OUTSTANDING INNOVATION MODELS (AN INCOMPLETE LIST)
Several innovative outlets serve U.S. Latinxs across the country.
They have different formats. They use English or Spanish or a combination of both, are for-profit and nonprofit, and connect with different types of audiences. But they have all had a significant impact.
Among them are the Futuro Media Group of María Hinojosa; Julio Ricardo Varela’s Latino Rebels, a popular online vertical containing smart, provocative columns on everything from politics to culture from a Latino perspective (now part of Futuro); Remezcla and Mitú, which cover popular culture; the podcast Qué Pasa Midwest; and more.
We’ve discussed some of these outlets in the Industry at a Glance section.
Here are five other models of change for the industry as it looks for new ways to serve Latino audiences.
Case 1. Univision News Digital
In 2014, Univision invested in one of the most ambitious, innovative digital news operations in any language in the U.S. The project was aborted before its promise could be fulfilled. Had it continued, its bold approach might have become the gold standard for Spanish-language news innovation— at least for TV, given the resources available to broadcast corporations. Here’s how the digital transformation evolved:
The corporation’s news division was, in 2014, under the leadership of Isaac Lee, a Colombian media executive whose task it was to modernize and diversify the company’s offerings. Lee hired an experienced digital editor from Spain, Borja Echevarría, who had launched successful digital operations for the Spanish newspapers El Mundo and El País and launched the digital-native outlet Soitu.es.
When Echevarría arrived, the digital team was small and marginal to the TV newsroom. Over the following two years, he hired 75 journalists and built a fully digital operation that was placed in the middle of the network’s headquarters in Miami.
Echevarría created for his team a newsroom culture that was completely alien to Univision. He fully incorporated audience engagement into news production, with a full team working on digital audience development — experimenting with bots, text messaging and social media channels. He created a data journalism unit that launched the first fact-checking platform in Spanish in the U.S. A new digital investigative unit was allowed to spend months on each story and produced many award-winning investigations. Single stories were told in multiple formats, including interactive graphics and animation. The team also partnered with other outlets, inside and outside of the U.S., sharing resources and distribution channels. New channels, such as WhatsApp, were incorporated to reach U.S. Spanish-speaking Latinxs. Podcasts and documentary films were launched. And an English-language website was added to deliver content.
Echevarría also broadened the content to go beyond immigration stories, creating beats such as science and the environment. And he launched an investigative unit that went on to win numerous awards.
What was unique about this digital operation is that it was sustained by a TV company, so resources seemed unlimited (a feeling not experienced by most digital operations of newspaper companies). And resources were plentiful, for a while.
But in 2018, after another failed attempt to bring the company public, Univision’s board of directors changed the company’s leadership and cut costs, starting with the digital operation that had brought the prestige of dozens of journalism awards (including a Hillman Prize, a Robert Kennedy Award, an Emmy in the documentary category, and a World Press Photo) but very little money compared with what the TV business was still making.
“The company’s leadership decided to change strategy, deciding to focus on strengthening the company’s core, that is, Spanish-language content offerings, rather than the expansion of its bilingual digital footprint expansion,” a Univision executive said.
After losing more than half of his team in layoffs, Echevarría left Univision and went back to Spain in June 2018 to become the managing editor of El País. “The problem of Univision,” he said as he was leaving —”it’s not unique to Univision — is that when you belong to private equity and when the owners don’t have a sense of mission, you are in trouble.”
Isaac Lee left soon after.
Many of the journalists who were fired during the downsizing have moved on to some of the most competitive newsrooms in the country — The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and others. Today, a much-smaller digital newsroom struggles to maintain the standards set under Echevarría.
The team still makes room for innovation and experimentation. Since the layoffs, Univision has launched new podcasts, maintained a popular Facebook Watch show with journalist Jorge Ramos, an Instagram TV show with journalist Patricia Janiot (the first of its kind in Spanish), vertical videos, and a new health vertical focused on diabetes, among other products.
Case 2. Radio Ambulante
Radio Ambulante is a podcast that aims to broaden the understanding of U.S. Latinxs and Latin Americans through long-form stories told in Spanish. It was created by a group of five Latinxs with different migratory experiences. Some, like Daniel Alarcón (now executive producer and host), had come to the country as children; others, like Carolina Guerrero (now CEO), came as adults. They had in common a love of storytelling and an interest in Latino and Latin American lives —stories that remained untold in U.S. media.
The two couldn’t find in Spanish media the same complex, long-form, storytelling and rigorous reporting that they found in English-language news outlets, said Guerrero, “so we were forced to consume news in English.” Still, they felt a “visceral connection with the Spanish language,” as they knew many Latinxs did.
Radio Ambulante was launched in 2012 with $46,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign. It produced three episodes, reaching a total of 7,000 listeners. In 2016, it entered a distribution agreement with National Public Radio, becoming the first Spanish-language podcast at NPR. It had 4.5 million downloads in 2018, and more than 70 percent of its listeners were based in the U.S. Its creators expect to get 6 million listens in 2019. “We didn’t steal somebody else’s audience; we built this audience from listener No. 1,” said Guerrero.
The weekly episodes are from 30 to 60 minutes long, and the team now produces 30 episodes a year. (The podcast takes the summer off.) Radio Ambulante’s catalogue carries more than 130 episodes, featuring stories from more than 20 countries, “including the United States, which we consider a Latin American country,” said Guerrero.
A sampling of stories: the genesis of the Puerto Rican debt crisis, the journey of a Central American coyote bringing migrants to the U.S. border, a volcano eruption that erased a Colombian town.
To “validate” their content in the U.S., Guerrero said, from early on the creators partnered with Anglo radio shows, such as “This American Life” and “RadioLab,” and translated and adapted their stories for print, publishing some in The New York Times Magazine.
Crossing borders has been key to Radio Ambulante’s mission, and the crossing includes the language barrier. The team translates all the episodes into English and has even produced translations (available online) for English-speakers who are learning Spanish. It is now about to launch a cutting-edge app to help Spanish learners better understand Radio Ambulante’s stories. It comes with transcripts, speed control, real-time transactions, and tools that allow users to hear authentic Latin American pronunciations. The app, which will help the outlet better serve a segment of their audience, is also expected to also create another source of revenue.
The agreement with NPR has helped Radio Ambulante build a more sustainable nonprofit business model. The podcast is also funded through grants, individual donations and sponsored events. (A Radio Ambulante show started touring nationally in 2018.) An online store sells branded mugs and T-shirts, and the team is working on a membership program. (A recent audience survey showed that most of their listeners would pay at least $5 monthly to join.) There are plans, too, for a production company that would create film and streaming projects the outlet could co-produce. Still, Guerrero said, “monetization has been an issue” for the outlet, whose annual budget is close to $800,000.
Grant funding has helped expand the team, now made up of 19 people who work remotely. Guerrero and Alarcón are based in New York; most of their producers and correspondents are in Latin America. A growth editor, Jorge Caraballo, who specializes in listener engagement, works out of Medellín, Colombia.
Engagement has been key to Radio Ambulante’s growth. The team is active on all social media platforms. For example, it runs a WhatsApp channel that sends personal, individual messages to 3,500 followers across the region. “It’s important in WhatsApp to have the right tone and not be spammy,” said Guerrero. “We have discovered that people love to get this personal connection with Radio Ambulante.” Listeners also participate in the production of episodes by sending voice messages via WhatsApp audio.
Every Friday, the team hosts a Facebook Live video conference in which the producer of that week’s episode has a conversation about it with listeners. It offers thematic playlists created from listeners’ song suggestions –“a continent recommending songs,” in Guerrero’s words. And in a weekly newsletter, team members recommend songs, books, streaming series or other readings for the weekend.
Another engagement strategy: face-to-face gatherings called Listening Clubs (Clubes de Escucha), in which podcast listeners get together in their cities, hear an episode and have a conversation around the story.
“Our initial goal was to go beyond digital environments and understand what happens when we turn the individual experience of listening to podcasts into a social one,” said Guerrero. “Could audio journalism connect communities and trigger civic conversations?”
With a grant from the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City of New York, Radio Ambulante has launched a pilot project of 20 Listening Clubs in seven cities in Latin America and the U.S. Also planned: a toolkit for media organizations that want to replicate the Listening Club model.
Case 3. Neta
Neta, a bilingual community news media platform in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border, offers culturally relevant content to local Latinxs.
It was created as the result of the 2016 presidential election, said founder Dani Marrero Hi, when a group of progressive community organizers felt “energized” by the national attention the border was receiving.
Journalists, politicians and pundits were increasingly talking about the border, but no one mentioned the “thriving, vibrant life” there, she said. The border was portrayed only as a dangerous, “empty space” to which the federal government was planning to send troops and along which it vowed to build a fence.
Marrero Hi, then a community organizer working with immigrant rights groups, recalled that at the time of the election “people were saying, ‘I want to start a YouTube channel,’ ‘I want to start a podcast,’ ‘I want to start a blog’.” So she told them, “Why don’t we do this together in one platform, and we can kind of become a hub of news and information for the social and cultural movements happening in the valley?”
The group started meeting in public libraries and coffee shops, shooting videos with their phones and editing with basic Movie Maker. Most of them had no technical skills and no professional training in multimedia production or editing. “But we had the experience of what it means to be from the border,” said Marrero Hi. “And in our network of contributors, we have people who do very important work in the community, from HIV prevention to immigration issues, anti-border wall movements, LGBT issues, reproductive issues.”
They called their media platform Neta, a versatile word in Mexican slang the website defines as the universal truth. Totally rad, Legit. No B.S. La Mera Neta.
“The name conveyed the kind of platform that we wanted to build — one that was culturally relevant and targeting youth who we could talk to about serious things, like what’s happening in the border but also about raspas or flaming hot Cheetos pizza,” said Marrero Hi.
“We are not in the apocalyptical battleground that CNN makes it look it to be,” said one of Neta’s former video producers, currently a full-time freelancer for the outlet.”So many beautiful things are happening in this area.”
Neta launched the day before the Trump inauguration in January 2017. Its irreverent tone, its focus on social issues, including an LGBTQI beat, and its colloquial use of Spanglish soon made it unique and relevant.
The creators saw themselves as the critical alternative to the “mainstream” media outlets Univision and Telemundo. Neta, said Marrero Hi, is “much more critical of border-patrol and ICE activity in our communities” than the networks are.
“I don’t want to live in a world without mainstream media,” she said, “but Neta also adds a critical voice.” She cited a report by Telemundo in which the border patrol depicted the Texas-Mexico border as one of the most dangerous places for them.
“Okay, that’s what the government is saying,” Marrerro Hi said. “But you can come to Neta and see how border patrol is skewing those facts — or question the role of the border patrol in our communities. That is the role of community media, adding more perspective on what mainstream media is covering.”
After several months of purely voluntary work, Neta’s creators launched a Kickstarter campaign. The funding effort was a flop, but Marrero Hi decided to keep the failure secret. Instead, she announced that they were making progress in getting seed money. That helped Neta receive grants from foundations and to become a nonprofit organization.
Neta is followed by (mostly) Latino and Anglo border residents between 18 and 35 year old. They are mobile savvy and mostly women. Social media and mobile phones are crucial to the outlet’s distribution. To reach an older, rural audience, the team created a text-message platform to get directly into phones. The Neta newsletter goes to 4,000 subscribers.
In December 2018, Marrero Hi left Neta, and an 11-person staff — roughly half of them LGBTQI — became a cooperative. Today, there is a staff of nine. There is no one at the top, and everyone receives the same salary and benefits. “Everyone supervises everyone,” said a staff member, adding that rotating committees make the decisions. “It is a little experimental. We certainly want to be an example to others.”
Neta is funded through grants and individual donations. Its active role in the community is central to its model: “Everybody knows us because we went to school with them, we are friends with them; a lot of our connections are word of mouth,” said Zuñiga.
At this point, however, Neta still has limited resources; sustainability is the team’s main concern.
Case 4. El Tímpano
El Tímpano (The Eardrum, in English) is a very different innovative model.
Still at the pilot stage, it is a local reporting platform for the immigrant Spanish-speaking community of Oakland, California, where Latinxs make up 27 percent of the city’s 429,000 residents. It was launched in 2017 by Madeleine Bair, a local reporter and media developer.
Bair spent nine months surveying hundreds of Latino immigrants in the city, asking where they got their news and what information was relevant to them. She reached them in churches and at events, public libraries and community centers, and asked them to fill out a postcard that contained those questions in Spanish. She also partnered with grassroots organizations to lead five workshops in which a total of 50 people discussed in more depth their views on local media and their information needs.
She learned that Latino immigrants were frustrated with the existing local news offerings, even though Oakland was not an apparent news desert. Univision and Telemundo offered morning and evening news shows for the Bay Area out of San Jose, covering the nine-county metropolitan region. But Spanish-language radio stations offered more music and entertainment than news, with few exceptions, and traditional newspapers had been closing down (including El Mensajero, which was once part of the ImpreMedia network). This left only four free newspapers, including, importantly, El Tecolote, a bilingual, biweekly newspaper that has been in publication since 1970. El Tecolote has a strong local following in San Francisco but was little known by the Spanish-speaking immigrants in Oakland.
Bair found that Latino immigrants didn’t get the information they needed from those outlets to feel informed and engaged on issues that matter in their lives. Television was their primary source, “but numerous residents say they no longer watch the news because it leaves them feeling afraid and disempowered,” wrote Bair in a report published in 2018:
Every community leader we spoke with articulated the paucity of information about local issues relevant to Latino immigrants. Survey respondents and workshop participants expressed the same sentiment: “No tengo información” (“I don’t have information”) or “No sé dónde conseguir información’” (“I don’t know where to find information”) on issues that are important to them. “Más información” (“More information”) was one of the most common survey responses to the question, “What would you change about the local news media?”
For those surveyed, the most important issues were education, health, housing, employment and the illegal dumping of trash in their neighborhoods. Their preferred ways to receive and share important information included in-person engagement and mobile messaging. With that information in hand, Bair used grant funding to launch two pilot projects. The first was a month-long conversation on housing. Bair and her collaborators took a microphone to a dozen locations throughout East Oakland and invited residents to share how they have been affected by the rising cost of housing. At the same time, the team shared information with residents about local housing-related resources. More than 100 people shared their stories. Excerpts from many of them were published in El Tecolote.
El Tímpano’s second pilot project was a text-message-based participatory local-news service that lasted three months. Subscribers came from the earlier pilot, during which El Timpano had invited residents to provide their cell phone numbers if they wanted to receive news from the service. Ultimately, just under 400 people became subscribers of the weekly service, receiving text messages with news and information on resources related to the issues they had identified as most important. In her report, Bair wrote:
For example, one message provided information about the recent citywide minimum wage increase, along with the number of a legal aid organization, and a prompt to respond if you had ever been underpaid at work. Another week we shared information about the mayor’s new four-year term and a community forum where residents were invited to design their vision for East Oakland’s future. We asked residents what change they wanted to see in Oakland and received 28 concrete responses, from fixing potholes to building affordable housing and addressing crime, illegal dumping, and homelessness. We passed them along to the office of the mayor and city council members.
Bair is now putting together a community advisory board and a fundraising effort to take El Tímpano out of the pilot stage. Her goal is to find “ongoing ways for our audience to be engaged and informed on local issues.” She is also looking into partnerships with local media outlets and institutions “so that [Latino immigrants’] stories and perspectives form a greater part of civic conversations in the Bay Area and beyond.”
What is unique about this experiment is its attempt to build a local news outlet for Latinxs without making assumptions about their information needs. Instead, its founder relied on listening as the starting point for offering relevant news.
Case 5. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico
The Center for Investigative Reporting in Puerto Rico is a local nonprofit focusing on investigative journalism and running a unique legal program to get access to the island’s public records and documents.
Founded in 2007, CPI (its initials in Spanish) has been growing and creating an impact since its start. Its investigations into the island’s debt crisis and the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane María have solidified its local and international reputation. It has forced the release of documents and data the local government was trying to keep secret, forcing it to admit to information it had first denied (such as the number of hurricane-related deaths). And it produced extraordinary accountability reporting on the misuse and unjust distribution of hurricane-recovery funds the federal government sent to the island.
With an annual budget of close to $1 million, CPI’s nonprofit status — it is funded through grants — has allowed it an editorial independence very few news outlets in Puerto Rico can afford, our research indicates. In the past three years, CPI has also incorporated individual donations successfully into its fundraising mix, increasing these donations from $2,000 in 2015 to $80,000 in 2018, using support from a NewsMatch campaign.
The news outlet has earned a leadership position by conducting collaborative journalism projects in the Caribbean; by training, mentoring and awarding grants to Puerto Rican and Caribbean journalists over the past three years, and by producing award-winning investigations about the climate crisis.
CPI’s content is licensed under creative commons, a type of public copyright that enables free distribution: The nonprofit’s investigations are printed or broadcast by an alliance of 10 news outlets in cities and towns across Puerto Rico. These include newspapers and magazines, online news sites, a radio station and a TV station. CPI has also partnered with outlets in the greater U.S., conducting joint investigations with the Associated Press, Quartz, Univision, Latino USA, CNN, The Miami Herald, Radio Ambulante, In These Times and New York Magazine, among others.
CPI has a small newsroom of 10, both seasoned and entry-level journalists. For the young reporters, there are workshops, scholarships and constant mentoring — along with the chance to attend conferences abroad.
The outlet’s investigative reporting is produced in Spanish. But after Hurricane Maria, CPI increased the volume of its translations into English to 85 percent of content, says Carla Minet, CPI’s executive director. The aim was to increase the impact of its coverage about Puerto Rico in the English-speaking U.S.
In an industry that does little investigative and accountability reporting (mostly because of a lack of resources), CPI stands out as a strong, replicable model.