When COVID-19 infection rates began rising in southern Arizona in early spring, two things quickly became clear: one, predominantly Hispanic communities were suffering more than white communities, and two, people in those communities were desperate for reliable, relevant news — ideally, news in their native language.

Liliana López Ruelas, Hispanic community engagement editor of La Estrella de Tucsón

Prior to the pandemic, Liliana López Ruelas, Hispanic community engagement editor of La Estrella de Tucsón, the sister paper to the Arizona Daily Star, had been working on new ways to engage La Estrella’s Spanish-speaking readers. With the onset of coronavirus, she was forced to abandon some pieces of that effort — but doubled down on others as the most efficient means of communicating with Spanish-speaking readers and delivering the news they needed.

Liliana, who is one of API’s 2019-20 community listening fellows, first focused much of her energy on translating Daily Star articles into Spanish. La Estrella’s web traffic clearly indicated the demand: From December to June, La Estrella’s online readership grew by more than 500%. One translated article, about a zip code in Tucson with the most positive COVID-19 cases in the state, received more views than the English-language version on the Star’s website — a persuasive data point for the importance of local news in Spanish, especially considering how much bigger the Star’s audience is compared to La Estrella’s.

Liliana spoke to us about how she — as the only full-time staffer at La Estrella — prioritized articles for translation, adapted them for the Tucson Latino community, and used the digital channels she has developed through her engagement work to build stronger relationships with readers in a time of crisis.

Q: Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, what efforts were you making at Arizona Daily Star and La Estrella to listen to and better serve the area’s Latino community?

A: At La Estrella de Tucsón we have worked for almost a year on a project to understand our readers better and offer the information they need and deserve. Based on what we heard from them through a survey conducted last fall, in late 2019 we modified and strengthened our website, which involved the creation of content sections aimed at helping our audiences find useful information, such as where to find health services, ways access to higher education, and local events and things to do.

In the same survey, we found that WhatsApp is the second most-used social network — only after Facebook — by our audiences, whose overwhelming majority comes from northern Mexico. We created a WhatsApp channel as a way for readers to contact us and to bring them breaking news and weekly summaries of local and exclusive content.

We also started in February a series of one-on-one meetings with readers in local cafes, called Cafecitos con Liliana. This series was conceptualized with Vanessa Vancour, the adviser appointed to us by API as part of its Community Listening Fellowship, during her visit to our newsroom in December 2019.

Editor’s Note: Mazin Sidahmed, co-founder of the news nonprofit Documented and one of API’s community listening fellows, also focused his fellowship on engaging Spanish-speaking readers via WhatsApp. Read our interview with Mazin here.

Q: How has your work changed since the onset of the pandemic? Have you had to start or stop doing anything because of COVID-19?

A: In the months prior to COVID-19, we were looking for ways to create more original content from the Latino perspective. But the new reality forced the limited resources of La Estrella (only one full-time person) to turn toward informing the public as quickly as possible, by translating a large number of stories originally created in English by Arizona Daily Star reporters. During the first six weeks, we translated an average of 15 stories per week. Although the pace has slowed a bit, we continue to translate most of our content.

Although in-person interviews with readers as part of the community listening project stopped, new communication channels were opened in a natural way with the audience, who through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have asked about where to get help. Some readers who have communicated privately through social media have been included as sources in recent stories, such as the one on remote learning challenges for children with special needs or one on what it is like to give birth to a child in the time of the coronavirus. Both stories were translated from their original English version and adapted for La Estrella by adding a Latino voice.

During this pandemic, we have also started a series of informative sessions and interviews via Facebook Live with local leaders.

 Q: A lot of newsrooms are grappling with the challenge of making content available in both English and Spanish. How do you prioritize which stories to translate?

The three main factors that I take into consideration when selecting the stories to translate are necessity, usefulness and identity.

  • Information that readers need to know: New state, county and local regulations; school reopening plans; border restrictions, etc. We translate these stories as soon as possible and run them online, giving our audience the option to read the original version in English. These stories don’t always make it to the weekly print edition.
  • Useful information to help our readers make decisions or solve a problem, like reporting on medical services, education, food distribution, COVID-19 testing, community resources, consular services, and festivals. It is relevant content, but not with a feeling of urgency. This content is often reproduced in print as well.
  • Stories that reaffirm identity. The stories that feature a Latino person in this region, whether they are success stories or stories about personal or social struggles with which a large part of the community identifies, are of interest to our audience. For example, the creation, expansion or closure of a Latino (especially Mexican) business; the profile of a local leader; the arrival of a new consul, etc.

Q: What changes have you and your colleagues noticed in readers’ behavior since the pandemic began affecting your community?

A: The coronavirus crisis has definitely shed light on the needs of the Latino community in Tucson — 43% of the city’s general population — and southern Arizona for local information in Spanish, especially stories in which this community is a protagonist.

When it was first revealed in mid-April that a zip code in southern Tucson, predominantly inhabited by Latinos, was registering the most cases of COVID-19 in the state, the version translated into Spanish was more widely read than the original story in English on the website of the Arizona Daily Star, something extremely unusual due to the huge difference in the size of corresponding audiences. That behavior has been repeated several times in the last five months, notably when it comes to stories related to the border between the United States and Mexico, such as those dealing with restrictions at the border crossing.

The number of users on the La Estrella website in the last five months (March – July) are 2.5 times higher than the previous five months (October 2019 – February 2020). Comparing only the month of June 2020 with that of December 2019 (6 months ago), the growth of La Estrella online users is more than 500%.

Serving our Spanish audiences with such limited resources has been a tremendous challenge but also a great opportunity to reach out to readers, listen to them and serve them better. The projects under development now represent a door to a new standard of information in Spanish for the Tucson Latino community.

Q: How do you plan to make this work sustainable in the long run?

A: The coronavirus, by emphasizing the need for more information in Spanish, has opened doors to new projects that address the goal of creating more original content from the Latino angle.

La Estrella has obtained a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network that has provided resources to keep translating stories about the coronavirus. We are also working on five original stories under the solutions journalism approach, to be published this month. The first one covers financial resources for Tucson families impacted by coronavirus that have children in the Sunnyside school district.

Another grant obtained months ago from the Education Writers Association to create a college resource guide for Latino students has been tailored to the needs of the coronavirus. A comprehensive guide now focuses only on financial resources for first-generation Latino college students or prospective students for whom the crisis caused by the pandemic has made the choice of a college education more difficult. The revamped project includes two special reports analyzing how the pandemic has affected students’ plans — with a special focus on new challenges for DACA beneficiaries — and the lack of information or misconceptions that limit Latino student access to college.

Q: How do you manage interaction with readers via WhatsApp and Facebook?

A: The biggest limitation in reaching out to our readers is the lack of personnel at La Estrella. I am the only one in charge of the Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, as well as the content of the print and online editions. However, I rely on the support of the Star’s general manager of niche audience development, Irene McKisson, and the newsroom’s Innovation Lab — especially Becky Pallack, Samantha Munsey and bilingual reporter Stephanie Casanova — to create and supervise the engagement strategy.

Keeping direct contact with our audiences is a priority for me. My strategy is simple: to respond as soon as possible to direct messages from readers and to keep track of their preferences.

Conducting interviews via Zoom and broadcasting them on Facebook Live has been a practical way of staying in touch with audiences in recent months. In addition to offering relevant information, these sessions create a feeling of closeness with audiences, and the production process is less demanding than that of the written reporting.

Q: How do you plan on using an SMS platform and how will it fit into your reporting workflow?

A: The Arizona Daily Star, via its Innovation Lab, has developed its own SMS messaging platform, which is already being tested by This Is Tucson. We are planning to launch the La Estrella SMS service in October, sharing a daily story and communicating with our audience via one-on-one text messages.

The project that we are developing with the EWA grant, which includes a guide to scholarships for Latino students, will be widely spread through this platform, which we think will bring us closer to our older audience that doesn’t interact as much on the website and on social media.

Q: What would your advice be to other local news organizations that want to produce more translated content for bilingual or non-English speakers?

A: Get to know your audiences and put yourself in their shoes.

It is not the same thing to speak to third-generation Latinos in the United States as it is to speak to those who have arrived in recent years and may have difficulty navigating life in the United States, such as health and education systems. We Latinos are not a homogeneous community: Not all of us listen to mariachi music. No one wears a charro hat, nor do we all have essential jobs.

As members of a broader community, Latinos have the same information needs as other cultures and the same priorities in life: health, economy, education, family, a better life. But as a minority group we are not on an even level with the white community. During this pandemic, where African Americans and Latinos have been the hardest-hit communities, it has become clear that we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.

If you have the resources to create original content in Spanish, do so from the perspective of the Hispanic community you serve. If you are translating content originally created for a white audience, you could try quickly to adapt it by adding more context, a new headline, and whenever possible, incorporating Latino voices and images.

At Estrella, we have learned that while bilingual readers appreciate having the choice of language, they prefer to read relevant information (health, job opportunities, etc.) in their first language.

Sometimes, adding a few words about the origin of the Latinos we talk about in our stories and their connection to our local community makes it easier for Spanish readers to connect with the story.

Q: What have you learned working with your adviser, Vanessa Vancour? 

A: Vanessa became a trusted person for me from the beginning of her mentorship. She has gone out of her way to absorb as much information as possible about La Estrella de Tucsón and always offers practical ideas.

With Vanessa, I have learned how to see both the big picture and the details that I need to focus on in the moment. Her guidance has been key in defining what I need to know about my audience and how to connect with them.

Her experience, mainly in the creation of the Noticiero Móvil that she founded and until recently lead at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a successful representation of multimedia journalism that is not only bilingual but bicultural and not only about a community but reported from the core of that community.

Vanessa has an orderly and respectful way of working that makes things seem easy. She has a friendly but firm voice when it comes to demanding that Latinos no longer be served in special sections that only seem designed to meet diversity quotas, but “to be woven into the existing fabric.”

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