A newsletter for every neighborhood

Gabriel Kahn
Jan 11 · 4 min read

We just launched 110 different newsletters in one day.

That’s one newsletter for every neighborhood in the City of Los Angeles, from Venice to Boyle Heights, from San Pedro to Chatsworth. Each newsletter contains vital stats and stories specific to that neighborhood, from the number of traffic accidents to the latest count of new COVID-19 infections. We’ll be delivering these on a weekly basis.

(You can sign up here!)

Local news is beset by many threats, one of the worst being the rapidly expanding news deserts — areas that receive no regular news coverage. Small town newspapers are drying up, and toxic “pink-slime” pseudo journalism is seeping in. These news deserts are growing even in big cities. Los Angeles has lost four local papers recently, and so many neighborhoods are overlooked by the news outlets that remain.

With the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project, we’re trying to roll back those deserts by providing essential information with context to every corner of Los Angeles. Is one neighborhood a magnet for car theft? Where are old buildings being torn down? Are new apartment blocks rising in their place? We want to provide reliable information that helps people feel more connected to their local communities and more empowered to make change.

Bringing scale to local news

We’re also trying to equip local news with something that it has never had before — scale. Massive scale is one (but not the only) reason that behemoths like Facebook and Google reap such outsized profits. Similarly, lack of scale is causing local outlets to vanish. By definition, a local news source reaches a small, defined audience. Every investment becomes potentially too costly because the benefits can only be spread across a limited number of people. Covering a new beat requires hiring a new reporter, but it’s unlikely that the reporter’s output will generate enough revenue to cover their salary. That creates a perverse logic: The smarter business decision is to cut back, not expand.

Our newsletter flips that around. One journalist can create 10, 100, 110, or even more newsletters, each with unique information about a different neighborhood. Everyone gets coverage, but the costs don’t rise.

How we do it

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

We automatically parse the relevant data into each one of the neighborhood newsletters and we place it in context. Boyle Heights, it turns out, is currently the epicenter of car theft in Los Angeles, while last year Chatsworth put up more new buildings than anywhere else.

This is not just the work of journalists. It’s a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists. I doubt it could have been pulled off anywhere other than a university, where there are so many different areas of expertise to pull from and so many eager and talented young people willing to work on thorny problems. We were fortunate to get funding from the Google News Initiative.

This system was built almost entirely by students, working mostly out of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism and the Viterbi School of Engineering. Though many students worked on this over the past year, I’d like to recognize just two of them right now, George Constantinou and Luan Tran, for leading the way over many obstacles. And I would also like to thank Luciano Nocera, the associate director of the Integrated Media Systems Center at Viterbi, who is one of the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter’s chief architects. Our project manager Lauren Whaley, trained as a reporter, was essential to the effort, acting as a translator between the two worlds of journalism and engineering.

We’re not alone in this fight. Report for America is seeding journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Last month saw the creation of the Tiny News Collective, which equips news entrepreneurs with the equivalent of a starter kit, helping to shrink the startup and back-office costs associated with launching a news outlet.

Journalism is in dire need of innovation designed with the public good — not profit — in mind. Because Crosstown is based at a university, we’re in the business of creating knowledge. Our hope is that we can take what we’ve learned from this project and begin to spread it across the industry, and we could sure use some good news right now.

You can write to us at askus@xtown.la

Crosstown LA

Crosstown Data-Driven Stories About Los Angeles.

Crosstown LA

Crosstown Data-Driven Stories About Los Angeles. Our site, xtown.la, is a non-profit news organization run out of USC Annenberg. In this publication we discuss our process, our products and our approach to building a new type of local news organization.

Gabriel Kahn

Written by

Professor of professional practice @USCAnnenberg, editor of @CrosstownLA

Crosstown LA

Crosstown Data-Driven Stories About Los Angeles. Our site, xtown.la, is a non-profit news organization run out of USC Annenberg. In this publication we discuss our process, our products and our approach to building a new type of local news organization.