February 25, 2021

S. Mitra Kalita saw the news first on Facebook. Juan Vicente Valerio, a bike mechanic from her Jackson Heights, Queens, neighborhood, had died from the coronavirus. Valerio had tended to Kalita’s husband’s bike for years. He was a neighbor. And he had no family in the country.

Friends wanted to have him cremated and send his ashes home to Mexico. But they had no idea how to get his body from the city or have the money to make it happen.

Kalita started making calls.

She, by the way, was also caring for her own family and working as the senior vice president for news, opinion and programming for CNN Digital.

“What good am I as a journalist if I don’t use those skills of journalism to better uplift my neighborhood?” she said. “What good am I as a neighbor if I’m not leveraging the ability to cut through bureaucracy and get answers in order to help?”

Off and on for 20 years, Kalita has lived in Jackson Heights, which was, early on, the epicenter of the pandemic. By the spring, she and her family wanted to launch a newsletter to help their neighbors navigate the questions they encountered in a shut-down world. Where is it safe to hike? Does it feel OK to go inside the corner store? How do we help a couple that both got sick and have no child care?

Early on, she said, “it felt like the 20-block-radius around your house never mattered more.”

By July, after the death of George Floyd, Epicenter-NYC launched. It’s impossible to start any work to bind a community without taking into account where the country is and how Floyd’s death changed the media, Kalita said, “hopefully forever.”

In December, Kalita left CNN. In January, she and Philadelphia radio executive Sara Lomax-Reese co-founded URL Media, a network of Black and Brown media organizations. URL stands for Uplift, Respect and Love. The inaugural members include Epicenter-NYC; WURD in Philadelphia; Scalawag in the South; The Haitian Times, based in Brooklyn; Documented, which covers immigrants and immigration policy in New York; TBN24, a television network that airs in Bangla; and Palabra, a network of freelance journalists from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

I asked Kalita, who’s had a career in local, national and global journalism, what she thinks national newsrooms need to learn from local. She doesn’t really think of the work in those terms, she said. Everything she’s doing right now is rooted in community, but community isn’t just where you live.

It might be your neighborhood or a diaspora or a network of newsrooms serving communities that mainstream media often ignores and rarely reflects.

For now, Epicenter-NYC has a team of freelancers and contract workers. Along with volunteers, they’ve been busy helping 200 people get registered for coronavirus vaccines. Most of them are neighbors. Some share larger communities. But they’re all connected.

S. Mitra Kalita is the founder of Epicenter-NYC and the co-founder of URL Media. Previously, she worked at CNN, the Los Angeles Times and Quartz. (Courtesy: S. Mitra Kalita)

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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