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Community news media, a 'lifeline' for Latino families, now under threat by coronavirus

"Everyone is in survival mode at a time when there is a great demand to stay informed and connected."
Image: Brenda Murphy
Brenda Murphy interviews Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee last week. Murphy oversees Jambalaya News, a bilingual bimonthly community newspaper in New Orleans.Courtesy Jambalaya News

Hundreds of people have been messaging journalist Brenda Murphy on social media on a weekly basis since the coronavirus pandemic started hitting the Latino communities she covers in New Orleans.

"The information changes by the minute," said Murphy, who oversees a staff of three Latinas at Jambalaya News, a bilingual bimonthly community newspaper she launched 16 years ago after seeing a need for local information.

The publication covered the havoc of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Great Recession a few years later, all while the local newspaper industry in the U.S. declined, as almost 1,800 papers have closed down since 2004 — creating more than 1,300 local news deserts in communities nationwide.

Now Jambalaya News faces its biggest test yet — publishing timely and potentially lifesaving information while it and other hundreds of community news organizations work to stay afloat amid the economic turmoil.

Such organizations are like "the first line of response," serving those who are the most vulnerable, particularly first-generation immigrants trying to navigate a new country and understanding their rights, said Graciela Mochkofsky, director of the Center for Community Media at City University of New York's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

"These are the news outlets serving these communities," said Mochkofsky in Spanish, "and at the same time, the people creating them happen to be part of these communities themselves."

The Latino population has grown by 24 percent in the New Orleans metro area since 2010, and as of 2018, the share of Latinos in the city has doubled since 2006.

Murphy, who is originally from Honduras and has lived in Louisiana for over two decades, started Jambalaya News to inform Latinos in the New Orleans metropolitan area — many from Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries — about local news in their native Spanish.

"Most of them don't speak English well. Many work in construction, cleaning, restaurants, shops, supermarkets, and a lot of them aren't used to reading all the time," Murphy said. "That's why we always try to write simple and concise."

During the pandemic, Jambalaya News has been providing Latino readers with the latest updates on the number of coronavirus deaths and cases as well as information about food banks, testing sites, unemployment applications and affordable rent.

The Center for Community Media has identified 624 media outlets that specifically serve Latino communities in the United States and Puerto Rico. Nearly 40 percent are newspapers and almost half of them — 45 percent — are independently owned locally or are affiliated with another local or national newspaper.

These local papers tend to rely on selling print ads to stay financially afloat and on local businesses to distribute them, but an overwhelming majority lost almost all revenue almost overnight as stay-at-home orders were put in place, and schools and small businesses closed.

Mochkofsky said many hyperlocal newspapers reported ad revenue drops of 50 to 75 percent during the first two weeks of the pandemic, a huge blow for outlets that often lack multiple revenue streams.

"Everyone is in survival mode at a time when there is a great demand to stay informed and connected," said Mochkofsky. "Community media has lost their revenue, but have more work than ever."

Viva Iowa!, a bimonthly Spanish-language newspaper serving two counties in rural Iowa, has continued printing but reduced circulation.

IMAGE: The newspaper Viva Iowa!
Viva Iowa! is a Spanish-language community newspaper in rural Iowa serving Latino communities living in Franklin and Wright counties.Courtesy of Pia Hovenga

Business closures have caused ad revenue to decrease so much that the paper's publisher, Pia Hovenga, said she is not sure if she'll be able to afford to keep the paper going.

"I don't even want to talk about it. It's likely that the money that we did get from some ads won't be enough to cover the cost of printing our next edition," Hovenga told NBC News in Spanish. "Right now, I'm just moving forward and doing my best to get our next issue out this week."

In Iowa, the state's Latino population has grown by almost 139 percent since 2000, according to a report by the State Data Center of Iowa.

Countering potentially deadly misinformation

Journalists working for community news outlets saw a huge amount of misinformation about "miracle cures" and "myths of how to prevent COVID-19" circulating among Spanish-speaking communities through platforms such as WhatsApp and other social media networks, said Mochkofsky.

Community media's biggest challenge is to counter the spread of false information.

"We're talking about information that, when shared as the truth, could lead to deaths," she said. "And many of these news outlets sometimes lack the personnel or the resources to do fact-checking or counter the information in a timely manner."

Murphy usually starts her day hosting a morning radio show via livestream. Other times she hits the road to cover news conferences or go on Facebook Live while she visits food banks, COVID-19 testing sites and businesses getting ready to reopen.

"That's what makes our coverage relatable," she said in Spanish. "Being able to say, we're Hispanic, we speak your language, we have the same skin color and we're also getting tested. It shows them that this is not a bad thing. ... We have our masks on, we're keeping distance. People appreciate that and trust us for it."

In rural Iowa, many Latinos living in Franklin and Wright counties work in the agriculture industry, said Hovenga. Others run their own small businesses such as restaurants and check-cashing centers. She said Viva Iowa! is not as focused on breaking news because it comes out every two weeks.

“But during the pandemic, of course, we want to be on the record about how to prevent COVID-19," she said, publishing information in Spanish such as the importance of washing hands and other useful tips. "Now more than ever it matters that people truly understand what's going on in their native language.”

Innovating while on 'survival mode'

Jambalaya News' secret for surviving a crisis is in "cutting expenses to the bare minimum and do a lot with just a few people," as well as trying to boost revenues, said Murphy. But cutting costs has meant laying off almost half of her already lean staff and canceling a couple of the paper's printed editions.

"Some of our ad contracts have been canceled or put on hold as a result, so we're trying to motivate businesses that are opening or partially working to advertise with us," she said.

Boosting revenues has been hard after the paper's application to the federal Paycheck Protection Program was denied. In the meantime, the paper has been trying to persuade advertisers to buy ads online and has also applied for others grants, including the Facebook Journalism Project's COVID-19 local news relief fund, but they're still waiting to hear back.

Image: Brenda Murphy
Brenda Murphy co-hosts the "Jambalaya News" radio show.Courtesy Jambalaya News

For Jambalaya News, operating with the bare minimum has also meant moving their entire operation online.

They were already working to leverage their website, as well as social media and livestreaming platforms, in an attempt to reach new audiences before the pandemic hit. But the crisis made them "redouble our efforts to produce more online news."

Murphy said the paper is publishing more Spanish-language articles on the website and relying more on putting out timely news updates using internet radio platforms such as TuneIn so listeners without internet access can just dial in. However, Facebook is their biggest engagement tool since they have more than 31,000 followers. That's over half the number of Latin American immigrants in the New Orleans metropolitan area, according to census data analyzed by the Center for Community Media.

Mochkofsky said the Center for Community Media is remaining vigilant as it studies how COVID-19 affects the local media landscape in the short and long term.

The disappearance of these outlets would be "traumatic" for immigrant families nationwide where "community media often serves as a lifeline," Mochkofsky said. "If that goes away, it will probably be filled with misinformation or with rumors, even those spread by well-intentioned people sending unverified information."

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