Covering the New Nebraska: Serving Diverse Audiences through the Media
Nebraska's influx of workers from other countries has brought profound changes to some communities in the state. Those changes have brought new challenges to many Nebraska media outlets who wish to provide coverage of all aspects of a community.
Daily and weekly newspapers are challenged to provide a smorgasbord of information to all kinds of readers in the paper's subscription area, including international, national and local news, business news, agricultural news, feature stories, human interest stories, editorials and classified advertising. Even though the desire is strong to bridge the gap between ethnicities in a community, the people-power may not be available.
A January 17, 2008 videotaped conversation dubbed Covering the New Nebraska was moderated by Kathleen Rutledge, former editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. Panelists were Kent Warneke, editor of the Norfolk Daily News; Josh Wolfe, editor of the Crete News; and Dr. John Wunder, Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who brought the historical perspective to the conversation. Contributing by mail were Steve Frederick, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald and Lindsey Tederman, editor of the Lexington Clipper-Herald.
"The old population is graying; the new population is immigrants.
"The old population is graying; the new population is immigrants," Rutledge noted, but time and staffing constraints make it difficult to cover everything in small, diverse communities.
"No matter how good your intentions are it's hard to meet the needs of everyone...Hispanics, people of faith, farm families, single mothers, grandparents and such unless you find ways to include their voices in your newspaper," Frederick said from his office in Scottsbluff. And a good place to start is hiring people at the newspaper that reflects the community's diversity. Scottsbluff's history includes migrant farm workers who were first Germans from Russia, then Hispanics, more than 100 years ago. They worked in the potato and sugar beet industries. The community was settled by these groups, as well as others who worked for the railroad. "I encounter intense polarization and closed-mindedness, especially in politics. Some people are resolutely unreachable with facts. Where this becomes most damaging is in an issue such as immigration, where many people equate immigrants with Hispanics (or even more specifically, Mexicans) and don't differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants," Frederick said. "The only way to bridge those gaps is to respect and reveal nuance, expose nonsense, highlight good role models and spend less time getting pulled into political squabbles and more time emphasizing our common humanity," he added.
And the obvious answer to bridging the coverage gap, Tederman said, is to cover more stories exploring other ethnicities, different ages and various interests. Lexington has experienced great changes since IBP took over a large, vacant building in Lexington and remodeled it as a state-of-the-art beef processing facility. Now Tyson Fresh Meats, the facility attracted enough workers from many countries to change the face of that small community. Most of the workers are Hispanic, but there are now also workers from Somalia and Sudan, with other ethnicities arriving frequently. "The Lexington Clipper-Herald owns an adjoining building, which we rent to a Muslim place of prayer. I'm hoping to do a feature on the Muslim religion and way of life," she explained as an example of a story that might help bridge the gap.
The Clipper-Herald offers a free monthly Spanish newspaper called "Que Pasa," which summarizes the month's top news stories. "This shows tangible success," she said. "We've also added the Spanish translation to our website - one click of a button, and the entire page is translated to Spanish," even though she's found it's difficult to serve all dialects of the language. Tederman also measures success of the paper's efforts by the coffee shop discussions the day after publication, as well as direct compliments and website hits.
Small weekly papers are challenged by the changing face of their communities, in addition to their staffing shortages. "The Crete News has been around since 1871," Wolfe said. "We used to have a whole page of Czech news that correspondents would provide to us, but frankly, those people have died, and we haven't had great success getting the Hispanics to be involved," he said. He hopes a leader of the Hispanic community will come forward and act as a liaison, helping to bring Crete together, even including notices of common events such as weddings and births. Farmland opened its doors in Crete in 1975 as a pork processing facility, and has attracted workers from many countries, as well as workers who are longtime Nebraskans. Although the workers are mostly Hispanic, nearly two dozen languages and dialects are represented in the work force.
Norfolk's Warneke moved to Norfolk in 1987, shortly after a meatpacking plant went in and the Hispanic population nearly doubled, along with the mix of cultures and ethnicities. "We have a 20-member newsroom staff, and we share the same concerns you have in Crete," he said. "Hispanics in Norfolk are surprised that we want to know about them...but we have gotten over treating minorities as a novelty. We just incorporate this coverage as part of our regular coverage." A bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002, in which four Hispanic men entered U.S. Bank and killed four employees and one customer, had the potential to polarize Norfolk. But one of the Hispanic churches held a healing service and invited everyone in the town, Warneke said. "The Hispanics were as hurt as the Caucasians. It turned the tide. That one gesture turned the tide."
After the bank tragedy, Warneke said he went out and solicited letters to the editor from the Hispanic community. "I had never done that before, but I wanted their voices to be heard," he said. Finding a good spokesperson is valuable, he said.
Finding commonalities is at the heart of it all, Rutledge suggested. An editor of an Asian newspaper came to visit her some time ago, and suggested that the Journal Star run a story on how different ethnicities make chicken soup; nearly everyone makes it, but with interesting differences. Finding those common experiences and keeping up personal relationships in the community are important, she said, especially when you're working with an emotional topic like immigration.
Wunder, the historian, said one can't overestimate the importance of developing those connections and improving them over the long term. "These immigrants may be of one or two religious groups. These are connections, as are schools. Churches and schools have the most direct line to the people," he said. "There are natural suspicions and you have to prove yourself. In journalism there's an immediacy to everything, and this can't be immediate."
Success in bridging the gap in coverage would look a lot like a bulletin board, Frederick said. "Lots of letters, lots of press releases, lots of photos, stories from all strata of the community, dependence on more than "official" sources and a place for reader-generated stories."
The benefits of these efforts will show up in the communities. Engaging people in the community like Spanish teachers to involve their students in diversity projects would be helpful, Wunder said. And in the end, he added, "I think it's crucial that we want our communities to be peaceful places where people have a good life."
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