The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens to local news when there is no local media to cover it?

Lots of newsworthy things happen in this city of nearly 30,000, located in the heart of Silicon Valley. It's just that many of them don't make the local news.

Last fall, for example, voters went to the polls to elect a new city council and to weigh in on three ballot measures, including two that would raise local taxes. The issues were "critical" to the city's immediate future, Mayor Larry Moody said. But without even a weekly newspaper in town, it was hard to find out.

The nearby Palo Alto Daily News mentioned the council race just once before Election Day; the rival Palo Alto Daily Post listed the candidates’ names in August — and then didn’t report another word until after Election Day.

“We do the same things in this city that everyone else does,” says Moody. “We just don’t seem to get the same attention.”

In many respects, East Palo Alto is a news "desert," a community overlooked, if not entirely ignored, by the media. It's one of thousands of towns across America in which community reporting is shrinking and sometimes disappearing. The biggest factor, according to a University of North Carolina study of the phenomenon: cutbacks, consolidation and closures of daily and weekly newspapers, the traditional lifeblood of local reporting in America since before its founding.

The disappearance of hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers reduced newspaper employment by more than half between 2001 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The pressures on local news outlets have been building for years, driven by the twin devils of recession and the disruption caused by the shift to digital media. The impact was noted in a federal study in 2011. It concluded, "A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little."

The “desert” phenomenon holds a special irony in East Palo Alto, a multiethnic, largely ­working-class community. The city sits amid, but largely apart from, the bustling corridor of companies that have revolutionized and conquered the global information market. Google’s campuslike complex is just five miles to the south in Mountain View. Apple, maker of the devices on which so many get their news, is 13 miles away in Cupertino. And Facebook — the behemoth that facilitates the trading of GIFs and gossip among 2 billion humans each day — is headquartered in Menlo Park, literally across the street from East Palo Alto’s northwestern border.

Who’s watching the schools?

East Palo Alto isn’t entirely ignored by the Bay Area’s newspapers, TV stations and many news sites. Crime stories get some attention. But there’s far less about city politics and government initiatives, public education, local arts, human-interest stories and environmental concerns and ­economic-development issues. The city’s mayor was mentioned by name just three times in the Daily News during all of 2016, according to a search of the Nexis database. The police chief and schools superintendent rated just five mentions, collectively. Most of these stories were just a few paragraphs long.

The situation is different just across the Bayshore Freeway (U.S. Highway 101), which runs like an asphalt river separating East Palo Alto from its larger neighbor, Palo Alto, home of Stanford University and Silicon Valley’s veritable capital.

Palo Alto is a wealthy, cosmopolitan hub, decorated with graceful residential streets and a thriving downtown filled with cafes and boutiques; houses routinely sell for millions of dollars.

East Palo Alto, with a predominantly Hispanic and African American population, is dominated by modest single-story houses and rent-controlled apartments. It used to be home to a massive garbage dump (now a restored shoreline park) and a pesticide manufacturing plant. The median household income in the city ($52,012, according to a 2016 Census estimate) is barely a third that of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto's prosperity ensures that it doesn't want for news about itself. The Daily News (owned by the parent of the regional San Jose Mercury News) is online every day and in print each week. The independently owned Daily Post appears six days a week. The Palo Alto Weekly operates a local-news site, in addition to its paper edition. The nearby San Mateo Daily Journal covers the region, too. Nine more papers and websites cover the Stanford campus. A branch of the Patch chain of "hyper local" news sites covers the city, too.

Aside from the police blotter, East Alto often isn't mentioned at all in the Post, Weekly or Daily News. None of the Palo Alto papers has a beat reporter assigned to cover the city full time. The Daily Post doesn't even list East Palo Alto as part of its "coverage area," despite a newsroom located less than a mile and a half from the city line. Patch doesn't have an East Palo Alto site, either.

This means people in East Palo Alto often wait days to find out something about themselves, if they find out at all.

In late April, the school district serving the city and part of nearby Menlo Park was convulsed by a widespread teachers’ protest. Nearly 80 percent of the district’s 184 teachers signed a petition expressing no confidence in the superintendent, whom they said had mismanaged a school reorganization. The petition was presented to the district’s board at an emotional meeting on April 27.

Yet it took almost a week before the first reports of the meeting surfaced. A news site run by Stanford graduate students was first to report it, six days after the fact. The Daily Post and Palo Alto Weekly picked up the story two days later, followed four days thereafter by the Daily News.

And that . . . was that. Nearly three months later, none of the papers has written a follow-up story.

“If this was going on in Palo Alto, it would be covered every single day,” said Ruben Abrica, a longtime East Palo Alto resident who is vice mayor. There were no reporters at the meeting, he said, and none inquired for days. “When no one pays attention, it’s almost like it didn’t happen.”

East Palo Alto’s mayor, Moody, says the emphasis on crime stories may be a legacy of the early 1990s when the city had 42 murders, the highest per capita rate in the country. He notes that East Palo Alto has reduced violent crime more than any city in San Mateo County (there were three homicides last year), but few stories note the long-term trend.

Years of declining coverage

East Palo Alto once had two weekly papers published in and about town. The Peninsula Bulletin and the Ravenswood Post both closed in the 1970s, according to the Menlo Park Historical Society and longtime resident Frank Omowale Satterwhite. There have been periodic efforts since then to fill the void, such as the founding of a small monthly magazine, called El Ravenswood.

A local journalist, Henrietta Burroughs, started a nonprofit paper called East Palo Alto Today in 2006. But the paper has struggled financially; it is published just once every two months.

Burroughs says attracting advertising support has been difficult, in part because of East Palo Alto’s limited retail base. As a result, she can’t afford to hire a full-time reporting staff or increase the paper’s frequency. “I was surprised when I started at how much was going on here,” she says. “Sometimes for me it’s overwhelming. I know so much is happening and I can’t get to it.”

Even across the freeway in prosperous Palo Alto, the long migration from print to a digital media has hurt local reporting.

In the mid-1990s — flush years in the newspaper business — the San Jose Mercury News maintained an 18-person news bureau in Palo Alto that covered the cities and towns on the Peninsula, said Dave Price, a local news entrepreneur. Price took on this regional Goliath by starting the Palo Alto Daily News, establishing a newsroom in a building owned by a plumbing company.

The Mercury News’s then-owner, Knight Ridder, bought the paper from Price and his business partner in 2005. But by then, demand for print ads had begun to soften, never to be fully replaced by their digital equivalent. As a result, the Daily News’s current owner, Bay Area News Group, began to pare both the Mercury News’s reporting staff and the Daily News, too.

Price sensed an opportunity, and when a noncompete agreement with the Daily News’s owner ended in 2008, he started a new paper, the six-days-per-week Palo Alto Daily Post. He now boasts, “We have more ads and revenue than anyone in the market.”

But after all that, “the market” has far fewer reporters and a lot less actual journalism.

Meanwhile, the Daily News — which at its peak had five Peninsula editions put out by 20 full-time and 20 part-time journalists — cut its printing schedule back to just one day a week in early 2015, though it maintains a full-time website.

The old Mercury News bureau is long gone, replaced by the News’s staff of six. The Daily Post employs just two reporters in its eight-member newsroom.

Abrica, the East Palo Alto resident and vice mayor, says a community loses its identity when it doesn’t see or hear news about itself. “It hurts our overall well-being,” he says. “It’s incomprehensible that people don’t know such basic things. This is the middle of Silicon Valley. How could they not know?”