How do you say “Supporting our community” — en español?

A history of service journalism offers lessons for every newsroom

On Your Side.

It’s a common enough marketing slogan for local TV news operations, and at its best, it reflects a commitment to holding authorities accountable and perhaps an aggressive consumer unit. At its worst, it’s just a tagline. But now the pandemic is deepening the connection between newsrooms and their audiences in new ways — new, that is, unless you happen to do the news in Spanish.

For America’s Spanish-language local news operations at Telemundo and Univision stations, “on your side” has always been an essential element in their relationship with viewers — a commitment that COVID-19 has only strengthened, especially given the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities.

“We have been doing that type of journalism for a long time,” says Telemundo Station Group SVP Osvaldo “Ozzie” Martinez. “Spanish language [newsrooms] really picked up on issues that the community had. I think on the English station side, we sometimes focus more on government accountability: ‘Why doesn’t the website work, Governor?’ We definitely do that too, but we want to make sure we’re actually touching Maria and Jose, who couldn’t go to the website because of X reason. So we’re trying to focus more on the people and providing them with resources.”

That means teaming up with community groups to organize food drives and virtual food banks, or arranging to provide unemployment claim forms for people who don’t have internet access, or explaining what to do if you can’t make your mortgage payment — and using digital platforms to provide a constantly updated set of resources, such as lists of companies that are hiring. It all comes under a group-wide effort across all 30 Telemundo-owned stations called Apoyando A Nuestra Comunidad — Supporting Our Community.

“We are not advocates; we are an ally, a guide,” says Helga Silva, news director at Telemundo 51 in Miami, whose regional economy based on tourism and service workers is especially hard hit. ‘We push for [our viewers] to know where to get help. Telemundo Responde, which is our brand which means ‘respond,’ is super active.”

Watch a “Telemundo Responde” segment with the Small Business Association

Silva has formed a seven-person “Economic and COVID Task Force” to report on the crisis every day, trying to stay ahead of fast-moving developments. One of her morning anchors, Harold Santana, has temporarily morphed into the medical and healthcare reporter. She calls the task force a “scooping tool” that digs out resources and the stories of the people who need them. “Finding the sources is one of the most important elements of what makes us successful,” Silva says. “We are community based, and this is a great scoop operation: find, sift, get the nuggets. and put them out there.”

As attention shifts to economic recovery, Silva has re-focused a weekly franchise on local entrepreneurs — Emprendedores — “specifically to show the community how businesses are reinventing themselves, how businesses are surviving, how businesses are reshaping the new world.”

Watch an “Emprendedores”segment

Telemundo Miami also produces a weekly digital live-stream right after the midday news broadcast, featuring experts who answer viewers’ questions, “so that people feel that they are not talking in vain, that nobody hears them,” Silva says.” We want to make sure that they understand that we hear and that we respond — that they’re not anonymous voices to us. They’re real people with real concerns that concern us.”

Osvaldo “Ozzie” Martinez, Helga Silva, and Damaris Bonilla

“It’s been a challenge because it’s a big commitment from us,” says Damaris Bonilla, news director at Telemundo Nueva Inglaterra, the company’s New England station. “We have to make sure that [viewers] get the information they need in their language.” That means posting instructional videos on checking your credit rating or alerting viewers to potential IRS fees tied to relief funds. It also means translating governors’ messages on Facebook Live. And it’s governors — plural — because Bonilla covers Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire in addition to Massachusetts with her 20-person team just outside Boston. (Both Bonilla and Silva are quick to credit close collaboration with their sister NBC newsrooms — an integral part of owner NBCUniversal’s station strategy.)

Explainer video on receiving free credit report

Almost everyone in Bonilla’s newsroom is covering the pandemic just now, with one reporter a day assigned specifically to the Supporting Our Community project. One example: stories about how small businesses in Bonilla’s large coverage zone are surviving — such as a restaurateur in Worcester MA who is struggling to stay open even though he has two sons at home stricken with COVID-19. Again, the idea is to offer not just news and information, but actual help. “Sometimes small businesses are so small, they cannot promote themselves,” Bonilla says. “They don’t have the budget. So we want to help them with that. And it’s a benefit for the community to know what they have available.”

Watch the story of a restaurant owner struggling to save his business

All three Telemundo executives talk about the special relationships their anchors and reporters have developed with viewers over the years — relationships built on trust and direct involvement with community concerns. “It’s been the magic, and our success is because of that,” Bonilla says, “because our people, our talent, they are more than anchors: they are real people and they are sharing that with the community, and they are participating.” “We look for the intimacy and the connection,” is how Miami’s Helga Silva puts it.

The Spanish-language newsrooms built their businesses by directly serving people who “don’t have anywhere else to turn to — they just don’t know where to go,” says Ozzie Martinez. ”And on the general market [English-language] side, we’ve lost that sort of closeness that we had to talent and to a news station because there are so many options. On our side. there aren’t a lot of options, unfortunately. And there’s a huge need. There’s a huge need.”

As we see it, the COVID-19 pandemic has made all American viewers more like those Spanish-speaking audiences who turn to local TV as a unique resource to meet pressing needs. That explains the surge in local news ratings and the impressive growth throughout the industry in community-focused projects like the ones we’ve described here. And it raises the potential to deepen local journalists’ connections to their communities, even post-pandemic.

For Ozzie Martinez, who has worked on both sides of the language line, the lesson is simple: “We need to make sure that we’re doing more of those types of stories that really are solving issues for real people — that are actually making an impact on people’s lives.”

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