes. That meant cheerleaders, spectators, bands and even concession stands. And we posted dozens of photos, not just a handful. We exceeded 100 images per story many times.
The result: Kids drew their parents to the site. Social media shared images and links, and our Patch readership grew organically.
Rattling cages is part of our job, but hyperlocalism entails boosterism as well — just as your old community paper did back in the day. It’s part of the high-wire act familiar to any rural newspaper editor.
In March 2012, I was elevated to associate regional editor, where I soon became a player-coach of nine other Patch sites, which covered Imperial Beach, Coronado, Lemon Grove, Santee, La Jolla, Del Mar-Carmel Valley, Rancho Bernardo-4S Ranch, Poway and Ramona. Another ARE oversaw Patch sites in Carlsbad, Encinitas and Oceanside-Camp Pendleton.
I found myself cherry-picking hyperlocal stories other media either ignored or weren’t aware of — some with national implications:
• Rep. Darrell Issa’s first public disclosure, at a Rancho Bernardo GOP dinner, of the names of the Benghazi whistle-blowers.
• Instructions on how the public could see exactly how much Scott Peters and Brian Bilbray were spending on TV commercials in their congressional slugfest.
Here are my takeaways about La Mesa — and most other towns — after covering hyperlocal news the past three years.
• Profit by business stories: When a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market emerged on Grossmont Boulevard, a nearby Ralphs shut down within months. And folks were fascinated by the soap opera of the Gingham restaurant arrival and exit in the downtown Village — partly because La Mesa fights the reputation of being a dining culture gulch. Readers eat up even the smallest fast-food debut. Shops serve as meet-up places. And in a disaster, people want to know what’s open.
• Thank God for churches. For a time, I had a columnist writing under the heading “La Mesa Under God,” featuring faith-based events and people. The town’s spiritual and charitable life is hidden gold, and our own Journey megachurch — which just turned 20 — is worth a weekly column.
• Squeaky wheels drive coverage. Small-business owners made the downtown Village a major focus, especially in the battle over creating a self-taxing business-improvement district. The so-called PBID died on the vine, but a bigger story is the coming expiration of the 50-year-old Grossmont Center lease — and possible redevelopment.
• Crime and fire news is hot. Every town pays close attention to public safety. To its credit, La Mesa PD issues news releases on every major incident and posts its arrest logs. But to police dismay, residents get the impression that La Mesa is crime-ridden. I made several efforts to note the dramatic decline in La Mesa’s crime rates over the years, partly by noting the police chief’s quarterly reports but also by making requests for specific data. Most Patch sites run crime logs — something larger outlets can’t attempt.
• Political drama is inexhaustible. Whether it’s combative Art Madrid and his potential mayoral rivals on the City Council or the two school boards, there’s no end to the soap opera. Grossmont Union High School District has new limits on board-member speech. Even the La Mesa-based health care district — with riches unknown to the public — deserves more plumbing.
• Oktoberfest defines the town. Downtown boasts plenty of seasonal events, including antique street fairs, Christmas in the Village, Thursday summer car shows and Friday farmers markets. But Oktoberfest — pivotal fundraiser for the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce and La Mesa Village Merchants Association — dwarfs everything else that happens in town. It’s the beer, stupid. But it’s also the food, artsy booths and music stages, with the obligatory chicken dance.
• High schools are mini-cities. Helix and Grossmont high schools are ties that bind generations of La Mesans. Current students connect via Grossmont’s ASB Facebook page. But while Helix has a first-class PR operation, the school (with its own governing board) has a culture of secrecy. The charter school’s ongoing “Excellence in Education” tours are great, but when its executive director (chief principal) mysteriously quit two weeks before 2012 graduation, it left the town gasping for facts.
• Culture needs cultivation. Among the biggest arts stories in La Mesa was the announcement of the Lamplighter Community Theatre’s revival after a long dormancy. But performing arts have thrived for years under the umbrella of Councilman Mark Arapostathis (whose name I’m proud to pronounce correctly) and his Peter Pan Junior Theater (and Captain Hook Theater spinoff for older kids). A middle school La Mesa Arts Academy is planned for fall 2014, in fact. The town has a vibrant music scene as well but rarely gets ink.
• Viewpoints need venting. Even if a dozen people dominated what Patch called the “shout stream,” hyperlocals are needed touchpoints for local expression. National issues became localized — with guns, gays and God as reliably hot topics. People feel they are being heard and not lost in a flood of feedback. All politics is indeed local.
The hyperlocal payoff is when your coverage leads to needed change or improves readers’ lives. We helped find lost children. We alerted folks to criminal danger and political mischief.
Fact is, your neighbors aren’t the only ones benefiting. So are the cops on the beat and the worker bees at City Hall and school district offices who learn first what their bosses are doing from your reporting.
And what of Sanfilippo? After being arrested on another charge — shoplifting at the Grossmont Center Target — she skipped arraignment but later was caught and jailed without bail. Sentenced for burglary, her expected release date is Dec. 15.