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All Altadena, all the time

A community blog was a lifeline when the Station fire threatened.

September 25, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

It would be easy to miss this newsroom of the future. It's disguised inside a graceful wood shingle home, just beyond the living room crammed with children's toys, tucked on one side of a modest kitchen.

From this modest perch in a woodsy section of Altadena, beneath the towering San Gabriel Mountains, Tim Rutt has created a blog that has made him the talk of his community and the latest star of the kind of hyper-local journalism that is sprouting around America.

Rutt's banner moment came a few weeks back, when the Station fire roared across the mountains above Altadena and his altadenablog.com became the go-to destination for evacuation updates, road closures, firefighter deployments and, as one fan said, "the comforting sound of a neighbor's voice."

"The blog was absolutely invaluable for a lot of people," said community activist Monica Hubbard. "His blog was the central gathering point. It was breathtaking, his level of commitment to the community."

"Breathtaking" in part because Rutt worked up to 20 hours a day for a week and because he did so while tending to his two special-needs children and to his wife, who had been hospitalized suddenly for open-heart surgery.

The fire expanded altadenablog's small but fervent audience and burnished Rutt's reputation as minder of the virtual town square for a quirky, unincorporated community that has sometimes lacked a focal point.

No one knows how many communities produce local blogs or whether they can extend their repertoire to, for example, investigative reporting.

So far, altadenablog and most of the local blogs have not found a formula for paying their operators a living wage. Subscription charges are virtually nonexistent, charitable donations tend to be modest and advertisers aren't beating down the door.

Rutt hopes in the coming year to devote more time to expanding advertising and making his blog more of a going business. In the meantime, he's been paid mostly with the thanks of neighbors and a sense that he's done right by his community of 45,000.

Rutt, 52, didn't really imagine he'd end up here. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and worked for more than two years at a small weekly paper. When the economy soured, Rutt and a friend -- who together dabbled in radio sketch comedy in their college days -- decided to take their shot at a career in Hollywood.

Rutt tried to make it as a TV writer but didn't have much luck, unless you count his work for a cheesy cable program. He recalls that the producers focused mostly on luring the maximum number of bikini-clad girls to the set.

The Tinseltown washout set Rutt off on an odyssey of writing and public relations jobs. He wrote manuals. He produced ad copy. He became a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Rutt married and had a daughter. He divorced, then a decade ago married Mary Herman, a doctor. Their life took a serious turn with the birth of a son who has muscular dystrophy and a daughter with Down syndrome.

Care and therapy for Jake, now 7, and Rosie, 5, became a nearly full-time job. So Rutt became a stay-at-home dad.

As the children got older and those responsibilities receded, Rutt itched to get back to writing.

He already had a fascination with Altadena, one that was sometimes thwarted as he could find no central information source for the burg.

Rutt had to trek to the library, community center, a popular coffee house -- even scan the marquee in front of Bryan's Cleaners and Laundry -- to gather even a fraction of the news he wanted.

About that time, he heard from his college friend, who was running a community blog in West Seattle that had become not only a community mainstay but also a money maker.

With that final inspiration, Rutt launched altadenablog two years ago.

Today, the blog maps burglaries and brown bear sightings. It memorializes the comings and goings of shops. It lists who's playing at the Folly Bowl, an informal backyard venue where a local couple features folk and world music.

Rutt wouldn't be a real journalist if he hadn't made some enemies, which he has managed to do occasionally with his coverage of the quasi-governmental Town Council. He rates the current group pretty highly, although in the past, he said, some leaders have "behaved like a clown college."

Still, he zinged a new council member a few weeks back for allegedly mischaracterizing a fundraising appeal as coming from the entire council, when it was a personal project. The council member responded by calling Rutt heavy-handed and accusing him of being in the thrall of other local politicos.

Rutt's friend and blog contributor, Alice Wessen, another council member, said political intrigue has been a near constant in a place without a formal government. "Altadena's a quirky place," she said. "There are lots of passionate folks."

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