We hear a fair amount about journalism’s failure to cover local news, particularly in poor communities. So you would think that people would have welcomed coverage that a couple of earnest young outsiders promised to bring to MacArthur Park, west of downtown L.A.
Instead, the reporter and photographer and their initial effort, a blog called The Entryway, have taken a heavy dose of contempt and derision, along with some praise. Veteran journalists and others who pose as the true voices of the people have all but told newcomers Devin Browne and Kara Mears to get out of town.
It’s not surprising that a couple of white women from the suburbs are taking guff for diary-style entries about life in a multi-family apartment in the barrio. Some of their musings come across as naïve, off-point and overly self-referential.
But more disturbing, and wrongheaded, is the way some of the critics would bury a project, and a couple of aspiring journalists, who have barely gotten started. The most vituperative denizens of the chat-osphere seem to be saying: White folks ought not tread here.
That kind of exclusive, reactionary thinking shouldn’t sit well with anyone and particularly not with those who have a sense of journalistic history. Outsiders have cast a keen eye on politics, art and commerce through the ages. Will the newcomers extend that tradition with The Entryway and other stories, or provide only a more superficial take? We will see.
The writer Browne and photographer Mears have certainly cleared one of the toughest online hurdles — drawing attention to a small startup, adrift in a vast sea of information.
They did that in large part by playing up their own personal story, how it felt to move into an apartment at the beginning of this year far from their suburban roots — Browne’s in La Cañada Flintridge and Mears’ outside Boston. Their new home is so crowded — with at least seven other tenants in the same unit — the duo shares a bed in the apartment’s front entryway. (Hence, the blog’s name.)
Their initial postings told a lot about the discomfort of two white girls — “maybe the whitest people we know” — confronting cockroaches and gang members and used toilet paper that went into a trash can instead of down the drain.
Nine postings so far (with more promised in the next few days) only begin to hint at the lives of the people they live with. They have not begun to tackle the larger issues confronting MacArthur Park, an entryway (second entendre) for Mexican and Central American immigrants that has one of the densest concentrations of people in the country.
Browne, 27, understands why some people were put off by her initial entries. But she defends the importance of talking about “the things that get in the way of better, more meaningful connections between people who share the same city.” She added: “Once acknowledged, we can move on, but they [the differences] have to be acknowledged first.”
Based on the many comments posted on the Web about their work at sites like metafilter.com, some people accepted that notion and some did not.
The Entryway pair did themselves a disservice, in my mind, by focusing so intently on their other-ness, without writing more about their commitment to the neighborhood and attempts to understand a foreign culture.
More than two years ago, Browne took a job as a long-term substitute teacher at an elementary school in MacArthur Park. She spent five months teaching first grade, has substituted regularly in the neighborhood since and continues to follow several pupils from her old class.
She moved to the neighborhood about the time she began the teaching job. Along with her work, that makes her far less the slumming dilettante than some critics would have you believe.
“MacArthur Park was filled with, it seemed to me, stories and economies and culture that were somewhat not immediately clear and beneath the radar,” she said.
Browne and Mears described The Entryway as an initial effort. Browne, who does most of the writing, called the blog a “personal narrative” and “not journalism.” She pledges that more traditional journalism, and a greater focus on the community and its inhabitants, will come in a series of reported stories that she hopes to finish in the year to come.
Her plan was complicated this week when Mears, low on cash, decided she will soon move back home. “This has nothing to do with the criticism,” Mears said. “I’ve been living 2 1/2 months out of my own pocket. I’ve got like $40 in my bank account. I need to make a living.”
Browne still plans to complete a year in the neighborhood. She continues her work as a teacher and tutor to pay the bills but also has thrown in with the website Spot.us, where journalists post pitches and raise money to pursue stories. (By week’s end, the two women had raised less than $1,000 toward their $4,000 goal.)
The promise of more and better to come has far from assuaged critics. Journalist and blogger Daniel Hernandez (who I once worked with here in The Times’ Metro operation and who now reports for the paper in Mexico City) called their effort “not what we need” and said new media funders should “empower immigrants and poor people to tell their own stories.”
Hernandez wrote that he surveyed “a bunch” of journalists, academics and lawyers from many ethnicities and found universal disdain for The Entryway. One saw “voyeurism which gives white people yet another excuse to hold the Other at arm’s length.”
I agree with some of the critics that the newcomers would be wiser to focus more on the community and less on themselves. If they want richer and deeper stories, they need to overcome fear and other obstacles to talk to people like gang members, who they concede they have not been able to crack.
Recent history provides some role models and also sets a high standard. Barbara Ehrenreich took low-wage jobs to reveal the struggles of the working poor. An African American lawyer, Lawrence Otis Graham, went undercover as a busboy and exposed lingering racism in a Connecticut country club. A couple of my colleagues at The Times, both white, lived in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood in the 1990s and took away lessons about many things, including the resilience of Latino residents living among gangs and dope dealers.
Although The Entryway journalists appear to have open and empathetic hearts, some of their critics sound more apt to send them to a firing squad than to a reeducation camp. The punishment far outstrips the crime.
Hernandez ended his critique suggesting that those raising money for new journalism should pay to have two of Browne’s roommates, Juan and Maria, “move into a wealthy white home 12 miles from MacArthur Park, maybe in the study or sitting room, and report for us on the ticks and quirks of that ‘other L.A.’ ”
I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. But I would read that one in a second.