NextGen Convention Reflection: Marielle Argueza

A reflection on why alt-weeklies should integrate with the increasingly diverse communities they cover.

When I sat in on my first talk at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference, I was immediately struck by an image I’ve seen before. It wasn’t as stark as black and white. It was more like, white, white, more white and a maybe three or four black and brown people like me. I thought to myself looking around the room: “I didn’t earn a diversity scholarship because I was a token brown person—I earned it because this industry needs people like me.”

“Need” is a strong word. But in theory, alternative weeklies do spend more time on the ground, embedded in their communities that they cover, getting to know the people and building better and deeper relationships. It’s a process that’s supposed to separate us from the big guys.

But here is the reality: I sat in a room filled with weeklies from across North America, and there was just a handful of visibly black and brown people listening to two male journalist at the top of their game, working for bigger new organizations. Are the U.S. and consequently the stories all these weeklies cover really as white as this room? From what I’ve read, no. But I could be wrong.

Then again, this is my realty five days a week, 52 weeks a year: I work in a newsroom that does a pretty good job putting women in higher up positions—all my editors have been women, albeit white women. The newsroom is almost at a gender equilibrium, with the possibility of a new future staff writer who could tip or balance the scale. The only other person of color is our arts writer. Nobody in the newsroom speaks fluent Spanish, though our county’s biggest city and much of the rural towns are predominantly Spanish speaking. And week by week, our stories are overwhelmingly concentrated in the richer coastal parts of town as opposed to rural or heavily Spanish-speaking towns—I’ve heard different excuses. The worst is some form of “not our audience.”

I am not naïve. But I know more and more, kids from lower income backgrounds, people of color, immigrants, people of the LGTBQ+ community are graduating from colleges. More and more, people from these very groups are opening shops and building their lives in the areas that weeklies cover.

And  in that room I felt like that our industry wasn’t adapting fast enough to reflect the current reality. I felt as if we, as an industry, made a series of bad choices by marketing ourselves as people in the socio-political know, but are as representative of modern-day society as a Fox News panel. OK, maybe not that bad, but it was enough to make me think that weeklies need a solution to become better integrated and to better reflect our changing society.

Manolia Charlotin, who spoke on the “National/Local Collaboration” panel had a good one. She asked the question: “What if [alternative weeklies] become the ‘media ecosystem’?” In part that means a news system that simply doesn’t just “cover” stories of more underrepresented groups, but gets to know them from all perspectives and from all departments.

Communities outside rich white communities, it turns out, run nonprofits, are business owners, are leaders and run for elections. They go to school, they travel the world, they come back to their hometowns and make them better. Charlotin suggests that these types of communities are important as they are both sources for stories and monetary investment.

If a single sales representative from an alt weekly is willing to drive out into rarely covered communities, offering advertising or simply making themselves known as a future marketing resource, that is one potential way to build a lasting relationship and increase readership. “Communities of color are loyal,” Charlotin told me after the talk “they’ll keep coming back.” And it make sense: if their alt-weeklies hold them up and tell their stories and sell in their communities, they’ll hold their alt-weeklies up with their money, their trust and their readership.

On news coverage, Donna Ladd, who spoke in her talk entitled “Transformative Journalism,” had some advice to offer as well: “Go deep.” Easier said than done for a reporter who is balancing deadlines and just wants to finish a story.

I could think of a handful of examples since I’ve been at my job when I spoke with talking heads on the phone out of convenience and made them the subject of a story, rather than taking the time to stay after a board meeting to talk to concerned community members. I didn’t go deep enough. I didn’t ask them to lunch or tell them “show me how you live” and why “this” or “that” affects you.

It’s easy to think as a journalist, intrapersonal skills are a natural ability, but they are skills and they have to be sharpened. Listening in particular is a skill with learning curves. While public officials are more articulate and easier to speak to, it’s easy as a journalist to tell a story through their authority. But often times the most human stories are from people who aren’t used to being in front of a camera or mic. That’s the part that takes time and patience.

Ladd’s advice also touched on who gets to participate in reporting the news. “[Media organizations] tend to hire who they are comfortable with,” Ladd said, suggesting that perhaps the only real way to cover these stories—when the trust between reporter and community is absent—is to direct members of that particular community into the newsroom.

What’s keeping those reporters out of the newsroom? Ladd calls it the “media industrial complex,” a system where the demands of the newsroom push editors and publishers to fill reporter’s positions who are both qualified in paper and look and talk like them. All the editors and publishers I met at ANN, were all white, mostly male, and I can’t think of one POC that I’ve ever met that ever held an editor’s position. In consequence, the unfortunate tendency of this system is to roll over candidates who are black, or brown, or from underrepresented groups. But alt weeklies have the ability to throw a wrench in the machine and make it run a different way.

I felt that even in the fast-paced action and excitement of D.C. there was still a willingness to acknowledge our own discrepancies as an industry and a real desire to fix them. I listened in on countless reporters asking questions on how do they do their job well when faced with limited access to unfamiliar beats. I listened to my own editor asking speakers if she was doing the right thing by consciously choosing to wait on the right person to fill an open reporter position, with the right language skills and insider knowledge.  And so maybe as alt weeklies endure to stay relevant and in business, we shouldn’t just be looking to our own leaders of industry, but to the communities we should and want to cover.

Argueza, Staff Writer and Calendar Editor at Monterey County Weekly, was a winner of the 2017 AAN Diversity / Next Generations Scholarship. She attended the Annual Convention in DC and reflects here on some impactful experiences from her time there.

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