Communities of color have historically been underserved by the news business, and the loss of journalism jobs and outlets nationwide has exacerbated this neglect. Then came the pandemic, with its disproportionate impact on Black and brown people throughout the United States, and the accompanying “infodemic” of misinformation.
In early 2020, Maritza Félix saw this neglect — and the resulting lack of trustworthy information in these communities — as an opportunity to fill a need. The 38-year-old freelance journalist and self-described “WhatsApp queen” decided to use that social media platform to connect people in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, with a Spanish-language service that would combat harmful misinformation and provide practical, credible “news you can use.”
Conecta Arizona has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. She has engaged 50 experts on health, immigration, personal finances, and other topics to provide guidance to the 257 participants in her WhatsApp group (the maximum size of a WhatsApp group is 256, plus an administrator).
She has done 265 online “horas del cafecito” (coffee hours) and is writing a weekly column for Prensa Arizona, the state’s largest Spanish-language newspaper. On Feb. 4, she started a weekly program, “La Hora del Cafecito en la Radio,” broadcast on a Phoenix radio station and online.
“We are building a model to strengthen local journalism that inspires others to do the same in their communities,” she wrote in a May 11 post on Medium, adding: “I didn’t want to change the world, but I did want to save it from a pandemic of misinformation.”
Félix is one of 11 journalists who last week completed their eight-month John S. Knight Community Impact Fellowships, based at Stanford University but conducted remotely. Spurred by both pandemic-imposed restrictions on residential sessions and a heightened sense of urgency about the lack of diversity in newsrooms, the Community Impact Fellowship program was created last year to nurture resilient leaders, like Félix, who serve communities of color with early-stage journalism initiatives. These initiatives are seedlings of new life amid the withering nationwide losses in local journalism.
(Full disclosure: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds the JSK Fellowships, is one of the News Literacy Project’s largest donors. In addition, Knight has provided funding for Poynter.)
On the final day of the program, I spoke with Félix and another JSK fellow, Candice Fortman, the executive director of Outlier Media. It provides Detroit residents with information about public services and other needs via text and collaborates with local partners on news reporting. I was struck by the impact that Félix and Fortman and their service-oriented models are having on often-overlooked communities. I was also impressed by the JSK Fellowships’ strategic pivot to reframe its program for mid-career journalists, founded in 1966, as Community Impact Fellowships.
The pandemic presented an opportunity to focus on individuals who were “doing journalism for the community and in the community,” Dawn Garcia, the veteran JSK Fellowship director, told me. The need to deliver the program remotely allowed participants to continue to provide essential services locally while using Zoom to join the fellowship’s workshops and its coaching, brainstorming and networking sessions.
For Félix, the fellowship provided funding to help her sustain her experiment — and something far less tangible, but just as vital.
Since arriving in the United States from her native Mexico 15 years ago, she has become an acclaimed journalist: In 2012 and 2013, the Phoenix New Times named her the best Spanish-language journalist in Arizona, and she won five Emmy Awards during three years as a writer and producer at Telemundo. Still, she said, being selected for the JSK Fellowship was deeply validating.
“They bet on a Latina, an immigrant with red lipstick, a hand-embroidered Mexican blouse, and a strong accent,” she wrote on Medium. “It was as if I had been a seed and thrown into fertile ground … and I flourished.”
Indeed. “In one year,” she wrote, “we have answered 1,214 questions from members of our community, plus the 511 we answered during the intense election coverage in 2020.” In addition, she continued, “we have debunked 262 conspiracy theories, myths, and fake news from social media.”
Félix has just started a newsletter and has plans for a website. She aspires to be able to pay Spanish-speaking journalists for stories, she said — but “first, I need to pay myself.” And she hopes that she will be able to develop a sustainable business model that does not rely entirely on philanthropy.
Outlier Media is creating just such a model.
It was founded by Sarah Alvarez, a former public radio reporter and producer who developed the concept as a JSK fellow in 2016. Outlier, a nonprofit, creates beats for its five-person staff based on the stated needs of its low-wealth community. When the pandemic hit, Fortman said, those needs included responses to food insecurity and child care concerns, along with actionable information about COVID-19.
In addition to texting information directly to residents in both English and Spanish, Outlier’s reporters work collaboratively with many of the newsrooms in the city on watchdog and investigative reporting. One reporter, shared with the Detroit Free Press, translates Outlier’s texts into Arabic. (The Detroit area is home to one of the country’s largest Arab American communities.)
Outlier was bolstered this year by a three-year, $950,000 grant from the American Journalism Project, which supports new models in local nonprofit journalism. Fortman said the funds would be used to help increase and diversify revenue through such sources as consulting, sponsorships, corporate gifts, events and merchandising.
“We are a blank canvas on which to build our model: a new way for newsrooms to build relationships with communities and not on the backs of communities,” she wrote in a Dec. 2 Medium post.
Fortman told me that her biggest takeaway from the JSK Fellowship is her realization that “collaboration is likely the best route forward for most of us.” This may include partnering with other outlets to share the cost of development, information technology and other specialized services.
What else will it take for innovative outlets like Outlier Media and Conecta Arizona to succeed?
It starts with listening to the community — first to determine its needs and then to figure out how best to meet them through a two-way conversation. It requires using technology in creative and sometimes experimental ways. A sound business model and diverse revenue sources are critical for long-term sustainability.
Above all, it means nurturing committed journalists-turned-social entrepreneurs like Félix, Alvarez and Fortman, and investing in their vision.
“I took a step back in my journalism and realized why I started in the first place: to serve the community, to serve my people,” Félix told me. “I don’t need to be working with a big production company. Sometimes you can make a difference with very small things, like we’re doing.”
We should all root for these initiatives to succeed with impactful and sustainable models that others can emulate. If they do, they can help rebuild local news, restore trust in journalism and reach diverse communities that have long felt ignored. That would be no small thing.
The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit, provides programs and resources for educators and the public to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.