During my RJI innovation fellowship at the Chatham News + Record this summer, I worked on a variety of audience engagement-related projects. One of the efforts that particularly excited me was a project made possible by a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Grant, which the News + Record received right before the start of my fellowship in mid-May.

Facebook offered grants to support local news organizations around the country while they served communities during COVID-19.  The News + Record was just one of 144 local U.S. news organizations awarded the grant, and they received a total of $30,300 in grant funds.

The publisher of the News + Record, Bill Horner III, applied to the grant hoping to boost his newspaper’s coverage of the Latinx community in Chatham County. He thinks the paper was ultimately chosen because of the mission Horner was trying to achieve with the funds.  “I just felt like we really, really had a project that fit perfectly within the criteria,” Horner said.

Over the course of the past few months, we put the money to work as we embarked on a four-month reporting project to specifically explore the economic and cultural impact of COVID-19 on Chatham County’s Latinx community. The goal was to begin reporting stories in Spanish for the print newspaper and on the website, then share those stories on the News + Record Facebook page.

To kick off the project, Horner hired two bilingual journalists to write articles in Spanish and English that would be relevant to the Latinx community. Then we worked together to come up with a name for the project. We ultimately decided on “La Voz de Chatham” or “The Voice of Chatham.”

Today  La Voz de Chatham is officially in full swing. The reporters have published a number of articles related to COVID-19, in Spanish and English, and also created other COVID-19 content, such as a chart that summarizes the most important information about COVID-19 testing in Chatham County. 

“We are reporting on COVID-19's impact on the Hispanic community in Chatham County — everything from businesses, social life and religious life to the inequities that the pandemic has only served to worsen,” Victoria Johnson, the lead Facebook grant reporter, said. “But we want to go beyond that, too. We want to publish important information in Spanish related to the pandemic and the governor's response. We also want to celebrate Chatham's Hispanic community with community member spotlights, among other things.”Johnson is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism. She is particularly excited to put her language skills “to good use serving a historically underserved community,” she said. 

Patsy Montesinos, another reporter working on the project, is focused on creating multimedia content for the Facebook page; Montesinos will be working for La Voz de Chatham part-time, while she pursues her journalism degree at UNC. “As a Latina reporter, it’s really exciting to get to tell stories about my own community,” Montesinos said. “What attracted me to the position was obviously helping my own community, covering my own community and telling the stories that don’t often get told, especially during COVID-19, because we are the most affected in North Carolina.”

Recently, La Voz de Chatham published a first-person essay about a woman’s life as an immigrant and some of the challenges that she has faced while adjusting to life in America.  Lendy Cerna Carias, the author of the essay, believes La Voz de Chatham will inform her community during a crucial time, especially when it comes to Latinx families. 

Jazmin Mendoza Sosa of Siler City said she enjoyed reading La Voz de Chatham’s stories on the project’s Facebook page, particularly Carias’ story.  “I really liked what I have seen on the Facebook page,” Sosa said. “I really liked and enjoyed seeing community leaders who are not often shown in the newspapers.” Looking ahead, Sosa said she hopes La Voz de Chatham will continue to spotlight other members of the county’s Latinx community and tell their stories, in addition to covering how COVID-19 is impacting the community.

Selina Lopez, a La Voz de Chatham reader and youth leadership program manager at El Vínculo, is especially interested in seeing more education coverage in Spanish. “I personally know some of the issues parents are facing with their students because I work with youth, but I would love to hear from other parents too, especially of younger youth,” Lopez said. “Do they understand their kid’s schedules, expectations, how are they adjusting, who keeps their young ones accountable when they are at work, etc. I think it would be helpful for the schools to read about this and see what struggles different communities are facing. Generally though, I would like to see more of the school’s information in Spanish so the parents can read and inform themselves about the workings/ expectations the schools have, information related to their Nutrition Programs & meals, distribution of laptops. The schools are doing a great job and the best they can so helping them spread all of this information is super important.” 

Paul Cuadros, an associate journalism professor at UNC, has collaborated with La Voz de Chatham reporters from the early stages of the project to today, as our reporters are starting to connect with those in the local Latinx community. As a member of the Chatham County community himself, he hopes to see La Voz cover a range of stories, particularly as they relate to COVID-19 and the Latinx community members who have had to work during this time. “With Chatham County, this is particularly true with Latino communities, since it’s disproportionately impacted our community,” Cuadros said. “That’s because of the essential nature of the work that people in our community do and the fact that this particular community simply did not get the chance to shelter in place. There are so many frontline essential workers within the community.”



Les presentamos La Voz de Chatham!

♬ original sound - chathamnewsrecord

In addition to sharing articles about the local Latinx community, I have also collaborated with the reporters to determine other ways to promote the project and expand our reach. So far, we have created a promotional video and behind-the-scenes TikToks in both English and Spanish to explain the mission behind La Voz de Chatham.

Some of our future projects may include a podcast, a Spanish-language print product and more. Horner looks forward to developing the project in the coming months; he said he hopes the coverage will not only inform Chatham County, but will make a difference, too.

“You have got to serve your community, you've got to make a difference and be a part of the fabric of your community,” Horner said. “It has to be a transformational relationship, not a transactional relationship. I see so many newspapers now that are working transactionally in their communities, they're telling stories, but they're not trying to get into the dirt and make a difference. I think that's why so many people have embraced what we're doing.”

Caroline Watkins  
RJI Student Innovation Fellow


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