As part of our series of conversations with journalism leaders serving communities of color, I spoke with Alvaro Gurdián, Vice President of Operations at La Noticia, on how they’re adapting to COVID-19. La Noticia is a for-profit, print and digital news outlet that has served the Latino community in North Carolina for over 23 years. Alvaro and I met on the journalism conference circuit last year, and Democracy Fund proudly supports La Noticia through the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund.
Below is a lightly edited recap of our conversation.
LT: We’re now several months into COVID-19, and La Noticia has been serving communities across North Carolina since the start. What has this moment brought to light for you around the role of community media during crises?
AG: It’s only highlighted how important it is. We have readers who tell us, “I don’t know where to find food,” or “I don’t know where to find masks.” And really, that’s what we’re doing on the day-to-day. We’ll take one question and assume that if one person asks, there are probably dozens or hundreds of readers that have the same question. So we try to build content around that.
We know it resonates because we have people writing to us privately, saying, “Wow, thank you,” at a volume that we didn’t have before for things someone might consider very basic. So people are really taking to heart the value of this work. And that’s uplifting, because we’re obviously working far more hours than we were before.
LT: It’s really great that y’all have been able to continue to do this work and that folks are seeing its value. Are there any common themes coming from your readers right now?
AG: I don’t think the needs have changed that much, they’re just more pressing. Where we are, in North Carolina, Latinos have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. So they need help. For example, the North Carolina Restaurants Association had set up a fund to help people in the industry. But there was so much need, it closed within 24 hours. So what’s the next wave? Where else can we get help?
These things are changing so fast, and social media is a firehose. It’s great if you find what you need in the moment, but how do you search for it later on? That’s been a bit of a disconnect for us. So we’ve been putting more resources on our website, newsletters, and social media so people know where to reach this information again when they need it.
LT: How else are you staying connected with readers?
AG: Believe it or not, we’ve been reaching them through print. Our advertising may have gone down, but our take-up rate has only increased. Think about it: Even if you live in a metro area, not everybody has broadband at home. Many of our readers are used to getting their Internet from work, school, church, wherever they shop. Most of those are gone completely, so they need the newspaper now more than ever. Or they have basic plans where they’ll have social media but not actual Internet. They’ll get headlines, but they don’t have the details. So our print has become much more important than before, and we know it is still a core part of our mission to inform our community through print.
Many of our readers are used to getting their Internet from work, school, church, wherever they shop. Most of those are gone completely, so they need the newspaper now more than ever.
LT: How are you balancing that tension between the continued need for print and drop in ad revenue?
AG: We try to view it all as a whole. We’re for-profit, but as long as we’re not burning cash, we’re willing to stretch a little here and make it up somewhere else. For example, events are usually big for us, but those are obviously not a thing for us right now. I think that’s a serious conversation we need to have with funders. We have readers who are disadvantaged, and it’s not enough to say, “Alright, let’s put it online.” Data plans cost money. And that’s assuming that everyone has phones and knows how to operate them. There are a lot of barriers that people don’t consider from the 40,000 foot view. So that’s part of why we’re continuing to reach out through print. Of course, our digital has gone up, but not enough to make up for the print.
LT: Keeping some of those challenges in mind, what do outlets need to do to continue serving their communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized?
AG: Most of these outlets already know what they need to be doing. Sometimes it’s less of the “what” and more of the “how.” That could mean coaching or getting up to date on workflow automation. As I get further into this, I’m amazed at how much we were missing. We’re using new data software that does 90% of the work of posting new articles. It saves maybe five minutes, but when you have to do several stories a day, that counts.
I also think funders could focus more on bringing communities up to speed on digital — not only connecting them to the tools and technology, but training them on how to use it. People tell us, “I didn’t know I could save that story for later,” or “I don’t know how to search it for later.” I think that often goes unnoticed.
I also think funders could focus more on bringing communities up to speed on digital — not only connecting them to the tools and technology, but training them on how to use it.
LT: How do you see that as a part of media equity?
AG: Well, it’s not enough to simply put out information, whether it’s funded or not. People need to be able to access it and know how to access it. We’ll get comments saying, “I didn’t know how to get to that information,” or, “I called the number you told me but they weren’t picking up.” There are a lot of these resources we’re trying to connect them to, but they’re not always user-friendly — especially government ones. We try to condense that information, but when we refer back to them, it’s easy to get lost.
LT: As a final question, I was wondering what are some pivots you’ve made, or wish you could, to continue meeting those needs?
AG: We were already pivoting to digital, improving our website, adding a membership model. We just had to do it a lot faster than we thought we were going to be doing. Eighty-five percent of our [digital] readership is mobile, so those updates were critical. So we did that, and we launched the membership right away.
Moments like this show that if you [have the resources to] get started on this earlier, the better it is. It just so happens that we embarked on most of the things that we needed to do already. It just meant that we needed to speed up a lot of things we had already planned. We did have a plan in place, we just didn’t plan to have it in place so quickly.