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Bilingual journalism finds its voice

With more Americans speaking Spanish and English, local media is adapting to better serve their communities.

June 7, 2019

By Joseph Rios

When 13-year-old Marisa Ellison disappeared last October from her Oklahoma City home, local media broadcast her photograph and information to help find the missing teenager.

But Oklahoma’s English-language news stations weren’t reaching a key audience: Spanish speakers.

Ellison is Native American, her stepfather is Mexican, and she came from a bilingual home and community. Her stepfather reached out to KTUZ-TV Telemundo Oklahoma City reporter Juan Arellano to do a Spanish-language interview about his stepdaughter.

The day after Arellano’s Spanish-language interview with Ellison’s stepfather aired, the teenager returned home. Her mother later called KTUZ and thanked them for their role in her daughter’s return.

The saga underscores the increasing importance – and growth – of bilingual journalism in communities where both English and Spanish are spoken. 

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There are about 58 million Hispanics in the U.S. – about 18% of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. About 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. As more Hispanic Americans become bilingual, Spanish-language media companies are increasing their English-language offerings, while English-language media are offering more Spanish-language content, according to nonprofit Democracy Fund’s May 2019 report, Hispanic Media Today.

The U.S. government uses the designation Hispanic for those who speak Spanish and/or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations. Latino refers to people who are from or descended from people from Latin America.

“If you’re a news source that’s only English, and you’re trying to reach out to more diverse communities, then you need someone that is going to understand the language and community,” said Telemundo Oklahoma City’s Arellano, a 2018 graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver.

In Arellano's Oklahoma market, Hispanics comprise 10 percent of the state’s population, and two thirds of those Hispanics – approximately 221,000 people – speak a language other than only English at home, according to the Pew Research Center.

“It’s really important to have a diverse newsroom, because you can relate more to the news subject. Informing the people in Spanish makes a difference,” he said.

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In the metro Denver area, the total Hispanic population tops 1,136,000 and comprises 21% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. Of that number, more than half (53%) speak a language other than only English at home. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver estimates Latino purchasing power in the state at $21.9 billion and growing.

For Pauline Rivera, owner and publisher of Colorado’s La Voz Bilingue, a weekly newspaper published in English and Spanish and distributed statewide, that population is a growing – and thriving – market.

“You hear about newspapers dying. The daily newspapers are in trouble across the country, but as far as weekly community papers – they’re growing,” said Rivera, who is pictured above in the La Voz offices. “If you target a certain market like La Voz does, then it’s successful and growing, and I see the growth of bilingual publications over just Spanish-language publications.”

La Voz founders Jose and Wanda Padilla first saw a need for a bilingual newspaper to serve metro Denver’s Latino community back in December 1974 when they published the newspaper's first issue. Rivera purchased the title in 2008, having worked at the title for the previous four years. Prior to that, Rivera worked at KMGH-TV, where for 15 years she was a programming manager and community affairs director. During that period, Rivera also attended MSU Denver, earning a B.S. in Journalism in 2002.

Since purchasing La Voz, Rivera has sought to grow the publication with metro Denver’s Latino community. She recently moved the newspaper’s headquarters to Thornton, a community that has seen a surge in its Latino community over the last decade. To further expand its reach and better serve the state’s growing Latino population, La Voz in 2016 partnered with KMGH-TV – Rivera’s former employer – to share stories and cross-promote content. That same year, Rivera was named “Publisher of the Year” by the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

Today, La Voz readership tops 200,000 weekly, she said.

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For veteran La Voz journalist Ernest Gurulé, the need and market for bilingual community journalism is clear.

“If you’re in Denver, you can’t go 10 seconds without running into a Latino,” he said. “These are folks who have the same wants and needs (as the larger population), and they contribute to the greatness of the community.”

The composition of a newsroom should reflect the community that it serves, Gurulé added.

“Times are changing. The country is changing, and everything that you see and do every day reflects a diversity that doesn’t exist, or wasn’t acknowledged 25, or 50 years ago,” he said. “If you don’t have bilingual participation, you are robbing your audience not only of its right, but its importance in the community.”

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