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Meet the New Town Crier: the City Website

Times Staff Writer

Unless you live in Bellflower, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of Daniela Rodriguez, the 2005 first runner-up in the 20th annual Reading Is Fundamental National Poster Contest.

The sixth-grader from Bellflower’s Frank E. Woodruff Elementary School came in second in a field of more than 25,000 contestants. Daniela’s considerable accomplishment was announced in Washington in January.

Locally, there was nary a word about her on the evening news, or in the Los Angeles Times, or even in the 11-year-old’s hometown paper."She did something very special,” said Jeff Hobbs, Bellflower’s public information officer. “She was a local hero.”

So Hobbs featured Daniela on Bellflower’s website and in newsletters e-mailed to hundreds of residents in this town of 77,000 near the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Feeling ignored by traditional media, a growing number of California cities are finding a voice on the Internet.

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For the most part, the technology is used to promulgate bureaucratic information. On the Los Angeles website, visitors can view hundreds of postings, including meeting agendas of several commissions and neighborhood councils.

But others also are using the Internet to publicize issues important to them and their constituency. In the Northern California town of Cupertino, residents can subscribe to get regular e-mails about new development projects and the ongoing dispute over the Blue Pheasant restaurant, a longtime local watering hole that has become a little rowdy for its neighbors’ tastes.

Not quite the type of material that would grab headlines in the San Jose Mercury News, which covers Cupertino, said Rick Kitson, the city’s public information officer. “If there was an ax murderer, then we might make the news,” he joked.

Kitson and his counterparts in other cities, especially those in small towns, say they realize that much of what happens in their city halls and communities has limited appeal. Moreover, in many places, small-town newspapers have closed shop, and larger metropolitan dailies have retreated from town-by-town, block-by-block coverage. Broadcast news, by definition, covers broad areas.

Irvine’s website starts with a banner that proclaims “Keeping You Connected! Sign up for Irvine e-inform.” The e-mail service launched two years ago, offering 13 categories of e-mail services, includes an electronic version of the city’s newsletter and updates on the redevelopment of the closed El Toro Marine base, a controversial piece of property the city annexed in 2003. About 1,700 people subscribe, said Heather Morris, Irvine’s public information officer.

It is not that these cities never make the newspaper or the evening news, but the bar of what constitutes news has risen significantly, Morris and others said.

For some residents, the city’s electronic broadcast has become their primary source of information about their communities.

Ervin Page, a computer network engineer from Anaheim, said he doesn’t subscribe to newspapers.

“For one thing, they don’t pile up in my house,” said Page, 33. “Anything that has to do with city-related issues that I might be interested in as a taxpayer and homeowner, I can find in Anaheim.net.”

These cities are taking a page from the old local community papers that offered hometown news and kept the pulse of local affairs, said Larry Pryor, a USC journalism professor and director of the school’s online journalism program. Many of those newspapers have disappeared, but cities have found a cheap alternative on the Internet.

Because of the free-forum nature of the Internet, Pryor said he was unconcerned about the lack of journalistic standards when municipalities disseminate information directly to the public. Almost anyone with a computer can find a presence on the World Wide Web.

“If residents are being propagandized by their local government, they will know it,” he said. “It will prompt people to create their own electronic community news. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

The reaction to the news about Daniela and her poster has been nothing but praise, said Hobbs, the Bellflower public information officer. She made the front page of the city’s newsletter and the e-mail broadcast by Hobbs was headlined, “Local sixth-grade girl discovers art of winning.” She was also mentioned in the city’s local cable-channel program.

She doesn’t feel like a celebrity, the 11-year-old said in telephone interview recently, “but all my friends act like I am.... People were always nice to me, but now a lot more people are actually talking to me.”


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