Last Friday, they turned off the lights and let go of four of the seven staffers at NBC Latino, reassigning the others. The site, where I worked from 2011 until last year, was an ambitious, award-winning English-language news site aimed at the Hispanic community.
Back on the fourth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, our boss, Chris Peña, used to say: “We’ve succeeded when we can shut down the website.” We’ve accomplished our mission, he meant, when identifying, covering, and advancing stories that impact the Latino community is a vibrant part of the company’s DNA. I don’t think anyone who follows mainstream media would say that’s close to being true today.
Having Latino journalists in the newsroom is not some bullshit exercise on a diversity checklist, but an acknowledgement that the newsroom should reflect the country, the people you are writing about, the audience. It is, moreover, an obvious practical advantage: Every journalist brings his or her roots and experience to the job, and a newsroom can’t afford to be cut off culturally from a huge piece of American life in the 21st century.
During my time there I was fortunate to tell important stories I won’t soon forget: Prominent “dreamer” Erika Andiola crying on the phone talking to me, not sure if her mother would be deported. NBC Latino was probably the first major news site with the story. Rodrigo Diaz, 22, pulled into the wrong driveway one night in Georgia. He was shot and killed by a man who believed his home was about to be invaded. I called his brother and asked him to tell me the story of the brother he loved, not the one being spoken about in an abstract way in local news. No one else was covering that story nationally. NBC News shared the story with its audience and there you have it, mainstream media was covering the young man’s death. At least giving his life importance and context in death, instead of being quickly forgotten like so many others.
Those are just two stories I was lucky to tell. My former colleagues told many more. These stories mattered. They still matter; they’re what I spend my time covering now at one of the world’s biggest news outlets, and I see the scale of the audience for them.
NBC Latino probably needed to be better appreciated and taken more seriously inside the building, and inside a great American news organization whose strengths and weaknesses mirror those of other legacy newsrooms. One of those weaknesses is a failure, at times, to grasp what people care about on the internet, how we organize ourselves and our media now. We have so many choices. We can get what we want and ignore sites that don’t serve us, don’t show our faces or those of people like us, or when they do, don’t talk about us and our community the right way. No one is typing in a news site URL in the morning: They are finding the urgent, compelling news their own online communities share. So having diverse coverage and viewpoints has never been more important. LGBT coverage, black culture and issues coverage, Latino stories, and stories about any other marginalized and ignored community is not just a good idea but necessary in this media environment. And these stories will often be sharper and deeper when written by people who are part of the communities, understand them, and are passionate about their work.
The missed opportunity at my old workplace bothers me most of all. There is no shortage of Latino media that misses the mark out there. Indeed, Latino media in the U.S. needs to revamp itself and understand what its audience is and what they care about. The internet and social communities like Latino Rebels, for example, are increasingly at the heart of the conversation — but that’s why NBC Latino and its great staff were even more important. It wasn’t perfect, but readers appreciated its voice and it elevated stories to NBC News, and that’s still a big deal, a bridge into the even larger national conversation.
When you work in Latino media, you don’t do so because it’s the most glamorous thing in the world, but because you feel it’s the right thing to do as a journalist for your audience. It’s what you believe in, what guides your work.
That’s why I’m saddened about this new void — one less megaphone to amplify a community’s voice.