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100 Years Under the San Fernando Valley Sun

NCM Profile

NCM, Brahmani Houston Posted: Dec 05, 2004

The San Fernando Valley Sun celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. The editor of the weekly paper, Diana Martinez, says shes not aware of another community newspaper that has survived that long.
The Sun's 100th Year
When you look through the microfiche capturing the papers century of existence, its almost a history of journalism, says Martinez. It had its heydays one issue I saw looked like the Los Angeles Times and it had points when it was hanging on for dear life.

When the current publisher, Martha Diaz Aszkenazy, first took on the paper in 2002, it had dwindled to eight pages. Now at a robust 28 pages with a circulation of more than 25,000, the paper has regained its reputation and established itself as a strong voice in the community.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and remember the paper as a little girl, says Aszkenazy. Having a love of the Valley and a love of the paper, we decided we couldnt let it die.

Since then, the paper has come, once again, into its own. In 2003, The Sun won an NCM Best Investigative Journalism award for a series of articles exposing fraudulent activity in the agency overseeing Head Start programs in the region, with the complicity of the Los Angeles Office of Education. The stories resulted in a federal investigation, and the agencies are now monitored closely.

Two years ago, Martinez, a veteran journalist, agreed to leave a job as producer and director of a radio series in Los Angeles to run a small community newspaper. She saw a unique opportunity to bring back investigative and enterprising reporting to a local paper that had fallen into the trap of regurgitating wire stories.

There is a point of view that community newspapers are sleepy and that they have amateur staff, says Martinez who saw a burgeoning area being ignored by even the daily paper covering the San Fernando Valley. Since her arrival at the paper and her efforts to publish breaking news stories, Martinez says that same daily paper has hired a journalist to cover the northeast Valley where the city of San Fernando is located.

Martinez and Aszkenazy, both from bilingual families themselves, realized the need in the regions large Latino population for news in Spanish. El Sol, an insert in The Sun was the solution. Much of El Sol is translations of lead stories in The Sun or vice versa, but they have started to add stories that are more specific to the Spanish-speaking population. The insert has become so popular that some advertisers are asking to have their ads placed only in that section.

It hasnt always been such a smooth ride for Martinez and Aszekenay. The investigative stories the Sun has published have put the paper and its leaders on the front lines of controversial community issues. With the Head Start series, Aszkenazy and Martinez found themselves in the line of fire from critics who felt a community newspaper should paint a purely rosy picture of the community, acting more as a promotional vehicle than a journalistic forum.

During the time of the Head Start investigation, the paper was picketed, petitioned and generally harangued. Weve been accused of being GOP operatives one week and the next of being bleeding heart liberals, says Aszkenazy. Martinez says she was getting calls from old friends and colleagues demanding to know whats going on down there. She even received a caller who said she should be covering Kiwanis and Elks, referring to the social clubs ubiquitous to small towns.

Were doing what I believe all newspapers should do, says Martinez, who feels that her job was an easy one. For me, the field is really wide open, thats the beauty of the community newspaper. Theres not enough investigative, in-depth reporting.

But the San Fernando Sun tries to do stories on members of the community that dont necessarily have the shock value that mainstream papers often look for. For example, they ran a profile on a local woman battling cancer which resulted in an outpouring of donations to support her medical bills.

We are the only paper that does stories like that, says Aszkenazy, who has adjusted to her new life as newspaper publisher. Its nice to be in a position where we can say well run the storyeven if the L.A. Times and Daily News wont cover it.

Aszkenazy and Martinez both took a plunge when they committed to running a small and failing community newspaper. But, as Aszkenazy says: Where there is a great newspaper, there is often a great community around it.

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