How can North Carolina local news outlets gain credibility and audience reach with Black, Latino, and Asian American people and communities? How can media organizations — especially those whose content, audience, and staffing have been mostly white — expand their coverage and representation to include more of North Carolina?
We invited three North Carolina media leaders who’ve built their success on serving BIPOC communities to share their insights during a recent workshop for the NC Media Equity Project — six mainstream media outlets that are partnering with the NC Local News Workshop to share knowledge, experience, and resources toward advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We heard from:
Glenn Burkins, founder and publisher of QCityMetro.com, which he launched in 2008 to add coverage and connection for the Charlotte area’s Black residents, currently through the website, newsletters, social media and events
Paola Jaramillo, cofounder and executive editor of Triangle-based Enlace Latino NC, which launched in 2018 and provides state and regional public affairs news, information and resources for Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences
Samir Shukla, who cofounded Charlotte-based Saathee magazine (a glossy print magazine and digital site) 23 years ago with his brother to provide cultural connection and news for South Asian communities, primarily in the Carolinas but also with reach in other parts of the Southeast
Here are a few takeaways from these media leaders:
1. ‘You have to be there for the long run’
QCityMetro’s Burkins, who built a career as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer and Charlotte Observer, among others, said the outlet’s website traffic jumped amid the COVID pandemic — and that it has continued to grow afterward, reflecting hard-won trust built on its coverage. Early on, Burkins and QCity pressed Mecklenburg County health officials on the pandemic’s heavier impact on Black residents, and it continued to cover that impact and other aspects of the crisis in ways that told readers the outlet was looking out for them, he said.
“Mainstream media — and that is where I kind of earned my bones — is largely reactionary: It goes wherever the hot story is and stays for awhile, and then it leaves,” Burkins said. “If you want to forge true relationships with communities you cover, you can’t be reactionary. You have to be there for the long run.”
Shukla and his brother launched Saathee magazine 23 years ago “on a lark, around the dinner table,” he said, “because we thought there should be something for the community” of immigrants from India and other South Asian countries. They began with a four-page print newsletter that reached about 1,000 people.
Saathee now is a glossy coffee-table magazine, also available online, that averages 100 pages a month and reaches some 14,000 households, success that suffered during the pandemic but that now is beginning to rebound.
“Now that we’ve been around long enough, people see us as a source of information,” he said, on topics such as “education, how do you get involved politically… Now we are part of this country. How do we further join the community and make things better for the United States.”
Enlace Latino NC’s Jaramillo says she applauds English-language media that add content in Spanish, but doesn’t see that step helping build audiences unless it’s offered regularly.
“It’s not just about translating the stories; it’s about really approaching the community, about really establishing the connection,” she said. “First of all we break the language barrier, and when they see themselves reflected in the stories we’re writing and then when we have journalists who understand the community,” that will result in more time and resources devoted to coverage of Spanish-speaking residents.
However, she noted: “That also means money and commitment.”
‘It’s not just about translating the stories, it’s about really approaching the community, about really establishing the connection.’ — Paola Jaramillo, Enlace Latino NC
For Burkins, trust is the most important concept, and one where mainstream media is working to reverse long patterns of excluding or ignoring parts of their communities.
“By no means am I saying that only Black people can cover the Black community, but when they look at your reporters and they don’t see themselves, when your coverage of Black people is dominated by poverty and crime and police shootings, you’re not going to get that trust,” Burkins said. “It takes a long-term commitment, it takes understanding those communities in all of their complexity, and I think that has been the big failing of the mainstream media.”
2. Report FOR people, not just about them
Jaramillo noted that Enlace Latino NC’s audience needs information in their first language, about the big challenges and opportunities in their lives, and in formats that they use — not just narrative stories, but information delivered via messaging on WhatsApp or social media.
“Our community, what they’re looking for the most is resources,” she said. “We need to always offer information that is useful (about) services, financial services, health; information that really explains.”
Explaining, she said, means outlining how to navigate challenges “step by step.”
“It seems obvious to you, but for our community it’s not that obvious,” Jaramillo said. “Everything works in completely different ways in this country.”
Shukla doesn’t see himself as battling mainstream media, but notes that, “We get coverage when something happens to the community, like recently things happening to the Asian American communities, the attacks and all that. I get calls, saying what do you think?”
Saathee focuses on the need Shukla sees among South Asian communities, now second- and third-generation families as well as “the originals” who came in the 1960s and ’70s, to connect with their heritage and with each other “so that people see us as that source of information… on immigration, financially, how do they get involved politically and socially.”
‘We’re covering people we see in the grocery store, that we sit beside at church; they’re our fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, we know this community.’ — Glenn Burkins, QCityMetro
For Burkins, a big and persistent gap exists between mainstream media and Black communities, one seen in big ways and others that seem small but that add up to a message that audiences recognize.
An example: Mainstream outlets might identify certain churches or universities as being Black, but feel no need to identify other institutions in terms of race. The message: These are institutions that are part of our world, and the others are not.
QCityMetro and the Black press overall exist because of gaps in coverage and that sense of who the journalism is for, Burkins said.
“We’re covering people we see in the grocery store, that we sit beside at church; they’re our fraternity brothers, sorority sisters — we know this community,” he said. “If you’re covering it from afar with people who are not part of that community, then you’re missing out.”
QCityMetro demonstrated that community service in covering the COVID crisis, he said.
Early in Mecklenburg County’s series of daily pandemic briefings, “I was the only journalist, and I mean only, asking anything about what was clear to me, based on their numbers, was a disproportionate impact on the Black community in Mecklenburg County,” said Burkins, who thought, “This looks funny — and no one else wanted to ask about that.”
Some of QCityMetro’s readers were listening to the briefings, too, and “as soon as I got off those calls, my email would light up: ‘Thank you so much for looking out for our community. We trust your coverage.’ So at that point we went from being something that was a nice read to something, I think for our community, that’s a must read.”
As a result, QCityMetro’s audience numbers and financial report grew during the pandemic year, Burkins said, and have remained strong as the crisis has eased.
3. No community is monolithic
Saathee serves diverse South Asian communities who represent many different countries of origin, languages, and generations, Shukla said.
“Even connecting with Indian communities are somewhat of a challenge because they’re cloistered in little groups sometimes,” he noted. Saathee started a feature to allow readers to tell their own stories, he added, drawing some younger voices and reflecting the breadth of diversity among South Asian people.
Many immigrants and their children and grandchildren represent business, education, entrepreneurship, and professional interests, along with culture, entertainment, and much more that gets missed in coverage that focuses only on festivals or conflict.
Shukla suggested embedding journalists in communities as cultural reporters, who can produce “any little story, not just when there’s a big festival going on.”
“How about the stories of people who came with $5 in their pocket… these are stories that have been told a lot, but I guess they need to be told more,” Shukla said. “People love to talk about it, not just themselves but about their struggles” and how they came to this country.
‘How about the stories of people who came with $5 in their pocket… these are stories that have been told a lot, but I guess they need to be told more.’ — Samir Shukla, Saathee magazine
Spanish-speaking residents of North Carolina also suffer when media use broad labels, Jaramillo said. She said television news especially tends to link Latino people to drunk driving and illegal immigration.
“We have to also be really clear who in the Latino community you want to serve,” she told the media partners. It’s a “very diverse community. It’s not all Mexican. Not all Central American. We didn’t all cross the (Mexican) border. It’s a very diverse and rich community, and we are all over the state as well.”
Burkins echoed their comments:
“The Black community is not one thing: We’re diverse,” he said. “We’re not all suffering from (a lack of) economic mobility. Some of us are doing ok, some of us are not doing ok. Are you showing the full breadth of experience in the Black community?”
The NC Media Equity Project is a year-long collaboration among six North Carolina media organizations, each working individually to deepen and broaden their diversity, equity, and the NC Local News Workshop. We’re opening up some sessions to broader participation; learn more and sign up here.