I worked at Eastern Group Publications from 2008 until 2012, and I feel lucky that this was my first gig as a full-time reporter. There weren’t many newspapers like it left, ones that were rooted in the communities they cover and that are owned by a civically-minded family for whom this isn’t just a business, but a labor of love.
When I first got there, I was like any other cub reporter — I wanted to chase and tell stories, have a byline and toss around journalism cliches like “cub reporter.” But it was a good place to develop my own sense of what journalism was, and why I wanted to do it. And I was figuring it out under the guidance of editors and publishers who were knowledgeable about the communities we covered, had a good feel for the local political world, and most importantly, had a sense of purpose for what they were doing.
The Sanchez family that founded it tackled big stories, but it was their consistent coverage of communities usually ignored by larger newspapers that stood out to me. You did not need a major scandal, a shooting or a social or environmental injustice as reasons for covering these areas.
I think it was important to the family to provide this coverage, because in reality there has historically been a vibrant civic life in these communities worth reporting on, in which people fight for and feel entitled to quality education for their children, well-paying and safe jobs and a high quality of life. And the family also wanted to tell the varied, everyday and unique stories that contribute nuance to the one-dimensional picture that is often painted when there is only occasional interest in an area by bigger outlets. This meant working to reflect the wide range of socio-economic statuses, values, experiences and political views that can be found in communities that are often given shorthand labels like “immigrant,” “ethnic,” “working class” or “underserved.”
During my time there, I and one other reporter split coverage of the range of communities under the Eastern Group banner. Gloria Angelina Castillo covered East Los Angeles and northeast Los Angeles, while also translating my stories into Spanish. I was assigned to cover a mix of traditional suburban cities like Monterey Park and Montebello, and other less typical municipalities like City of Commerce and Vernon that were largely industrial but still had a residential population. I also did layout for the print newspaper, and updated the website and social media feeds.
Some of the more memorable stories were about efforts by residents of Commerce to combat pollution from a major railyard, which they said was one of the causes for high rates of cancer in their community, on top of the other harmful toxins and pollution emanating from the industrial businesses nearby.
I also chronicled an unusual investigation into voter-fraud in the city Vernon, which only had about 100 residents. Previous to that, there was a failed attempt to disincorporate the city by state lawmakers who alleged it was being run by crooks.
And I covered the years of political instability and infighting in Montebello, as city council members grappled with budget troubles and scrutiny over whether there was criminal mismanagement of funds.
In covering many of these areas, I often found that despite many thinking that there is a lack of civic engagement, there were always usually people in these communities who did care and were trying in whatever way they knew how to stay informed and on top of what their local government was up to. They do it because cities provide basic services, police and fire, and parks that ultimately determine their quality of life, and other local government bodies can have equally significant effect on their lives. But those efforts can be that much harder without a partner, such as a local newspaper, that worked to help convey important information to their readers, prior to things going horribly wrong. Eastern Group Publications did its part in trying to maintain consistent coverage of these areas, in that sense, filling in gaps where other outlets may not have had the staffing or time to cover.
Elizabeth Chou went on to report on Los Angeles City Hall government and politics, first with City News Service, and now the Los Angeles Daily News since the end of 2016.