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March 3, 2016, 10:11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

CUNY’s new Spanish-language journalism program, with big ambitions, opens for applications

Spanish-language journalism programs are few and far between in the U.S., but CUNY’s is well-positioned right out of the gate. One upcoming challenge: fundraising.

What is the future of Spanish-language media? Graciela Mochkofsky, the newly appointed director of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s new Spanish-language master’s degree program, is hoping its newest students, whoever they might be, can begin to tackle that question.

If you think that’s a lot of “new” in one sentence, that’s because the program is barreling ahead at an impressive pace: It was first announced as an initiative within CUNY’s J-school late last September and, this month, began actively recruiting for around 15 students for fall 2016 enrollment (the program runs for three semesters). Mochkofsky, a noted Argentinian journalist and 2009 Nieman Fellow who also writes regularly for American media, was brought on as its director a couple of weeks ago, and the new concentration was officially approved by the New York State Department of Education a week later.

“My dream is that we would not just train journalists here,” Mochkofsky told me over breakfast last week. As we spoke, her phone was inundated with messages about the program and with meeting requests, even though she had been on the job just two days. “I want to create this lab where the future of Spanish-language media is going to be thought about. I want this place to become a center of debate. We’re not going to supply our students with answers, but with questions, and these students have to come up with the answers.”

Sixty-two percent of Hispanic adults in the U.S. speak English or are bilingual, and a record 35.8 million Hispanics speak Spanish at home. (These Pew Research Center numbers are from spring 2015, and Pew will likely be updating them sometime next month.)

Prospective students for CUNY’s program are required to be solidly bilingual, but can come from inside or outside the U.S. They’ll take classes in both Spanish and English, with the core classes around reporting and writing conducted in Spanish. Students will produce Spanish-language assignments. They will take classes elsewhere within CUNY — through its relatively new social journalism program, for instance. Language coaches will work with students to strengthen the weaker of their two languages. A summer internship at a Spanish-language media outlet is mandatory.

“CUNY is not traditional. I really love what they do. They have this entrepreneurial approach. They have the same approach I have to this moment of change in journalism, this idea that the future of journalism is not one monolithic thing,” Mochkofsky said. “There are so many answers to the big question of, what is the future of Spanish-language media? And the Hispanic identity itself is not a monolithic thing — you have so many cultures inside that label.”

“I want to create an exciting place where the smartest and most talented people bring their ideas about what to do in Spanish-language journalism, how to transform it, how to create new news outlets, how to overcome walls like the lack of funding, how to attract new audiences, how to do it in a very small scale targeted to a very specific Latino community, or how to do a global enterprise,” she added.

CUNY’s program has been touted as the “nation’s first Spanish-language journalism subject concentration to train bilingual master’s degree students interested in covering Hispanic communities in the U.S. or abroad,” meaning that ideally its students will graduate on to Spanish-language news outlets (rather than becoming the token Spanish speakers at English-language outlets). Spanish-language journalism programs in the U.S. are few and far between, and providing the programs has been difficult over the years (the University of Miami’s graduate level Spanish-language journalism program, for instance, is no more).

Florida International University also runs a graduate-level journalism program taught entirely in Spanish, founded in 1994. Leonardo Ferreira, a professor at FIU’s school of journalism and mass communication who has been the coordinator for the program, told me it wasn’t easy to get the initiative started.

“I credit FIU for how committed it has been to this. The program was first created more than two decades ago and it continues to be maintained, with its ups and downs,” he said. “But as I understand it, during the early days something like this had been proposed to many top universities across the country, certainly in the northeast and many in California, but it didn’t really get off the ground.”

FIU’s program is a mix of theoretical and practical courses. As a public university, the tuition is comparatively reasonable for local students. But the school always seeks funding for scholarships and to send students abroad or to other internships. A Telemundo partnership has been a boon.

“My allegiance has always been with my students. And there continues to be a major interest in journalism from them. Students are interested in having a voice,” Ferreira said. “But many students also feel the frustration of the digital world, of graduating and trying to make a living, trying to find something sustainable. I have a gloomy view of the future, but I’m not necessarily discouraged — I trust what our students are doing.”

On the other side of the country, José Luis Benavides of California State University, Northridge, who created the school’s interdisciplinary minor in Spanish-language journalism, is similarly cautious and hopeful at once.

“Spanish-language media has been hurt badly in terms of print, perhaps even stronger than English-language media. You saw, for instance, what happened with La Prensa in New York, and that process is going to be replicated in many places,” Benavides said (at CSUN he founded and advises the Spanish-language student newspaper El Nuevo Sol, which he transformed into a vibrant digital operation). “Then on the other hand, there’s an emerging global tide. Univision has its digital branch. The New York Times is building in Mexico City. On the surface, it looks like there’s a big crisis, but there are always smaller publications and the need for the content is there.”

Benavides worries about funding as well.

“I would love for us to think we can play an important role on this, but we need to find the right suitors, and I don’t think this is always on the radar of foundations,” he said. “We are lucky Scripps thought about it and we’ve been able to cement this program. We’re in an area where there’s so much need for it — it’s a city where about 40 percent of households speak Spanish.”

CUNY’s program is well-positioned right out of the gate, Mochkofsky said. It already has partnerships with places like the Spanish paper El País; the Argentine media company La Nación (which owns El Diario/La Prensa); Univision; Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish-government funded organization; La Raza in Chicago; and La Opinión in Los Angeles. Mochkofsky hinted at many others forthcoming.

“We’re going to start small, but we’re going to have lots of applicants, I think. I’m getting tons of emails from people throughout the continent,” Mochkofsky said. “One of my priorities — and this is one of the biggest challenges, though it’s something Sarah Bartlett is really great at — is trying to get as many students as possible on scholarship. New York is a very expensive city. CUNY tuition is much lower than the private schools, but even then you need ten thousand, twenty thousand dollars. I really want us to have the freedom to choose the best candidates, not just the ones who can afford it.”

Photo of El Pais by Esther Vargas, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 3, 2016, 10:11 a.m.
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