This commentary is adapted from the author’s newsletter, OIGO, and is republished here with permission.
So, your public media organization aspires to expand its audience into Hispanic communities. You have an employee or two interested in leading the campaign. Maybe you can put some money or staff hours aside to make it happen.
How do you do it without flopping?
Let’s start by putting your ideas for serving Latina/o/e/x audiences with public media through the paces. Whether you believe translations are the way or a bilingual podcast is the right approach, it is crucial to test your hypotheses. Asking questions early will save you a lot of time and money.
Pressing your theories may have one other benefit, too.
The costs of bad Latina/o/e/x outreach can be fatal for your organization’s strategy. We hone in a lot on time and resources, but also we’re talking about relationships. There is nothing harder to bounce back from than a flawed vision that may seem insensitive or hurtful to established voices. Spanish-language media creators and leaders feeling like you stole their ideas, copied their coverage with your branding, or behaved like they weren’t there before you will damage your credibility — especially if they have the trust that you don’t have yet. In hearing from aggrieved parties, I can say resentments can linger. Memories are long, and repairing mistakes can be an ongoing struggle.
I have been fortunate to have many conversations with public radio and television groups that have Latina/o/e/x engagement as a priority. Where the good intention gets messed up is in doing the necessary interrogation of your big ideas.
Ready? Let’s start making a list.
1. Is your community actually underserved?
You’d be surprised how many organizations think their Hispanic communities are underserved by local journalism, but can’t name a single Spanish-language outlet in their area or a nonprofit they can call to verify this notion.
At best, the suggestion that Hispanics have no news sources is not okay because you need to do your homework. At worst, this attitude can doom your projects.
Communities of color have seen this before: someone from outside assuming they need something they never asked for, or trying to co-opt things the community already uses, solely for the purpose of meeting their own growth or revenue objectives.
Before you start anything in this vein, better to do some looking around.
- What Spanish-language legacy media exists in your area?
- If it’s TV or radio, what are their audience sizes (generally findable via Googling audience ratings)?
- If it’s a newspaper, what is its distribution and/or subscription size?
- Are there newsletters, WhatsApp groups or email lists used by the community?
- What do local Latina/o/e/x businesses say they use to get the word out?
- Are there social media influencers/channels devoted to the local Hispanic community? How big are they?
Once you have an idea of what community media exists, review your initial premise.
2. Are you making mission assumptions?
A reflexive response I’ve heard often is that public media’s work is needed because it’s mission-driven journalism. I ask: As opposed to what?
Published in 2019, the Center for Community Media’s State of the Latino News Media report gives you a glimpse of the diversity of the space serving Hispanics. This does not get into the deep commercial industry. You may discover existing media outlets center the Latina/o/e/x community in coverage and have missions as well.
Yes, there are trash Latina/o/e/x media outlets. As noted in KQED’s research, the audience often feels dissatisfied with Spanish-language media. Yet, your endeavors will benefit when you understand the local Spanish-language market and can frame your aspirations in clear, non-savior-y language.
3. What does your community want or need?
Anyone leading up an initiative should be able to say what they know of community needs, especially as it relates to a Latina/o/e/x engagement effort. Questions you should ask and answer:
- Based on our conversations, what do we hear people want and need most from media?
- Is the demand largest for content (i.e. informational presentation, such as where to get a vaccine) or journalism (i.e. reporting on how vaccines are distributed)?
- Figure this out: the audience tells us they consume (news, entertainment, sports, culture) in this order.
- What community needs/questions can we most effectively address with the resources we have?
Okay, you may not get all those answers immediately. Your objective is to understand your community better, so it can help guide your new initiative to the greatest success.
4. How are you thinking of translations?
Translations are the go-to solution for many public media organizations. There are tons of reasonable arguments for such. You’ve got the stories done already, so making them available in another language extends their reach. You also might not have capacity to create enough original Spanish-language content to foster a habit among audiences, but repackaging English-language reporting represents a way to help with this dilemma.
On the other hand, there are inquisitions to go with translations. They’re no substitute for exclusive content. Translations for your website may need to be part of a bigger push to reach digitally savvy Hispanics. Some questions to ask about your theory:
- Do you know whether translations will be read, or are what the community wants?
- If yes, who told you this and can you explore it?
- What sorts of content are seen by respondents as best for translation (examples: content vs. journalism, news vs. culture, et al.)?
- What length is likely to get read?
- Will it live on your site or elsewhere?
- Does the audience know your website?
- If not, what resources will you invest to market it to them?
- Will translations be copy that lives on a website, on social media or video/animation?
- How long do you want to do this? Are you budgeting to sustain it?
Translations in and of themselves are a fine solution, but organizations should talk out the bigger picture. Independent journalist Natalie Van Hoozer offered some thoughts about how to balance translations and original bilingual stories in a recent OIGO interview.
5. Is your future collaborative?
Before venturing out to start something completely new, have you considered joining forces with Spanish-language media in your region? Many public media organizations have opted to partner with Spanish-language media as a way of extending the reach of their journalism and highlighting others locally. Guess who? Among others:
- Aspen Public Radio and El Sol del Valle
- WFAE and La Noticia
- WBUR and El Planeta
- WPLN and Nashville Noticias
- WFPL and Al Dia en America
As you’ll see from these examples, varied arrangements take shape. Sometimes, there are content-sharing agreements. At times, there can be pacts to do reporting. Other times, it may be only translation and posting to respective audiences. Each organization should come to the table with an idea of their needs. And, if you’re in public media and initiating the call, be generous with what you’ll give. The positive word of mouth will pay off.
A lot of presumptions about diverse audiences come from a benign place. People are passionate about public media’s mission and have faith in our journalism. The trap is that place of not knowing a community. Don’t make a guess about what Latina/o/e/x audiences in your town want or need. Talk to a lot of people. Ask many questions. Listen actively and empathetically. And, above all, press what your ideas are to the farthest point you can. Your public media organization can only win through such trials.
Ernesto Aguilar is director of radio programming for KQED in San Francisco and author of OIGO, a newsletter about Latina/o/e/x audiences and public media.