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California Community Newspaper Connects Residents

Throughout the United States, small weekly newspapers inform readers about community events and local politics. The San Fernando Valley Sun in suburban Los Angeles is one of the thousands of weeklies that link readers to their neighbors and the world around them.

It cannot compete with major daily newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, or even smaller suburban dailies like the Los Angeles Daily News, but the San Fernando Sun serves another purpose. The newspaper, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, helps connect residents of this small community, 35 kilometers northwest of Los Angeles.

The city was built around the historic San Fernando mission, which dates from Spanish colonial times. The mission would give its name, not only to the city, but to the surrounding valley that today is a vast expanse of suburban neighborhoods.

But for the 24,000 people of the city of San Fernando, social life focuses on this small community, where Maribel De La Torre is the mayor.

"Even though we are surrounded by this great metropolis of Los Angeles, the city of San Fernando is still very much a small town," she said. "Sometimes we may think like we are on this little island."

The community has many ties to the outside world. Ninety percent of its residents are Hispanic, and many are recent immigrants from Mexico or other parts of Latin America. To serve their needs, the newspaper publishes an eight-page Spanish section.

Other readers are from Asia, and editor Diana Martinez says a recent issue covered the Asian earthquake and tsunami, whose victims included the wife and daughter of a local doctor. It also reported on fundraising efforts of a nearby Buddhist temple.

"We can localize any national or international story because it does trickle down," she explained. "We have such a diverse population in the valley that families are affected even though the news may be worldwide."

But the paper concentrates on local news and features. A recent article examined budget cutbacks in a community assistance program, as described by a senior citizen who was affected, and another story looked at a family that is suing a drug maker for serious complications from a medication their daughter used.

On a recent Wednesday morning, the editor browsed the copy for next week's issue, then approved it.

"My job right now is to get this paper to the printer, so I am signing off on it all right now," she said.

Art director Nick Orabovic does the paper's layout on a computer and, with the copy approved by the editor, sends it electronically to the printer.

"They freight it down here and then we have our distribution people down here that put it in the boxes and send it from house to house," he said.

Twelve-thousand copies are distributed through the city and nearby neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of people read the Internet version.

Publisher Martha Diaz Aszkenazy and her husband, Sev, are local real-estate developers who bought the paper three years ago, believing a good local newspaper would promote the city's development.

"So we thought it went hand in hand with that," said Ms. Diaz Aszkenazy. "But with that have come some uncomfortable moments because the news has to be covered as it happens. And it may not always be what people want. And so the phone rings very liberally and people say, why did you guys do that? What are you doing?"

Editor Diana Martinez is accustomed to hearing both complaints and compliments from her readers.

"One week, people will say that we are a right-wing [conservative] paper. The next week, they will say that we are a left-wing [liberal] paper. And some people call to yell at me and say they only agree with what we put in the paper 50 percent of the time, and that is a good marker for me that we are doing it right," she said.

She says she views that as a sign that the paper is covering the issues from all angles.

San Fernando Police Chief Anthony Alba says the Sun prints crime statistics to keep its readers informed about his department's efforts, and that others in city government also use the paper to reach out to residents.

"You cannot meet everybody and discuss every issue with every person in the community," explained Chief Alba. "But with the local newspaper, people look in it and they see what is going on in their community, whether it is a current event or it is a news bulletin on something that might have occurred, people do pay attention to what happens in the local newspaper. So it is very much a part of the fabric of this community."

San Fernando Mayor Maribel De La Torre says the concerns and accomplishments of her city's people get little attention from big newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, but can generate banner headlines in their local community paper.