Evelyn Robles-Rivas came to central Connecticut from Puerto Rico in 1991 to stay with family living in the area.
“I was planning to probably be here for a couple of years. I stayed. And I love my job,” said Robles-Rivas, while admitting it was challenging at times juggling the responsibilities of work, raising a family and continuing her education.
When Robles-Rivas arrived in Meriden, she had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. She began teaching, and eventually rose through the ranks to become a school principal.
She now holds a doctorate in education and supervises Language and Community Partnerships for the Meriden Public Schools.
Robles-Rivas was among more than 80 community members who participated in conversations the Record-Journal hosted over several months of planning for its new Latino Communities Reporting Lab.
Robles-Rivas attributes her own success to the support of her family and community. “That was key to be a successful Latina educator here in Connecticut,” she said, adding she would like to see more Latino residents, like her, have greater access to information.
The mission of the Latino Communities Reporting Lab is to amplify the voices of our local Latino communities — historically underserved and underrepresented in local news coverage.
Plans include building a new team of five bilingual journalists — three reporters, one photographer/videographer and one editor — through philanthropic funding. The first dedicated position for the lab was added in February with the hiring of reporter Jareliz Diaz, followed by plans to add a second dedicated reporter with funding raised over the next two months.
Since February, Diaz has worked with other Record-Journal reporters and editors covering topics important to the local Latino community. One of her first Record-Journal bylines was about Meriden officials’ plans to increase vaccination outreach targeting local Black and Latino residents. Health officials acknowledged the rates of vaccination for people of color have lagged behind those of the white, non-Hispanic population and promised to strengthen outreach efforts.
While the population of Meriden has remained relatively constant over the last three decades, Latino residents now represent close to one-third of the city’s population, compared to about 8% in 1980.
Latino families account for much of that growth, as evidenced by enrollment in local schools. According to the district’s latest official count on Oct. 1, more than 58% of the overall student body in Meriden public schools identified as Latino, or 4,727 students out of a total of 8,118, more than twice the state average.
The population of Latino students has grown in other communities as well. In neighboring Wallingford, more than 19% of the 5,451 public school students identify as Latino. Neighboring towns, including Southington and Cheshire, have also seen growth in their Latino populations, although to a lesser degree.
Similar trends have occurred statewide. While the overall student population in Connecticut has declined for more than a decade, the numbers of Latino students enrolled in the state’s public schools continue to rise. According to enrollment data reported by the State Department of Education, in the current school year, 142,552, or close to 28%, of the 513,079 pre-kindergarten to grade 12 students enrolled in Connecticut public schools identify as Hispanic or Latino. By comparison, in the 2007-2008 school year, 96,127 of the state’s then-student population of 574,848 students identified as Hispanic or Latino, a 16.7% share.
In its development of the Latino Communities Reporting Lab, the Record-Journal has gathered information, insights and perspectives through 82 conversations with community members, four focus groups and dozens of survey responses over several months.
They included conversations with Latino leaders such as recently-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, a former Meriden schools administrator, who spoke with the project team while serving as state commissioner of education. Cardona stressed opportunities to amplify the voices of Latino youth and to engage with families.
Maria Campos-Harlow, executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford and another conversation participant, encouraged the initiative to highlight the success of local Latinos who call the Meriden area their home.
When Adriana Rodriguez’s family moved to Wallingford from Michoacán, a Mexican state just southwest of Mexico City, more than three decades ago, one of the first agencies they received support from was the Spanish Community of Wallingford, better known as SCOW.
Fast forward to 2021: Rodriguez is now that agency’s executive director. And SCOW continues to serve the diverse local Latino community.
SCOW is typically the first stop in Wallingford for Latino newcomers, who’ve emigrated not just from Mexico, but other countries like Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Spain, as well as from Puerto Rico.
They bring with them a variety of stories, including past professional lives, experiences and cultural traditions, Rodriguez said.
“Many people who have relocated to the United States come with a whole story of professions, or reasons why they moved. And it’s very interesting to learn and so inspiring,” she said.
Rodriguez noted there is great cultural diversity even within Latinos whose families have similar national origins. For example, in Meriden, there’s a significant population whose familial roots are in Puebla, Mexico, a city located southeast of Mexico City. She hopes to see stories highlighting that diversity more widely shared.
Like Rodriguez, Orlando Valentin was raised in central Connecticut. Valentin grew up in Meriden. He now teaches fourth grade at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School.
Valentin said the Latino Community Reporting Lab’s concept, which includes highlighting Latino voices, makes him feel like he has a voice, too.
“That is a good feeling. It makes me want to buy in more,” Valentin said, adding he would be particularly interested in coverage that more deeply explores education, as well as highlights local Latino-led businesses and non-profit organizations serving the community.
Valentin suggested including even more diverse voices than just the Latino community.
“I would love it to be diverse voices: Black, Hispanic, any individuals who are underrepresented voices in the community. Identity is very complex,” he said.
The Record-Journal’s push to expand its news team to cover an underserved community came with a simultaneous effort to seek funding through a previously unexplored source: philanthropy.
Traditional for-profit news organizations like the Record-Journal have long relied on subscriptions and advertising for funding. Those funding sources have declined, as have the newspapers they previously sustained, in terms of the numbers of newspapers and their sizes.
USNewsDeserts.com is a database maintained by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism & Media. The website tracks the decline of newspapers throughout the country, noting there are now entire counties where local newspapers are no longer a presence.
The media landscape in Connecticut has also dwindled. While the number of daily print newspapers covering communities across the Nutmeg State has not declined over the past decade and a half, the number of weekly newspapers has declined by more than half. Overall circulation declined as well. In 2004, total circulation among daily and weekly newspapers was 2.5 million. By 2019, that number had dwindled to 1.2 million. As a result, the sizes of newsrooms of papers across the state have also shrunk.
The Record-Journal itself has not been immune to declining circulation and revenue loss from reduced advertising, nor has it been spared from having to reduce newsroom positions.
While advertising and print circulation have declined, new opportunities to bolster audience engagement through digital means have emerged. The Record-Journal has the largest audience in its history with its print and digital audiences combined.
Nancy Lane is the long-time chief executive officer of the Local Media Association, a Michigan-based non-profit organization that, according to its website, works with more than 2,800 local media brands, from newspapers to television and radio stations, online news sites, and others.
Lane said the use of philanthropy as a news media funding source is not new. Public broadcasting and non-profit media outlets have long relied on such funding.
Last September, the Local Media Association announced that the Record-Journal was one of 16 local news organizations to participate in its Center for Journalism Funding lab.
The center, according to LMA, is supported by the Google News Initiative. It “aims to strengthen the understanding and capabilities of local news organizations regarding fundraising programs and working with philanthropic organizations to support journalism projects.”
That lab has two goals: raising at least $2.25 million to support all 16 initiatives and publishing an extensive industry playbook on philanthropy-funded journalism for other newsrooms to follow.
Joaquín Alvarado, the executive director of the Seattle Times’ Project Accelerate, serves on the faculty for the Center for Journalism Funding lab. Project Accelerate was an effort launched eight years ago, with an Education Lab focused on expanding coverage of that topic. The newspaper now funds 19 journalists through philanthropy.
“The shift to philanthropy for for-profit media really started to emerge in the last few years, and it was led by the Seattle Times, and their very effective strategy,” Lane said, describing that family-owned newspaper as an early adopter of the philanthropic model.
“I think we all learned a lot from them,” Lane said. It’s not a strategy that works for all companies, she added.
The model has also been successful in Fresno, Dallas, Miami and Boston.
“I think that it works for companies that are very committed to journalism, that have an appropriate size newsroom for the size of their organization, and at which journalism is at the heart of what they do,” Lane said, noting there are local media companies where that is not the case.
“There are newsrooms that have been stripped down to levels that are hard to justify. And in those cases they are not going to have the same success as the news organizations that invest heavily in journalism,” Lane said. “Watchdog journalism, with investigative reporting being front and center, that will get the attention of the funding community. So I think family-owned and independently-owned newspapers and digital sites are in a great position to secure philanthropic funding for journalism projects.”
Lane’s advice as news organizations like the Record-Journal explore philanthropic funding models is to start by listening to local community members.
“I think listening to the community is first and foremost: understanding the needs that aren’t being covered, problems that exist that need the solutions, and then talking to the funding community,” Lane said.
“It’s important to find out what part of journalism different funders would be willing to invest in,” Lane said.
She added, the terms between donors and news organizations have to be clear. “There are no strings attached,” she said. “… The contract or (memorandum of understanding) you sign with the funder makes it clear they have no control over the editorial part of it, no influence, no right to direct how this coverage is made. You just have to be crystal clear in the contract.”
Lane said funders for the most part are topic-focused, using the example of K-12 education, which she noted is a topic that has seen significantly reduced coverage over the past decade.
“Knowing there are a lot of problems in K-12 education, (funders) are looking for coverage and solutions … They want to bring awareness to the problem. And they want solutions proposed and they trust journalists can do this,” Lane said.
Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, is familiar with traditional newsrooms’ efforts to bolster shrinking news coverage and newsrooms with philanthropic funding.
Kennedy echoed Lane’s point about news organizations needing to be clear with donors that funding does not dictate coverage and news organizations maintain editorial independence. Kennedy also urged transparency for the sake of readers.
“Just be straightforward and transparent,” Kennedy said. “Be straightforward with the funders, letting them know you have to understand, you’re not going to dictate coverage. … And on the transparency end, you tell your audience who your funders are. And how you are going about covering this topic.”
Project Accelerate has since expanded to include investigative reporting, in-depth coverage of issues impacting Seattle’s homeless population, police accountability and other projects.
One of the strategies for philanthropic supported journalism is taking a multi-year approach, Alvarado explained.
“None of this is easy. It takes a lot of dedication. You want to be able to think it through — centering it on the community’s needs,” he said. “We’ve got good evidence these things are sustainable.”
Connect and engage
Record-Journal and Cheshire Herald publisher Liz White Notarangelo explained that the seeds for the Latino Communities Reporting Lab were planted around two years ago. In 2019, the company launched a team whose focus was on listening. It led to launching Voices – Community Powered Journalism. That platform allowed community members to submit questions and topics, which Record-Journal reporters could answer through reporting.
“All of that work led us to thinking about how we can do more outreach to the local community,” White said. “What we want to do is more outreach to the Latino community. That’s how we developed our mission to amplify voices within the Latino community.”
The Rev. James Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Meriden, described the newspaper’s initiative as “something that’s long overdue for the region.”
“This is something that’s so important for civic life, to make sure the Hispanic community is included,” Manship said. He stressed the importance of having access to information: “There are so many decisions that are made that impact people’s lives.”
The Record-Journal previously published a Spanish language weekly newspaper Tiempo, which Manship said parishioners still reference and remember fondly.
It’s too soon to say whether the Record-Journal’s current initiative will yield a Spanish language offshoot, but the paper’s leadership group has indicated it could be a possibility sometime in the future.
“I think we need to recognize the diversity of the community,” Manship said. “So everyone knows and they have an understanding of the struggles they face and the joys they have.”
Campos Harlow, the United Way of Meriden & Wallingford director, described a shift, which she largely attributes to social media, in how people get their news, but local newspapers like the Record-Journal, she said, offer the community a chance to connect and engage civically.
“Schools are very important, so are local businesses and local government,” she said, adding, “there are so many great stories to share.”
Campos Harlow, a supporter of the lab who emigrated to the United States from her native Colombia, said she has mixed feelings about the possibility of a new Spanish language publication. She is fully bilingual and would encourage children to be fully bilingual.
The Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation is the Latino Communities Reporting Lab’s non-profit fiscal sponsor. That sponsorship enables a for-profit news organization, like the Record-Journal, to accept foundation funding and tax-deductible donations. Campos Harlow is secretary of the Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation.
As for the Record-Journal’s initiative, the paper’s leaders expect it to evolve over time and it may take on different formats during its evolution.
“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” White said. “It will evolve over time based on input from the community.”