City Paper is not for tourists
In April, Milagros Meléndez heard that a friend had come down with COVID-19, as had her friend’s 83-year-old mother and the rest of their immediate family.
Within a week, the woman’s mother had died from the virus. The rest of the family experienced little to no symptoms and recovered quickly, but Meléndez’s friend was heartbroken. A long-time journalist for El Tiempo Latino, D.C.’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, Meléndez knew that she had to write about what had happened.
Meléndez interviewed her friend for the story “When COVID-19 Attacks an Entire Family.” “COVID-19 came into our house and I don’t know how it happened,” Alma Choto, Meléndez’s friend, says in the story.
Meléndez was seeing the number of coronavirus cases start to shoot up in the area as she was writing the story. “By the end of April, the cases I was hearing about, they were close,” Meléndez says. She heard of family members contracting the virus, as well as people she knew through her church.
At the same time, she was having to cover more stories about the pandemic’s effect on the Latinx community as a part of her job. Latinx people have been hit hard by the pandemic, both in the D.C. region and across the U.S. Nationally, they have been more than twice as likely to contract the virus than their white counterparts and more than four times as likely to be hospitalized for complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Locally, Latinx people make up less than 12 percent of D.C’s population, but represent 25 percent of the District’s coronavirus cases.
More than six months into the pandemic, D.C.’s Spanish-language newspapers are fully devoting themselves to distributing information about the pandemic, with what in many cases are limited resources.
Nelly Carrión, the director and owner of the Washington Hispanic, estimates that 75 percent of the paper’s coverage is now related to the pandemic.
“Our duty now has transformed into a social responsibility to inform people about this [pandemic],” says Carrión, who founded the paper with her son, Johnny Yataco, in 1994. Washington Hispanic, like El Tiempo Latino, has received an influx of calls from readers asking for help finding assistance during the pandemic.
The inherent difference Carrión sees between her paper and an English-language paper is the Washington Hispanic’s role as one of the few sources of information for immigrants who speak Spanish.
“There are many people who don’t have a facility with English, who either don’t know English or, if they do know it, know very little,” Carrión says. “In that case, the only source they have to find things out, to be able to know [things], is a newspaper like the Washington Hispanic, a Spanish-language outlet.”
Outlets like these have long played a public service role in their communities. Their online editions don’t have a paywall and free print copies are stationed in newspaper boxes around the city, particularly in neighborhoods where more Latinx people live. They focus on communicating directly with their readers and providing answers to basic questions on subjects like voting and the census. Sharing information is a key part of what they do—and at the start of the pandemic, reliable information was hard to come by.
Early on, the CDC, the World Health Organization, and other health authorities said masks wouldn’t help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They changed their guidance later on, but the onset of the pandemic was an information maelstrom—an amplified danger for communities that already have diminished access to information.
The goal was to get accurate information online as quickly as possible, according to Rafael Ulloa, executive vice president of content for El Tiempo Latino and its parent company, Planeta Media.
“The work tripled, especially during the [initial] spikes of the pandemic in Virginia and Maryland,” Ulloa says.
“It was a huge effort at a local level, also at the level of general knowledge of the virus. People were really leaning on our outlet,” he says. Ulloa says within days of D.C.’s public health emergency declaration on March 11, they were getting countless calls asking questions ranging from where to get a COVID-19 test to who they should ask if they needed assistance making their rent payments.
“El Tiempo Latino became, as well as a news outlet, a kind of guide to direct members of the Latino community toward whatever resources were available in the different cities and places [in our region],” he says.
According to Ulloa, local officials and community organizations have also contacted the outlet during the pandemic to ask them to help get the word out about food pantries and other services.
Aside from acting as key players in disseminating information about pandemic safety and economic aid, El Tiempo Latino and its peers have uplifted the efforts of Latinx people and others during this crisis.
El Pregonero, a local newspaper published by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has reported on the residents of Langley Park, throughout the pandemic. The health emergency and its economic impact have hit the majority Latinx neighborhood hard. In October, the outlet published a feature about Langley Park residents selling goods from their cars as a way to make ends meet after losing their jobs. Earlier on in the pandemic, they covered the final major free meal distribution in the neighborhood for the foreseeable future.
Many journalists at these papers are veteran regional reporters. With less than 10 journalists on each team, these newsrooms, like many local and hyperlocal outlets, are used to multitasking and maximizing efficiency. But a stagnating economy brought on by the pandemic is forcing them to ramp up their reporting while their resources are shrinking.
Finances at El Pregonero have already been hit by the pandemic. “[It] affected us a lot since they closed the parishes [to comply with] social distancing,” says Rafael Roncal, an editor and reporter at the paper since 1998.
They’ve gone from biweekly to monthly distribution, and their only method for distributing the paper is through newspaper boxes, although they used to distribute them at parishes as well.
“It’s a reality that everyone is going through this and we have to tighten our belts. But here we are. We’re still going,” Roncal says. “Now, what will happen in the future? I don’t know, just as probably nobody knows exactly. The only thing we know for certain is that nothing will be the same as before.”
Roncal was told El Pregonero’s budget for next year will be cut, although he isn’t sure what changes they will have to make in order to continue reporting and publishing with diminished funds.
El Tiempo Latino had to lay off two employees at the start of the pandemic, when their ad sales took a serious dip. Their advertising has since recovered to about 75 percent of their pre-pandemic levels, according to Ulloa.
He hopes they will be back to 100 percent soon, since he sees no end in sight for the need for more accurate information about the virus. “I think the newspapers themselves have really responded to provide good information about what are best practices around COVID,” says Abel Nuñez, executive director at the Central American Resource Center.
Print newspapers—especially free ones like El Pregonero, El Tiempo Latino, and the Washington Hispanic—continue to be vital during this time of economic hardship.
“A lot of our community uses the internet primarily through the phone, not a desktop or laptop,” Nuñez says. “But in the pandemic, a lot of members of our community have lost the ability to have even a cellphone. Our community has been hit hard economically.”
While maintaining their print circulation, El Tiempo Latino has begun streaming daily Facebook Live broadcasts where Ulloa or another reporter, Ricardo Sánchez-Silva, interview a local official or doctor or share crucial information. Prior to the pandemic, they did one or two broadcasts per week.
El Tiempo Latino has also published an ongoing series of COVID-19 Hispanic Heroes, recognizing people who are working for the well-being of the Latinx community during the pandemic, regardless of their background. Among those they have recognized are Lupi Quinteros-Grady, president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), Sasha Ledesma, the community school coordinator at Beacon Heights Elementary School in Riverdale, and John Falcicchio, chief of staff to Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
“We feel proud of what we did,” says Ulloa.
The local media and print journalism industries have been struggling since well before the pandemic, and those economic threats remain top of mind for these outlets. Local Spanish-language papers in other cities have been disappearing in recent years, including Hoy in Chicago and Ahora Sí in Austin.
Roncal says his main concern for the future is to keep getting out information about services and opportunities for the younger generations. “I think our greatest responsibility is to see how we can best guide younger people to a safe harbor. They’re going to need a lot of support, because they have an incredible challenge in front of them, and they’ll have to rebuild everything practically from zero,” he says.
During his reporting about the pandemic, Roncal has been most struck by the resilience and strength of the Latinx community in the D.C. area. “It moves me, and sometimes when I talk about these things, I get emotional,” he says. “Because you can see it, how, darn it, they’ve kept working without complaint.”