On the verge of a breakthrough--or breakdown
For many Latinos, the growth of new media offered hope for both expanded representation and democratization in the truest sense of the word. It was not enough for this growing demographic in the United States to be written about and reported on. Latinos, who defy simplistic labels and check boxes, wanted to represent themselves and their experiences, something they were not getting to do prior to the boom of blogs.
This is no small matter among one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States, 52 million and rising (U.S. Census, 5/12). For Latinos, both the formally trained journalists and those who see themselves as members of a large diverse community, the Internet offered an alternative space to communicate within communities and to the world at large what a corporatized and overwhelmingly white “traditional” media could not or refused to report.
Andrés Duque started the Latino/Latin America–centric LGBTQ blog Blabbeando in 2005. The Colombian-American read African-American LGBTQ blogs with a vague understanding of what blogging actually was, but saw potential, especially in covering stories no one else was.
For others, like Joaquin Ramon Herrera, aka Nezua, who started the Unapologetic Mexican (El Machete) in 2006 and the video news series News With Nezua in 2009, new media offered an opportunity for activism. “I was feeling increasingly assaulted and injured by anti-Latino and anti-immigrant hate and racism that was rising to a level above background noise and becoming intrusive,” Nezua told Extra!. “I made a decision not to ignore it but respond, because it was something I was passionate about.”
Many bloggers, though, note a downward shift over the past five years, in audience numbers and participation, which leaves many wondering: Are new media struggling with corporatization the way traditional media have been? Or have Twitter and the rise of mobile technology killed the Internet star?
Duque says that more people are making media online. “I’m seeing more blogs and more coverage overall of LGBTQ issues and sexuality. It’s not like when I started in 2005 and I was one of the only Latinos writing about those things,” he commented. “And so many of the people of color bloggers I used to follow have moved to platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. I myself find myself writing less long-form posts and relying on things like pictures.”
What Duque reports anecdotally is supported by the statistics. Smartphone technology, more accessible now than in years past, certainly has impacted not just who news is written for and about, but how Latinos specifically access and create media. Hispanics continue to outpace non-Hispanics with the adoption of smartphones, an increase from 43 percent of cell phone users in 2010 to 57 percent in 2012, compared to an increase from 36 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2012 for non-Hispanics (Terra press release, 7/25/12).
Microblogging platforms like Twitter have also had an impact on long-form new media making, especially in the Latino blogosphere: 18 percent of Latino Internet users use Twitter, compared to 13 percent of black non-Latinos and 5 percent of whites (Pew, 12/9/10).
Bianca I. Laureano, a Puerto Rican educator and media maker who founded the blog Latino Sexuality in 2009 and co-founded the LatiNegr@s Project on tumblr in 2010, notes that despite these trends, inequalities persist. Via Twitter she commented: “The ‘digital divide’ is growing and the focus on media via mobile access is [a] new area. We aren’t looking at things like the closing of public libraries and how that impacts access.” Indeed, Latinos are less likely than whites and blacks to have cell phones in the first place, or to have broadband access in their homes (Pew, 2/9/11).
At the same time, big media corporations are increasingly looking to tap the growing Latino market. But is mainstreaming coverage of our issues a good thing, or a sign of corporatization and creating more silos that divide? NewsCorp, known more for its promotion of nativism than nuanced coverage of Latino issues on Fox News, started their own news website for a Latino audience, Fox News Latino. While some see this as evidence of the growing influence of one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population, others see it as exploiting a market and “sequestering” ethnic media from their core audience (Salon, 7/21/12).
Duque sees “main-streaming” as a threat to independent bloggers. “I’m seeing big companies like NBC Latino and Fox News Latino grabbing up so many young journalists and doing what we used to do,” he told Extra!. “Increased coverage of our issues is good, but I don’t think we can compete with the likes of the Huffington Post. All we can do is write what we think is important, do what we love and hope others like it too.”
He also challenges the idea of a Latino blogosphere. “While I feel there are websites and blogs that support and share each other’s work,” he said, “I don’t feel like people are really working together strategically. I don’t feel like there is a community.” This sense of a lack of mutual support beyond the retweet and the “like” on Facebook could account for the burnout that many Latinos in new media feel as corporations vie for Latino attention.
Duque says that his posts require “a ton” of research, context, updating and translation time, since much of his information is coming from Latin America. Nezua agreed that blogging is time-consuming, which influenced his decision to transition from long-form blogging to videoblogging. “News With Nezua, while it was also time-consuming work done on a shoestring budget, the videoblogging attracted a lot more attention, was fun, tapped into my filmmaking education, and was more sharable, which made it fundable.”
What makes independent media fundable, though, is fickle, and often depends on factors that run counter to the narrative of representative news that new media was supposed to offer. News With Nezua stopped production in 2011 after sponsors pulled the plug. “I didn’t gear my work towards a mainstream, white lens,” explained Nezua. “My work was honest and was meant to throw fire behind issues. This conflicted with appealing to a mass audience.”
While Nezua felt demoralized, disappointed and used by what he described as “greed, capitalism and racism at its worst, reasserting itself in a space where we thought we were stamping these things out,” he does not think that Latinos and people of color are gone from new media. “I don’t know where things are going, but things are changing shape and powerful alliances are being made.”
Latinos in new media have already left a legacy—blog posts, videos and tweets are being archived and used in college curriculums—but new media and Latinos are both growing and evolving in the United States. Their relationship with each other will likely depend on what alliances are created, how they are nourished and what direction they take.
Laureano feels there are certain things Latinos in new media are not covering but should be: “Net neutrality, online privacy, online safety and new laws dealing with new media are important, but Latinos are not really discussing or knowledgeable about it, even though Latino youth are especially impacted.” Laureano also challenges the idea that new media are really representing the breadth of Latino experiences. “There are opportunities for more inclusion but it’s still not happening for LatiNegr@s, people with disabilities and transgender people,” she said.
Clearly, the success of Latinos in new media is also about who is at the table at all stages of media creation and distribution. That is going to require continued challenges, not just against the mainstream but within the multiple communities who claim to represent certain identities.
Maegan E. Ortiz (@mamitamala on Twitter) is the Publisher of VivirLatino.com