Latino Puzzle Challenges the Heartland

In the summer of 1995, as the media in North Carolina were nibbling at the edges of one of the biggest cultural stories of the last hundred years, Mike Leary saw, as he puts it, "a need wrapped up in an opportunity." At the time, Leary, who turns forty in July, ran a courier business that distributed free weekly newspapers. One day, he was filling a rack at a Raleigh convenience store with a paper called Spectator when he noticed a group of construction workers speaking Spanish. "They aren't interested in this paper," he thought. So Leary unloaded the courier business, got a night job as a bouncer at Red's Beach Music, scraped together $3,000, and gave them a paper they did want.

Today, the wiry, bespectacled Leary is publisher of La Conexión, which bills itself as "North Carolina's Largest and Most Widely Read Spanish Language Newspaper." He has been called a visionary and a mercenary. Either way, he managed to do something that has editors from Dalton, Georgia, to Salem, Oregon, scratching their heads: reach the legions of working-class Latino immigrants who have streamed deep into the bosom of the United States in the last fifteen years. Each week, 25,000 free copies of La Conexión are dropped at bodegas, laundromats, restaurants, and health clinics in central and eastern North Carolina; about 5 percent are returned.

Last year, Raleigh's News & Observer, one of the state's two major dailies, tried to buy La Conexión. The anemic economy scuttled the deal, but Orage Quarles III, the News & Observer's publisher, is still interested in a partnership. "It would give us an entrée into the fastest-growing market in the state," says Quarles, who engineered such a partnership between The Modesto Bee and El Sol when he was publisher there before coming to Raleigh.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population in the United States swelled from 22 million to 35 million, drawing Latinos into a tie with African-Americans as the country's largest minority, at roughly 12 percent each. Most of the growth came not in saturated Latino enclaves of the Southwest and south Florida, but in places like Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina, turning the cultures of small towns inside out.

To varying degrees, this "browning" of America, as it has been called, snuck up on the media. It unfolded quietly in the murky world of illegal immigration, in meatpacking plants, on construction sites. When the 2000 Census landed on the nation's doorstep, though, the full scope of how the country was changing became clearer. The press, meanwhile, in towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Shelbyville, Tennessee, found itself facing many of the same marketing and coverage problems that The Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times began wrestling back in the late 1970s.

To understand how this is developing, CJR focused on a corner of North Carolina, a state where the growth of the Latino population over the last decade was among the largest in the nation, from 77,000 to 380,000. In the area known as The Triangle -- Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill -- Latinos now make up 6.1 percent of the population; still relatively small, until you consider that it grew from nearly nothing in a place where the cultural framework has been black and white for three hundred years. Since 1999, state spending on English-as-a-second-language programs jumped from $5 million to $22 million; and a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia measured the rise in buying power of North Carolina's Latino community, from $8.3 million in 1990 to $2.3 billion in 1999.

The challenge for the press -- in North Carolina and elsewhere -- is to integrate these new communities into their daily coverage and also cultivate the essential new readers and viewers that they represent. It requires a commitment of time and money that is difficult to make, particularly in a weak economy. There are many obstacles: language and cultural barriers, high illiteracy rates, large numbers of undocumented workers, class issues within the Latino communities, the fact that our economy depends on this steady supply of cheap but often illegal labor.

In all of this, of course, the failure to diversify our newsrooms looms large. Nevertheless, many of the same experiments begun years ago in Miami and elsewhere are under way again in the nation's heartland. Mike Leary solved the puzzle by joining the Latino community. He met his wife, Lupita, an immigrant from Monterrey, Mexico, through La Conexión. She taught him Spanish on the bar stools at Red's. Today, Leary says, he speaks more Spanish than English most days. "We are absolutely an advocate for the community," he says of his paper.

For the rest of the media, it isn't that simple.

The Road Back

In March 1998, The News & Observer published a powerful story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Julio Granados, that took readers into his dreams, his faith, and his fears. The piece -- written by a reporter who is fluent in Spanish -- included Granados's full name, the grocery store where he worked, and a detailed account of his illegal border crossing. Two weeks after the article ran, INS agents raided the grocery store. They reportedly taunted Granados with the News & Observer article, then arrested him and five others. Granados was eventually deported, and the paper's budding relationship with the Latino community tanked.

Anders Gyllenhaal, the News & Observer's executive editor, wrote a column in which he acknowledged a lack of sensitivity to the likely consequences of the story for Granados, but raised other questions that are more difficult to answer. How to cover this story without becoming an advocate for illegal immigration? How to get beyond the us-them framework and write inclusively about Latinos?

The episode has become something of a touchstone for discussions about the media coverage of the Latino community in the Triangle. There is pre-Julio Granados and post-Julio Granados.

Ned Glascock, a veteran reporter at The News & Observer, stepped willingly into this breach. "I put my hand up and said, 'Let me cover this,'" he says. The paper's minority affairs beat had been vacant since 1997. After Granados, the editors renamed it Demographics and Culture and gave it to Glascock.

His November 1998 series, "Underground in Carolina," on the parallel worlds of immigrants in Durham and their families back in the tiny mountain village of Pahuatlán, Mexico, was, as Glascock says, "the paper's response to Julio Granados." He and photographer Robert Miller spent six months on the piece, including ten days in Mexico where they met, among others, a mother who many nights has only bread and coffee to give her children while their father works construction in the Triangle. They did not use the full names of the immigrants in Durham, or say precisely where they lived and worked. "I knew intellectually the reasons people were immigrating here," Glascock says, "but this gave me a more personal understanding of the economic desperation that causes people to uproot their lives, the tremendous toll it takes on families, and also the tremendous change occurring in both places as a result."

To find the families for his story, Glascock says he first asked the Latino advocates for help. Still nursing their anger over Julio Granados, they politely declined. So he began knocking on doors after work. "I knew that these were working-class immigrants, mainly from rural parts of Mexico, and that in their social structure they are used to being on the bottom, to having to pay their respects to everyone," he says. So he addressed them formally, asking permission to talk. "They weren't used to having someone who could conceivably be their boss address them with that level of respect."

The response, at times, was more than Glascock bargained for. "One of them asks me to try a delicacy from his village," he says. "He comes back with this jar of huge, dried black ants. I thought he was kidding, but then he started munching on them. So I did, too. We bonded over dried ants."

While Glascock broadened his cultural -- and culinary -- horizons, the editors added a new minority education issues beat and offered free Spanish lessons to reporters. The paper just hired a Latina sports writer, giving it eleven reporters who speak enough Spanish to conduct interviews. But The News & Observer's broader strategy remains, as Melanie Sill, the paper's managing editor, says, "a work in progress."

A partnership with La Conexión would be a major piece of the puzzle, particularly from a marketing standpoint; but it would not solve many of the coverage problems. "If you are trying to shift the paper to reflect changes in your community," says Gyllenhaal, "it is a whole different set of challenges. Progress is harder to measure."

Coverage Evolves

One way to measure progress is through the evolution of more sophisticated coverage. "There is a difference between cultural sensitivity and cultural competency," says H. Nolo Martinez, director of Hispanic/Latino affairs for North Carolina's Governor Mike Easley. "If you are just talking about sensitivity, then you don't know what you don't know." Much of the early coverage of the Latino communities in and around Raleigh focused, predictably, on the numbers (the rapid growth), the differences (the festivals, the foods), and the problems (overwhelmed schools, a rubella outbreak). Too often, says Keith Woods, a diversity specialist at the Poynter Institute, this is where coverage stalls. "These human pathology stories are legitimate stories in the life of reporting on cultural change," he says. "But they are the easiest stories to get at, they require the least amount of internal knowledge and understanding of the community."

A two-part series in The Independent, an alternative weekly in nearby Durham with a reputation for solid investigative journalism, about a Hispanic Baptist church in Siler City, got it right, Woods says. The author, Barry Yeoman, is a free-lance writer in Durham who has written about Latino immigrants for Mother Jones and The Nation. "He had to go in and learn the community from the ground up," says Woods. "What you see when you read his stories is a presentation of people who are people of faith, people of love, of longing -- all the universal human feelings that draw people to stories are there. But in the course of that you also get the information about the growth of the Latino community in this region, the numbers, the problems."

Yeoman says he started reporting the piece in his spare time in the spring of 1999, and didn't take out his notebook until October. "I had to unlearn a lot," he says. "I had to set aside my preconceptions about religion, for instance, especially about evangelical Christianity."

In the same way, with "Underground in Carolina," Glascock had the time and the inclination to see the story through another's eyes (ironically, just what The News & Observer was aiming for with Julio Granados). But this depth of understanding is hard to get on a daily basis, and it cannot filter through an entire newsroom overnight. Frank del Olmo, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Times, says that learning how to cover southern California's Latino community has been a twenty-year process, full of good and bad decisions. The answer, ultimately, was to simply add Spanish-speaking reporters to existing beats whose focus is finding Latino angles to everyday stories. "We try to figure out if there is a different way that Latinos view the same issues that everyone else is dealing with," says del Olmo. "If there isn't, okay, but at least we ask the questions."

One-Man Show

While the once-bitten News & Observer leans toward partnering with an established Spanish-language paper, The Herald-Sun, a 50,000-circulation family-owned paper thirty miles northeast of Raleigh, in Durham, has placed its bet on an idea that has had mixed results nationally: launch your own. Nuestro Pueblo, the Herald-Sun's monthly Spanish-language tabloid, is the darling of Durham's Latino community. It began as a bilingual column in 1998, and was the first major effort by the English-language media in North Carolina to deliver news in Spanish. There are plenty of problems with it -- circulation is inconsistent, for instance, and because it is free there is no reliable way to measure who is reading it. But, as John Herrera, a native of Costa Rica who started the state's first Latino community credit union, says, "Three years ago we were begging for a single page."

In September 2000 Nuestro Pueblo went monthly, and today ten thousand copies of the sixteen-page paper are dropped at fifty-five locations in two counties. There is talk of making it weekly, but that will require selling enough ads to justify it.

Orchestrating all this -- on a budget of $3,000 a month -- is Mark Schultz, the Herald-Sun's night metro editor. The forty-one-year-old Schultz, a Long Islander who landed in Durham thirteen years ago, is his paper's Latino strategy. "Everything we've done in this regard is attributable to Mark," says Bill Hawkins, the Herald-Sun's executive editor. Schultz created Nuestro Pueblo, edits it, shoots photos, and writes for it. He also pulls together a bilingual page that runs in The Herald-Sun each Friday. It all adds fifteen to twenty unpaid hours a week to his schedule. "I have no kids, nothing pulling me away," he says. "A lot of why people go into journalism is because it's creative. What's more creative than creating something completely new?"

Right now, the monthly is a mix of features, columns, resource lists, news briefs, and the occasional hard-news story. The three grand covers the cost of columnists, delivery, and advertising commissions. "I would love to make it more in-depth," says Schultz. "I don't know how quickly that will happen. I think you need to have a reporter assigned to the beat so that he or she can develop expertise and sources." There won't be, at least not anytime soon. Bill Hawkins is aware of this need, but says the current economic climate doesn't afford him "the luxury of adding staff." In January he informed the newsroom that there would be no raises this year.

Therein lies a dilemma for small papers like The Herald-Sun, since Nuestro Pueblo is only half of the equation. It is, as much as anything, an attempt to build brand loyalty among a population that will eventually be bilingual. Even if Nuestro Pueblo goes weekly and gets newsier, this won't change the fact that -- to cover the Latino community the way it covers education -- The Herald-Sun needs more Spanish-speakers and a greater commitment of time.

Home-Grown Talent

In December Harris Teeter, the Charlotte-based chain of grocery stores, fired dozens of Latino workers at its stores in the Triangle after a warning from the Social Security Administration that many of their employees' numbers were fraudulent. The twice-weekly Chapel Hill News broke the story just before Christmas, but only after Maria Palmer, the pastor of a Hispanic church in Chapel Hill, alerted editors there. More than a week after the News piece ran, The Herald-Sun followed up. Its one and only source from the Latino community? Maria Palmer.

"They are used to having the story handed to them," says Palmer, "because what they have covered has been primarily the festivals, the cutesy stories. We need other kinds of coverage of the Hispanic community. There are ugly stories like this that require investigative journalism."

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. Claudia Assis, the reporter who wrote the Harris Teeter story for The Herald-Sun, is a native of Brazil who also speaks Spanish. But her primary beat is a county north of Durham, which sometimes leaves her little time for Latino issues. The day the Harris Teeter story came her way, for instance, Assis was in the middle of another story. "There was no way I could have gone out to a Harris Teeter store to find people to talk to," she says.

Language is a more fundamental barrier. With so few reporters who can speak Spanish, the media rely too heavily on bilingual advocates, like Maria Palmer, who find themselves speaking for a diverse Latino population in story after story. Schultz and Assis are the only ones in the Herald-Sun newsroom who speak enough Spanish to conduct complex interviews (and Schultz says he still struggles). Last year, the paper paid for thirteen weeks of Spanish lessons for anyone who wanted them, and Schultz took an immersion course in Guatemala, also on the paper's dime.

Few papers in this country have done a good job hiring -- and retaining -- minority journalists, but papers like The Herald-Sun have a particularly difficult time. For many young journalists -- Latino or otherwise -- these small papers are the first or second stop on their way to larger dailies.

But there are success stories, and cultivating talent within the local Latino community -- through community colleges, mentor programs, and internships -- is the key. "Hiring Spanish speakers can be done, but it requires taking risks and being creative," says Deborah Fisher, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, a 63,000 circulation daily on Texas's Gulf Coast. Five years ago, Fisher's newsroom was 18 percent minority. Today it is 37 percent minority, with most of that growth coming from Latino hires. They did it, Fisher says, by working with local community colleges. "We brought them in as news assistants while they were still in school," Fisher says, "trained them, and then hired them when they graduated."

That's how Rick Rodriguez, the executive editor of The Sacramento Bee, got his start in journalism. In the early 1970s he was finishing high school in Salinas, California, when the editor of the local newspaper recruited him as a news clerk. Now he runs a paper that is one of only a few to have reached parity between its minority staff and the minority population in the community, at roughly 28 percent. "You have to get people in high school and track them, keep them interested in journalism," he says. "Just last year we started working with a high school in Sacramento that is largely Hispanic, providing mentors, providing advisers for their newspaper. You may even have to go to the junior high level, but we haven't done that yet."

At The Herald-Sun, Schultz understands that Nuestro Pueblo is only a beginning. He worries that without a broader strategy, his monthly will become the paper's Latino ghetto. "Are we fostering segregation with this kind of coverage? I don't know the answer, but I think if we are still doing this in five years, I'm not sure that will be a good thing."

TV's Edge

When Time Warner Cable announced the addition of nine Spanish-language channels to its menu for Raleigh subscribers in January, it was big news. The upstairs bar at the El Rodeo Mexican restaurant was crammed with TV cameras, reporters, and leaders of North Carolina's fledgling Latino elite. "If you go into a neighborhood around here and want to know where the Latinos live," says John Herrera, "look for the satellite dishes."

Even without a dish, television seems the way to reach homesick Latinos, not just in North Carolina but across the country. There are seven Spanish-language networks (one of them, Telemundo, was purchased last year by NBC), and the regular networks have begun working this market, too. The Simpsons, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Monday Night Football are all available in Spanish. Given the high rate of illiteracy among the new immigrants, television enjoys a clear advantage over print in terms of reaching these communities.

Outside of Los Angeles and other established Latino enclaves, local TV news has been slow to exploit this advantage. In Atlanta, WSB-TV, the ABC affiliate, began simulcasting its evening news in Spanish two years ago. In Memphis, WHBQ-TV, the Fox affiliate, airs one story each Friday with Spanish subtitles. But that's about it.

In Raleigh, Aura Camacho Maas is speeding things up a bit. She began by helping WRAL-TV, the city's CBS station, become the first in North Carolina to simulcast its evening newscast in Spanish. "Many in this new wave of immigration are illiterate," Maas says, "and I feel it is critical to tune in at the local level in order to integrate as quickly as possible."

Maas, a native of Colombia who came to Raleigh eighteen years ago from Chicago, is not a journalist. She runs the Latin American Resource Center, an educational outreach operation she founded in the early 1990s. Three years ago, she began bugging TV news executives about doing something in Spanish. Maas made little headway until she connected with John Harris, special projects director at WRAL, in late 1999. "We had been thinking about it -- and had tried to partner with some Spanish-language radio stations -- but until we hooked up with Aura, we couldn't find a true partner," he says. "She provided the expertise we lacked."

Maas brought the translators and some seed money, and WRAL -- which was in the process of renovating its studio -- added a booth for simultaneous translation. Now, the station's six o'clock newscast can be heard in Spanish Monday through Friday on a separate audio frequency on newer TVs and VCRs. What viewers get is essentially a dubbed newscast minus the ambient sound. A piece about Nascar racing, for instance, would lack the roar of the engines.

One major problem is that no one knows who is watching. Nielsen does not measure this second-audio channel, so the only feedback is anecdotal. Another problem, critics say, is that those Latinos who do tune in don't often see their world reflected in the news, unless it is through a narrowly defined "Latino story." "In case of emergencies -- a hurricane, or a snowstorm -- the simulcast could make a life or death difference," says John Herrera. "But at this point the daily content is not usually what Latinos want."

In part, this is because local TV news, with some notable exceptions, is generally not a forum for in-depth reporting on any subject, let alone Latino immigrants. A national study last year by The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 40 percent of local TV news stories ran thirty seconds or less, and there were as many stories about the "bizarre" as about civic institutions. A sampling of WRAL's Latino coverage, provided by the station, includes some good, but fairly predictable work. There were pieces -- ranging from ninety to 160 seconds -- on a hurricane preparedness project (organized by Maas's center), the Harris Teeter layoffs, and a church that offers mass in Spanish. The most sophisticated of the stories -- at four minutes -- followed a sixteen-year-old Latina through her pregnancy.

But TV news also faces some of the same problems as print: limited sources in the Latino communities and few reporters who speak Spanish. WRAL recently hired its first Spanish-speaking reporter. "I really believe that the way to improve our coverage in this area is by having a diverse group sitting around the table discussing what to cover and how to cover it," says Harris. "This is a first step toward that."

Maas's answer to the content problem is to produce her own show. She first tried to work something out with WRAL, but when that fell through she turned to NBC-17, the local affiliate. The half-hour public affairs show, still in the planning stages, will air one Sunday a month beginning in May, in Spanish with English subtitles. "You rarely see a story about someone in the Latino community who isn't needing something, but rather is providing something," says Maas. Now, she says, you will.

For NBC-17, Maas's show jump-starts a largely dormant effort to cover the Latino community. The station recently lost one of its two Spanish-speaking reporters and its only Spanish-speaking assignment desk editor. "The extent of our coverage has been the typical local stories about issues, such as discrimination, that cropped up," says Mike Ward, president and general manager at NBC-17. "This is a fairly robust attempt to more directly address the issues and provide a forum for discussion."

Years, Not Months

There has long been a Latino presence in the U.S., and millions of Hispanics have adapted and prospered here. But over the last decade or so a new wave of immigrants arrived. There is, suddenly, this entire Latino subculture -- cleaning hotels, building houses, gutting chickens. By mid-century, Latinos are projected to make up about a quarter of the U.S. population. But the joys and needs and contributions of the people in these new communities, to say nothing of their legal status, are not yet part of the national conversation, despite President Bush's pre-September 11 talk of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.

There will be some resistance. When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram printed one page of a twenty-four-page special section in Spanish the day after September 11, for example, readers howled. The paper was creating, callers said, the false hope that English is unnecessary. This at a paper that has published a Spanish-language sister paper, La Estrella, in some form since 1994.

The media -- not just The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but also The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer -- have the power to start this conversation, and some have begun to try. The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas -- a town of 27,000 whose Latino population jumped 184 percent in ten years -- began publishing a Spanish-language insert, La Voz Latina, in 1997; the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, publishes the occasional piece in Spanish; in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the Times-Gazette started a weekly insert in 2000; and in Florence, Alabama, the TimesDaily produced a translated page once a week for almost a year until the losses forced editors to rethink their strategy. "I applaud the editors that are taking those first steps," says Rick Rodriguez, of The Sacramento Bee. "And they will be, by necessity, baby steps. There is a definite learning curve, and it won't be a learning curve of months, but rather of years."

Brent Cunningham is CJR's managing editor.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.