Sam Richard knew he wanted to be a reporter early in his college career. He worked for the daily student newspaper at California State University Northridge and got an internship at the Ventura County Star in Camarillo, Calif., which quickly turned into a full-time job.
But after leaving the industry for health reasons, he broke back into the journalism world as the managing editor of L.A. Watts Times, the leading Black print newspaper in Los Angeles in November 2008.
“I saw it as an opportunity to hone in on editing skills,” said Richard about getting hired at L.A. Watts Times. “With that I oversee and serve people with information that matters and interests them.”
A recent study conducted by the American Society of News Editors shows that 5,900 mainstream newsroom jobs were lost in 2008, 854 of which were held by people of color. Although there aren’t statistics, anecdotes suggest that many journalists of color are turning to jobs in ethnic media and being surprised by the results.
Richard noted his time at L.A. Watts Times has allowed him to be more in touch with the community his publication covers, something he wasn’t able to fully accomplish while working for a mainstream publication. “Those coming out of mainstream have more opportunity to reach new people,” he said.
He said that the most notable difference between a mainstream outlet and a community one is that despite lack of resources, L.A. Watts Times has better and more extensive coverage of the Black community than mainstream outlets.
“We try to look at positive stories that don’t portray Blacks in a negative light, as we see in mainstream media,” said Richard. “L.A. Watts Times has just been better in reporting deep down in the trenches.”
Elena Shore, an editor of New America Media, a national ethnic news service, said that mainstream publications often lack diversity and do not thoroughly represent their readers, something that ethnic media do well.
“Mainstream media haven’t reflected diversity of the population,” said Shore. “There’s a difference when you’re writing an article on a community when you have relationship with that community.”
Susan Goldberg, chair of the diversity committee of the American Society of News Editors, admitted that the loss of reporters of color hurts the mainstream newspaper business as a whole.
“People who come from diverse communities offer more diverse coverage,” said Goldberg, who is also the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “If you lose one group, you lose the ability to do better journalism.”
She added that her organization’s efforts toward diversity are being thwarted by the current economic recession.
“As the nation becomes more diverse, newspapers are becoming less diverse, it is the wrong direction for newsrooms,” said Goldberg.
But it may be the right direction for the journalists themselves.
Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush made the transition from mainstream to ethnic media. Once the deputy editor of Time magazine’s Latin American edition, Vourvoulias-Bush moved on to El Diario La Prensa, New York’s Spanish-language daily, after Time closed its edition. And the switch has been refreshing.
“Time had a broader sense of who they were speaking to, but this type of journalism is more engaging,” said Vourvoulias-Bush, who is the executive editor of the venerable Spanish newspaper. “The core of our DNA is engagement with the community.”
Although ethnic publications are often seen and referred to as niche journalism, Vourvoulias-Bush does not believe El Diario fits into that category.
“We cover a wide range of issues, more than Time magazine did, in that sense we are not a niche publication… we cover the fullest range of issues a journalist can cover,” said Vourvoulias-Bush.
He added that another difference in their coverage is El Diario practices advocacy journalism and engages their audience. In fact, Vourvoulias-Bush calls his publication the “University of Community Journalism.”
“The information is valuable to readers and that is essential to a community that often has few tools,” he said.
That sense of community engagement and advocacy is present in reader feedback that the publication gets on a regular basis, said Vourvoulias-Bush, who feels they have a strong connection with their audience.
“El Diario serves to draw attention and to observe the needs of those underserved and underrepresented communities.”
Aside from their coverage, El Diario has an eclectic newsroom that Vourvoulias-Bush assures reflects the diverse Latino communities in New York.
“It is like something you would expect a movie newsroom to look like. It is full of energy and good vibes,” he said, adding that the vibrant environment was not seen at Time, where most of the staff were correspondents out in the field.
L.A. Watts Times is part of LA Beez, a collective of hyper local ethnic media in Los Angeles set up by New America Media. Other publications target Latinos, Arab Americans, Caribbean people and more.
Like Vourvoulias-Bush, Richard assured that L.A. Watts Times’s coverage of local and community news is more on point for their readers.
“We report on what we determine to be newsworthy,” said Richard. “Sometimes we ask our reporters, ‘how will this affect the black community?’”
He added that there is a level of engagement with the community, as they regularly announce local events and activities for their readers. “News you can use” is the L.A. Watts Times motto.
Despite the current economic recession’s affect on mainstream publications across the nation, ethnic media are doing relatively well, and Richard believes the market will continue to grow.
“It’s just a fact that our nation’s population continues to be more diverse (and) it’s important to give those people an alternative to mainstream that caters to their interests,” said Richard.
Vourvoulias-Bush believes that not only more mainstream journalists will turn to ethnic press, but that there is a lot to be learned from the sector.
“There are lessons that ethnic media can teach mainstream about what works and why it is still active and vital,” he said, citing community engagement and local coverage as some of the lessons. “Ethnic media is interesting journalism, and mainstream journalists should look for the possibility of working at an ethnic publication if they want to do interesting journalism.”
Cindy Von Quednow is an editorial intern with ColorLines magazine.