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July 27, 2021, 1:59 p.m.
Reporting & Production

At Futuro Media, Maria Hinojosa is building a home for authentic Latino storytelling

“Tell the story without the explanatory commas, as if you’re telling to the person you want to be telling the story to.”

In the halls of Congress in April, reporter Pablo Manríquez started asking United States representatives and senators about a 2019 report from the Office of the Inspector General that detailed allegations of sexual harassment by members of Congress against custodians on the night shift in the Capitol.

For Manríquez, the D.C. correspondent for Latino Rebels, the story was personal. His father was a night shift janitor at a hospital in Saint Louis, Missouri, when he was a kid. His father told him about how difficult the job was, on top of the harassment and discrimination he faced for being Latino.

Manríquez told me he noticed that many of the night shift workers at the Capitol were people of color and that there was little coverage of the issue when the report was first published in 2019. He started asking prominent politicians about in 2021 and many said they hadn’t seen it. Manríquez published his first story about the issue on April 21 and by April 28, he had responses from nearly 30 senators about the report.

At the time, Manríquez was the only credentialed reporter on the hill for a standalone, Latino-focused news outlet. It’s the kind of work that Latino Rebels’ parent company Futuro Media, an 11-year-old Harlem-based nonprofit, is founded on.

Then Manríquez’s Periodical Press Gallery credential — a pass that’s renewed on a monthly basis — wasn’t renewed.

He explained:

In essence, the temporary credential was a compromise between Futuro and the gallery that allowed Latino Rebels to report from within the Capitol complex while Futuro’s application for a permanent press pass was reviewed by the gallery’s executive committee.

Four days before the press pass expired, a gallery staffer told Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela that the Futuro press pass would not be renewed because other gallery members had complained that the reporter (me, Pablo Manríquez) was “too visible” as Latino Rebels correspondent in the Capitol, but refused to elaborate on any details of the complaint or name who complained.

Periodical Press Gallery executive committee chair Leo Shane III rolled back the gallery staffer’s remarks, telling Ericka Connant of Al Día News that my temporary press pass was not renewed because “the committee determined it was unlikely [Futuro] would qualify for permanent credentials.”

In a May episode of In The Thick, a Futuro Media politics podcast hosted by founder Maria Hinojosa (the 2020 winner of the Nieman Foundation’s 2020 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence) and interim co-executive director Varela, Varela said that he was told that, according to the press gallery’s rules, Futuro Media wouldn’t qualify for the credential because it doesn’t get 51% of its revenue from advertising or subscriptions.

“That’s so Mad Men,” Hinojosa said on the podcast.

“We are already in sort of this incredible disadvantage,” Varela said of the fact that so few dollars go to Latino-focused or owned organizations. “And what’s interesting about this is that this rule was established in the 1970s when media was even whiter, even more male, but how much has really changed? … This is straight up what white supremacy in journalism looks like when you have journalists of color and independent news organizations not being given access to cover this country’s government, the halls of Congress every day. That’s the issue here. And that’s anti-democratic.”

It took about six weeks, but Manríquez got credentialed again, this time for three months from the Daily Press Gallery, another of the four credentialing bodies. But in that time, he was shut out from talking to Congress about one of the most important stories on his beat: Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Guatemala, where she told migrants not to come to the U.S. border with Mexico.

Futuro Media’s origin story begins, of course, much earlier than this, but the hiccup is emblematic of both why Hinojosa founded the organization 11 years ago and the obstacles that outlets focusing on marginalized communities face.

It starts with Latino USA.

In 1992, Dr. Gil Cardenas at the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, worked with the founding executive producer, Maria Emilia Martin, to help develop English-language programming about Latinos for public radio. They later partnered with KUT in Austin to air the show. Martin brought in Hinojosa to host the show.

Latino USA started as a half-hour news magazine show and has changed hands a few times before Futuro Media took it over in 2010 and then switched from syndicating with NPR to PRX in 2020. The constant, though, has always been Hinojosa as the anchor.

While Hinojosa and Futuro Media are pioneers in the media landscape, Hinojosa said the company wasn’t founded out of a place of excitement, exactly, but from a place of necessity.

“The truth is that there was a certain amount of darkness,” Hinojosa said. “As a journalist, the path was not clear at all. I was like, ‘Do I really want to do this thing where I’m continuing to convince, in particular, white men of privilege that how I see the world, what matters to me as a journalist, needs to matter to them?'”

“We [as journalists] are based in the factual and so for us to take a leap into creating something that doesn’t exist — the alchemy of that is hard for many journalists,” Hinojosa said. “It’s like, I know how to produce a story, but how do you launch a company?”

What helped the company’s growth, though, was being able to take ownership of the show (and its following) that Hinojosa had built.

“I think the smartest thing that Futuro did was realize that [the show] Latino USA is a cultural institution in the media space and has been ahead of the game in reflecting on what it is to be Latino in the United States in the 21st century,” Varela, who joined Futuro in 2014, said. “So it was super smart of the company to realize that that was the Cadillac. If we make this better, this will make us better.”

Varela originally came to Futuro to work on the digital side of America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa, a two-season show on PBS that explored the underreported stories behind the changing demographics in the United States. Varela credited that show with making PBS’s audience “browner, blacker, and younger” than the regular PBS primetime audience, which in turn led people back to Futuro Media and Latino USA.

VP of content development Marlon Bishop joined Futuro Media as a producer for Latino USA in 2014. He ultimately became the show’s senior editor and helped turn it into an hour-long storytelling show.

“We had the idea to make this not a news magazine show, but something much more storytelling-focused and deep,” Bishop said. “This American Life was doing shows like 24 hours at a diner. We were like, ‘Let’s do 24 hours in a bodega.’ We’re telling all kinds of stories but really wanted to make sure there was a place for rich, detailed storytelling by Latino creators.”

Today, Futuro Media, which has 33 full-time employees, consists of four wings: Latino USA, In The Thick, Latino Rebels, and Futuro Studios, a creative division that produces original podcasts and programming (you might remember my story from February about La Brega, that was them!). In June, Futuro announced that it will create a new investigative journalism unit that Hinojosa will lead.

Futuro’s funding comes mainly from foundation philanthropy, individual donors, and corporate sponsorship. It’s always been a challenge to fund journalism, and even more so for entrepreneurs of color, but sticking to Futuro’s mission of telling stories authentically has helped the company find the right partners.

“We’ve been able to grow funding over the years from these organizations by delivering what we said we were going to deliver, which is quality journalism with integrity that addresses a lot of the issues that otherwise are not being addressed,” Erika Dilday, Futuro’s former chief executive officer, executive director, and a 2020 visiting Nieman fellow, said. “One of the reasons we created Studios is that we knew that we also needed earned income revenue. To rely strictly on foundations is not the best model.”

Futuro Studios has so far produced eight original shows, partnering up with WNYC, WBUR, The Los Angeles Times, and Netflix. They touch on a diverse ranges of Latino experiences. La Brega was produced with WNYC to showcase different facets of life in Puerto Rico in both English and Spanish. The Battle Of 187 explored anti-immigrant ballot initiatives that spurred several changes in the state of California, and was hosted by Gustavo Arellano, who’s now the host of the LA Times’ daily news podcast. Con Todo: Brown Love was produced with Netflix as an interview-style show with famous Latinos in Hollywood.

That, for Futuro, is where the innovation really is. It’s less about fancy tools and new platforms, and more about telling the stories that are long overdue to be told.

“The question, like, ‘Why does this story matter to the random white woman in Minnesota?'” Bishop said. “That’s a question we never really asked at Futuro. It was always like, tell the story without the explanatory commas, as if you’re telling to the person you want to be telling the story to: your friends, your family, your community.”

That approach has also made Futuro a launching pad for careers in audio. Not only does it invest in young producers and new ideas, but it also makes audio storytelling accessible to people of color who might not otherwise be able to access those resources. Futuro runs community podcast labs in Boston; Akron, Ohio; and Hartford, Conn. The podcast labs get storytellers in each city to produce pieces about the stories that matter to them.

“For creative people to feel like they have the backing of the company in trying something innovative is really important,” Hinojosa said. “I would say the same thing in terms of audio — it’s very much a culture of openness and trying things. It’s scary to be vulnerable and to be pitching, but that is what we’re trying to create as a company.”

Courtesy of Futuro Media.

POSTED     July 27, 2021, 1:59 p.m.
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