News Commentary: Readers Respond to Isla Vista Cover Story

I.V. Residents Wonder Why Their Town Doesn't Get More Positive Press

Paul Wellman

People do not often get a taste of their own medicine. But I did last Thursday when I showed up to the Isla Vista clinic building to hear from a dozen or so long-term residents, business owners, Isla Vista Recreation & Park District staff, and housing and food co-op reps.

I had gotten a call from a person by the name of Maia the week prior. Maia, a longtime I.V resident and active community member, expressed frustration about a cover story I wrote about Das Williams’s effort to bring self-governance to Isla Vista by introducing a new bill, AB 3. The article missed half the story, she told me. Left out were the positive elements in Isla Vista, such as the remembrance gardens, the butterfly farms, and the new community center, among many others. I agreed to meet with her. A few community members might join us as well, she said.

It’s not the first time I’ve agreed to meet with a disgruntled reader, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. In fact, I appreciate the concern, and that people actually give a damn. News reporting on an array of topics usually means stories are incomplete in some way. I make mistakes or miss the point. It’s the nature of the business.

When I arrived at the Isla Vista clinic building, where I’ve been many times in the past two years to cover various events, I was, I must admit, a little surprised by the fact that about 12 people showed up. We sat around a long conference table with an agenda sheet in front of us. The top of the paper said, “A Isla Vista Community Discussion with Kelsey Brugger from the Independent.” It quickly became apparent that this gathering was about the article; I was the agenda. If I did not actually scratch my head, I might as well have.

We went around the circle and introduced ourselves. The clincher was when the Daily Nexus reporter introduced himself, with a notebook and tape recorder sitting on the table in front of him. “Is this actually news?” I wondered to myself.

Melissa Cohen from the Isla Vista Food Co-op asked the first question. How, she asked, does The Independent assign stories? How does the paper — in downtown Santa Barbara and far removed from the inner workings of the grassroots community — decide what is newsworthy? There are a lot of positive things happening in this unique place, she said. Why doesn’t The Independent cover them?

I’m not shy, but I must say, I am not used to someone shoving a microphone in front of me asking me to answer questions on the spot — on the record. The Nexus reporter was scribbling fast.

I told her my new favorite joke: “Oh, I don’t write positive stories.” That’s a joke, I stressed, hoping the reporter got it. I went on to explain that I cover county government — which Isla Vista, of course, falls under — and most topics I write about are controversial. It’s not that I do not want to write puff pieces; it’s just not my job.

They were all civil and polite. Rodney Gould, general manager of the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District, read a list of improvements that have happened in I.V. in the year since the shootings. Isla Vista Open Lab — a course lead by UCSB professor Kim Yasuda — started community projects such as First Fridays, public murals, memorial gardens, a Local Wiki website, and others.

I later posed a question to them about the university’s recent involvement in Isla Vista — does it seem different from its historic negligence? I wasn’t taking notes, but the general sentiment seemed to be that the university is taking on a more active role in ways it never has. That would be a good story, one person pointed out.

LuAnn Miller of Isla Vista Youth Projects mentioned that UCSB students get a bad rap for excessive partying and drinking when in fact many students are great and volunteer their time to better the community. That’s true. I would know. I went to UCSB and lived in Isla Vista, I told them.

I sat in the hot seat for about 45 minutes. Before I left, I agreed to be their point person at The Independent. On my way out the door, the Nexus reporter stopped me. “Why did you decide to come?” he asked me.

The best questions, I’ve come to realize, are unassuming ones that force even polished pros to deviate from their bathroom mirror speeches. (I am far from a polished pro; this was my first on-the-spot interview.) I told him I get a lot of feedback, often negative, and, well, it’s my job to hear people out. I asked him if he wanted to be a reporter, which I now realize was a bit rude because he is already a reporter, after all. He said he wasn’t sure. I smiled big. It’s a tough job, I told him, but it’s a lot of fun.

As I drove home, I must admit, I was still in shock. It was not until later I realized the encounter, aside from bizarre, represented an interesting challenge in journalism. How do reporters write for communities, rather than about them? And how do those groups feel about how they are portrayed after the fact?

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the group is less than thrilled with Das Williams swooping in to fix their community with AB 3. Some of the people in the room had lived there for decades and they presumably felt Williams, in the name of grassroots activism, stomped on their own grassroots activity that makes Isla Vista unlike any other American community.

I didn’t say it at the time, but there was a person in the room who I must have left six voicemail messages for over the course of the past several months. I never got a call back. Maybe this person didn’t get the messages. Regardless, it’s difficult to write the full story if people don’t call you back.

When I got home, I received an email from Maia thanking me for taking the time. They benefited from the chance to express themselves, she said, “… and I hope you did too, in some way.”


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