When the pandemic hit North America in 2020, Emmy-winning journalist Maritza Félix started a WhatsApp group to answer questions for friends and family on both sides of the border between Arizona and Mexico. What she assumed would be a short-lived project for people she knew has grown to encompass daily conversations on WhatsApp, original reporting for the web, newsletters, podcasts, a radio show and more. In this episode, Félix talks about the challenges of getting funding for a Spanish-language initiative on non-traditional platforms, learning to be an entrepreneur, and more.
(03:17) – How Conecta Arizona came about
(12:40) – Convincing funders to support Spanish-language media on non-traditional platforms
(21:51) – How Conecta Arizona uses WhatsApp to serve communities
(28:00) – Rigor and fact-checking in community conversations
(32:19) – Learning to think like an entrepreneur
(44:34) – Advice for non-Latino journalists serving Latino communities
(50:14) – Investing time in community as a seed for democracy
(54:21) – Rapid-fire questions
Listen to the episode here:
- Cruzando Líneas podcast
- Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY
- Radio Ambulante podcast
- De Eso No Se Habla podcast
Maritza L. Félix is the founder of Conecta Arizona, a news-you-can-use service in Spanish that connects people in Arizona and Sonora primarily through WhatsApp and social media. She is the creator, producer and host of Cruzando Líneas, a podcast that reclaims the narrative of the border. She is the cofounder, coproducer and cohost of Comadres al Aire.
Félix is the recipient of the 2022 Cecilia Vaisman Award from Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the 2022 Local Media Association’s Innovator of the Year in Content and Audience.
She is a senior fellow at JSK Community Impact Fellowship at Stanford and a graduate of the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership in Journalism at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She is also a fellow of The Carter Center, the Education Writers Association (EWA), Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2w), IWMF “Adelante” and the Listening Post Collective. She is one of Take The Lead’s 50 Women Who Can Change the World of Journalism 2020.
Félix has twice been named “Arizona’s Best Spanish-Language Journalist” and one of the 40 Under 40 in Arizona. Born in Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, México, the border has been her home and source of inspiration for more than 15 years. In 2011 Maritza was named one of 40 under 40 Arizona Hispanic Leaders by Chicanos Por La Causa in recognition of her influential work in the state. Félix has won five Emmys and is the recipient of the inaugural award for Best Chronicle Written in the US by Nuevas Plumas. She also has won multiple awards from the Arizona Press Club. In 2012 and 2013 the Phoenix New Times named Félix Best Spanish-Language Journalist in Arizona.
Maritza lives in Phoenix with her partner and inquisitive twins who challenge her imagination every day and fill her life with joy, love and laughter.
Tim Regan-Porter: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses and healthier communities. I’m Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.
Each episode, I sit down with guests from newsrooms and others in the local news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them—as well as the crucial questions they face.
This episode, I’m excited to bring you Maritza Felix from Conecta Arizona.
Maritza’s work has spanned print, television and documentaries and has won numerous awards, including five Emmys and multiple awards from the Arizona Press Club, and she has twice been named Arizona’s Best Spanish-Language Journalist.
She is a Community Impact Fellow at the JSK program at Stanford University and a graduate of the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
She is also a fellow of The Carter Center, the Education Writers Association, and the Listening Post Collective. She is one of Take The Lead’s 50 Women Who Can Change the World of Journalism.
But what I love so much about Maritza’s story is that, as you’ll hear, during the first days of the pandemic she saw a need—primarily among friends and family—and she just jumped in to meet that need.
What started with a small group on WhatsApp has grown to encompass multiple channels—WhatsApp, a newsletter, a radio show, podcasts and more. And this work has been covered by The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera and others.
And it’s also won her additional awards, including the 2022 Cecilia Vaisman Award from Northwestern University’s Medill School and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. And she was recognized as the Local Media Association’s Innovator of the Year in Content and Audience for 2022.
I think you’ll hear that Maritza is just a remarkable person, and it’s not too hard to imagine that she will change the world of journalism. She’s committed to serving her community and figuring out how to make that sustainable and scalable. And as we’ve heard over and over from the guests on this podcast, it starts with listening, and listening with humility.
I hope you enjoy listening to this conversation half as much as I did having it.
If you like what we’re trying to do here, please rate, review and follow in your favorite podcast app and tell your friends about us. It makes a huge difference. You can find a full transcript and relevant links, and sign up for our newsletter, at localnewsmatterspodcast.com.
And now, Maritza Félix of Conecta Arizona.
Regan-Porter: Hola. Bienvenida, Maritza. I won't torture you or the listeners with my poor high-school/college-level Spanish, but welcome.
Maritza L. Félix: Muchas gracias por estar bienvenida. It's so nice to be here with you.
How Conecta Arizona came about
Regan-Porter: Thank you. So why don't you start with telling us the story of how Conecta Arizona came about.
Félix: It is so much fun. And my mom hates when I tell this story because she's a well-educated woman. But I told her, you inspired something great mom. Nothing to be ashamed of. But the thing is, 2020, I was working on documentaries, but everything was canceling or being postponed through the pandemic and then the border restrictions. So I stayed on the US side of the border. My mom stayed on the Mexican side of the border. And my mom is one of those that sends you like flowers and glitters and quotes and good morning and everything using WhatsApp. And that's something that we always used to communicate. But then she was sending me this stuff that she was looking at, at YouTube or Facebook or things that she got on her WhatsApp, where there was people saying, like coronavirus is going to die as soon as it gets really hot in Arizona. And since it gets really, really hot in Arizona in the desert, it was so easy to fall for it, to actually believe. And it's like, mom, I'm not quite sure that's quite right. Let me do some research and then I'll get back to you. But the same things that my mom was sending to me on WhatsApp, that was the same things that my friends and people that I knew from Facebook or in Twitter, they were asking me. So I thought, I'm gonna create a group just to send them all the same information at the same time. So at the beginning it was just a small group of 12 people—my mom, my aunts, my husband, everybody who knew me that—they didn't get a say in, they were included in the group. But by the end of May, because we launched May 2020, we reached group limits. And then we kept growing and growing and growing because there was a need of information in Spanish in border states about the pandemic. And it was about health issues, obviously, because it was a world health crisis, but also about immigration and what's going to happen when my license expires and my passport is about to expire and I'm going to be able to cross the border. So there were so many issues. And that's how Conecta Arizona was born in the middle of the pandemic, inspired by my mom. And it's so much fun because we still have that same feeling that being something really small but really informal but very informative. And we do have a very good sense of humor. So my mom still laughs at this. She's like, okay, this is not my best, but at least I inspired something good.
Regan-Porter: So, you know, you have now branched out, and I want to talk about all the things you're doing right now. So when you started, you really did not start this, really thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur, sort of, you know, creating an alternative news source. You really just wanted to meet some needs among friends and families. Is that right?
Félix: Yes, and I became an entrepreneur in the middle of the pandemic, and it was like, what am I doing? At the beginning, I thought that Conecta Arizona was going to last three months, at the most. And then when the pandemic was gone and over in Arizona, I was going to go back to my normal freelance life. I have always been a journalist, and I always worked for someone. I always had my steady check. I always, somebody else was dealing with HR, somebody else was always dealing with funding. And even as a freelancer, I was just invoicing people and that was it. I didn't need to do anything else. My accountant did everything. It’ s like, this is all my paperwork, work your magic. And that was it. But then the need was there. And I remember that same month, when I launched Conecta Arizona, I saw the JSK Stanford Fellowship application. It’s like, I have to know. I'm going for the yes. I'm always like a very positive person. So it was like, I'm gonna apply. And I got back to a lot of my friends who are journalists who have applied for this fellowship before. And they told me it's like you have no chance. And it's like, I don't care, but I have to know. I'm going for the yes. And I got it. And then when Stanford started to believe in me, in my project, I think I realized that I started to believe in it really hard and very in depth, just like them. And it's been almost three years now. It is, how amazing is this? And I'm starting to like it. And now I finally feel that there is something changing in my mind, something finally clicked. And now I can understand a little bit better, not completely, the business of the media. And how different it is seeing it from an immigrant journalist perspective. That now seeing that somebody who has created something, that it has been growing and lasting And now that I realize that is no longer an experiment, but it’s here to stay.
Regan-Porter: You know, I think you have what a lot of the best entrepreneurs have, and that is you have a connection to the people you're serving. And you're starting there, rather than just trying to come up with a business idea. You saw a need and went in to work on it itself. Let's talk a little bit about how it's expanded. So the limit on a WhatsApp group is, what, 200 and something?
Félix: But by then it was 256. So I remember because we have this WhatsApp group, that's where Conecta Arizona started. And once a week I invited an expert to join us in a cafecito because I didn't have all the answers for all the questions. I remember our first guest, he was an immigration attorney, then we had doctors, then we have an emotional therapist, Mexican console. We have so many experts join us. But there were times that the group was up to group limits that I kick out my husband from the group so I can invite the expert because there was so set. And sometimes it's like, I wanna kick my mom out because I don't have enough room. But it was like, I can't because she's the one who actually inspired this. But then we started creating distribution lists or broadcast lists. So it's people that cannot participate actively in the chat but they still get all the news of the days. We were debunking a lot of myths. So we used to have the myth of the day. And then like a recap of the interviews or the conversations that we had in the oral cafecito. But then it's like we need to talk more because we were just chatting. It was just numbers and texts and that was it. And then we launched a radio show. So by the beginning of 2021, we launched Conecta Arizona La Hora del Cafecito, coffee break, in the radio. And it's been two years now, and we have done more than 900 interviews. And it’s been fantastic. But then it's like, what do we do with all the information that we got in the radio show? Let's do like an archive, like a newsletter. So we launch a newsletter, just to be like the archive of our radio show so we don't forget who we interview, when and about what. But then we have over a thousand subscribers and depending on the day, we can get us up to an 80% open rate on our newsletter because we are the only one in Spanish in this border state. And then it's like, how can we keep playing with it? Like innovating and experimenting. So we launched a podcast for WhatsApp. And it was so much fun because we partnered up with just immigrant Spanish-speaker border reporters that they wanted to tell a good story about the border. And they had no experience doing podcasts. I had no experience producing a podcast. And we made it happen. So we launched it on WhatsApp. We were really successful, that's what I think because the metrics on WhatsApp are quite difficult to understand or to get because it is encrypted. But then we partnered up with Radio Bilingüe, with Conexión Migrante, with McClatchy, with a lot of different media outlets. And we reached thousands, even millions of listeners through our partnerships. We got thousands of downloads in the podcast platforms that we got after experimenting on WhatsApp. And now we recently launched the webpage because it was like the next step that we need to do so we can start creating more original content. Not always be responding to the need, but now giving the opportunity to be inspired and create stories, not stories that everybody else is working on. Because we do believe in the power of collaboration. We do believe that we don't need to be doing the same that they're doing. Because we can partner up, we can distribute their content, but we can still fill those gaps between our communities and the huge media outlets that are around here, but they're not telling the community stories from their perspective without being extractive. So that's how we have grown in the past three years. And now I'm suddenly realizing that we're no longer an experiment. We're actually a news organization, that it needs to have a path to sustainability, that we need to talk business and HR and so many other things. And we're getting there slowly because, remember, we're Spanish speakers. We are invisible for so many in the United States. We always get the smallest slice of the cake when everybody's giving away grants. Or there is never something for Spanish speakers when you're applying for something, but we're making it. So we couldn't fit in somebody else's table for so long so we built our own and it's working.
Convincing funders to support Spanish-language media on non-traditional platforms
Regan-Porter:. So I want to dig into that a little bit. That's quite a remarkable growth journey. And only three years to go from friends and family on WhatsApp to all that you're doing now. Talk a little bit about that problem with convincing funders. And I don't know if you've tried to sell advertising as well, but, you know, you started off with a very nontraditional platform with an audience that—I think there's of talk in America about reaching diverse audiences, but maybe less, more talk than action sometimes. So what was that journey like, and what were the challenges in convincing them that this was something real and meaningful and worth funding? And what do you think convinced them?
Félix: It’s still a struggle because we do we need to do a lot of educating people without making them feel that they're a fool or that they're dumb because they don't know this reality. And it needs to be a little bit about guilt that you have ignored and underserved these communities for so long. It's like how could you? We are here; we're growing’ we're here to stay. It's like we're not going anywhere. And we like to speak Spanish at home, and that's fine. There is nothing wrong with it. It is, it’s been really hard because everybody hates Meta, and that's a reality. Even people like to say it out loud or not they're, they always have an issue with it. If they're not getting money from Meta—and nobody is right now because they changed the things that they fund journalism. But before, it's like if you weren't funded by Meta, you hated Meta. And then it is WhatsApp; it is encrypted. That's something that most of the traditional white American community doesn't use to communicate with their families. That's something that we as immigrants use, so they don't understand. When I founded Conecta Arizona and we were having conversations with different people, it's like, why don't you do text messaging, just regular text messages? It's like because I serve communities across the border, and in Mexico the cell phone services for text, they cost money. And WhatsApp is free. It’s available anywhere so if you travel to another country you can still have WhatsApp as soon as you have Wi-Fi available and everything. And the thing is that we like it to be encrypted because we feel a little bit safer than with regular text message. And remember we come from communities where government is very corrupt and they do spy on people. So there is a lot of like I don't know, you want to have something that is private and that you can control. And that's something that WhatsApp makes them feel that way. And the thing is like because we are there, so if my community was on Telegram or Signal or Facebook Messenger, I'll be doing the same in those platforms, but the reality is my community is on WhatsApp. So when everybody says, it's like we're meeting the community where they are, it's like, I look around and it's like, where? Because I'm right here, and I'm not seeing you doing anything of this. I think the difference between us and the traditional media outlets that so many don't understand is that we actually have a commitment to two-way communication. And having a contact us page in your web page is not a commitment to two-way communication. So every single day we're having conversations with the community. It's like in La Hora del Cafecito, it's like, buenas tardes, mi gente, cómo están? Welcome to La Hora del Cafecito. Have you heard about Biden's new announcement, or do you know they're in Arizona, or what's going to happen with Medicare, and then we, did you see the march in Mexico last weekend? So we started having conversation about those issues. And then we joke about the Kardashians and something that happened in entertainment business in Mexico. And then we moved to Peru, what was going on over there. And then we go back to the gun control in the US, like having a cafecito where your comadre or your compadres, and we’re having that. And sometimes it is really scary to actually listen to the community because they said silence are awkward but they say so many things. Because they say what they think and when they're in WhatsApp, so you're not seeing their faces so they feel free to say whatever is on their mind. And sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's cruel. And that's fine because we're here. Or sometimes we have difficult conversations. I remember the day the abortion ban, we were having that conversation. And I was just about to have a heart attack moderating the group because there were so many different perspectives, and it was really hard to navigate them without like making a position about that because I want everybody to feel safe and free to express whatever they feel. And I think we made it, and everybody was so respectful. And we were having hard and difficult conversations but in a very respectful way. And that's something that so many people don't understand because there is not even a textbook reading about how to do journalism, non-traditional platforms, having actual conversation and actually listening to the community that you serve. So when you go to a funder and you tell them, and I had this experience, that I went to a funder and I told them, this is all that we're doing in Spanish. She's like, oh, how cute, how innovative, can you do it bilingual? It's like, can you see that I have barely the resources to do it in Spanish. And that's not the point. There are so many resources that are great in English. We wanna have the same opportunities. We wanna have, create the same bridges that you have in English, filling those gaps of information needs. Why do you want me to change? It's like we're not learning English just because we speak Spanish, we feel comfortable receiving the news and consuming news and having conversations in our language. We can argue better in our language. And that's fine. So that's one of the things why don’t I do everything bilingual? The other one is like it's just a WhatsApp group. But yeah, I have conversations every day with at least 300 people. What are you doing? It's like, how are you listening? How many emails are you replying? How many people is contacting you from that contact us form that you have on your website? None. Comments on Facebook, they are not conversations. That's something that we need to say out loud. And that's another thing. The other is like, since we cannot measure the impact that we're having with traditional metrics, that scares them. So they are always waiting for somebody else to invest first than you. Oh, the other day, they told me, it's like, why don't you partner up with another organization that is led by a white man who's very conservative? So they can get the money, they can give you the money to you. And it's like, not this is not how it works. I told the funder—probably I'll never get money from them. But it's like, why are we never enough? I am enough. I've been doing this by myself for the past three years. I want to build capacity. I want to have a team. I want to have the same challenges of growing that everybody else is doing because you are investing in me and I don't know what to do with all the good resources that you're giving me. Not just trying to convince you that I'm not good enough and I'll take whatever is left from somebody else. That is not an option for us. The other thing is like, they always suggest that I should charge membership or I should charge, put a paywall on the content that we're producing. It's like, no, that's the thing. I'm building bridges above the walls that like the physical wall that we have between Arizona and Mexico. There’s so many borders that we have in the same Arizona. So why do I want to put another wall for people to access the content? It's saying if you can pay, you're better than the other one. No, I want to make rich people, foundations, guilty money to pay for the service that I'm providing to you. So it is hard but we're working on our way to sustainability. We're trying to diversify our income with donors, with grants, with my own freelance work trying to sustain this work, Conecta Arizona. And hopefully, at the end, somebody's going to realize that what we're doing is valuable and is going to want to invest in us without having all this fine print. Just because we are Latinas, we're immigrants, we look like the community that we serve. We have the same thick accent that the community that we serve. And that is enough.
Regan-Porter: And I just have to say, wow, was that, that was an explicit statement that you should find an organization led by a white male to partner with?
Félix: Yeah, it was so—I got so frustrated and the person who was pitching it to me is like that sounds like a good idea. That's not, that's not aligned with what I want to do. The statement that I want to make is like that we are enough. And making those partnerships that are not fair for anybody. It's like being physically sponsoring me, taking a huge part of the money because I'm not enough to have it? Because you don't know what am I gonna do with it? Well, now I have three years on the record that I can prove what I can do with so little. Can you imagine if you invest big and small, the great things that we will be able to do?
How Conecta Arizona uses WhatsApp to serve communities
Regan-Porter: I want to come back to the whole business model and monetization and all of that. But I want to give people a little sense for how you're doing what you're doing, particularly in WhatsApp, which is a platform that I think a lot of even—you know, my mother-in-law's Persian, so a lot of her family's not just in Iran, but all over the world. And so they do use WhatsApp. But I think even people who use it don't think of it necessarily as a platform for journalism. So, can you talk a little bit about what kinds of conversations you're having, how you're informing them with journalism, and you're doing this every day. And so, yeah, just talk a little bit about the flow of that and what kind of information you're getting out there. How is it more than just a conversation? And it's different than just traditional. expert to the masses journalism but it's a mixture of both.
Félix: It is so great, and I love it so much. So in the mornings, because I am a coffee addict and that's for sure. You can see if you meet me, I'm always like high on caffeine, that's something that I cannot deny. But in the mornings, I wake up really early, I check all the media outlets, English and Spanish in the border region, Arizona, Mexico. Then I go to the US and then the Latin America countries and everything. And I do the Ponte Al Día, that is get your new up today in the mornings. And it's headlines. And it’s like, this is how many cases of coronavirus are in Arizona. This is happening in the state legislator and across the border in Sonora. They just have the Guinness record of the largest carne asada of the world or whatever. So I put like a list of topics or good topics about all the news that you need to know in less than three minutes reading and you are all set to have conversations at work, having coffee with your friends and everything. So you don't need to do all the hard heavy lifting of reading all the newspapers. I already did it for you, and I did like a recap of everything. And then I share like something that is interesting or something that is important for our communities. For example, the Medicaid, who needs to renew, who doesn't, tax season, when the border was about to open, what kind of vaccines, information for Mexicans and for U.S. citizens that were coming back and forward. So I put like something that is from our media partner, or something that we originally created for them. And that's in the morning. It's just one text message in the morning and that's it. And then in the afternoon, I open up the group. We have these conversations for a whole hour. Once a week, I get an expert and we chat. And the difference is like when I invite an expert, and even a US ambassador joined us once in the WhatsApp group. It's like your cell phone is gonna be public. So that's one of the things that you need to know. There is nothing private in WhatsApp. It's like everything that you said, it can be screenshot and uploaded to the web. And that's fine. Everything is on the record. We're a safe space, but everything is on the record. Everything, even the memes, even the emojis, even the gift that you share, everything is on the record. The other thing is like, I don't control what the people is going to ask you. So if they're going to ask you about Narcos and you're okay answering those questions, they're going to ask you. If you want to talk about corruption, if they want to talk about abortion, if they want to talk about your hobbies or your family, who's dating who—that's something that I cannot control. It's like they're going to ask you, and this is not me interviewing you. This is you having a conversation with a community. It's not actually an interview. It's having a conversation. It's like asking questions and everything. But they know that after that conversation, we create an article with the questions and answers, so the members who are not part of the group, they can know exactly what happened during the La Hora del Cafecito. For example, last week, we had an expert on cybersecurity from Internews, and he did a workshop on WhatsApp about how to be safe on WhatsApp, what kind of platforms or applications you need to have and everything. So we do conversations, we do workshops, we do surveys, we do a little bit, we do business Cafecito that is like, Hey, this is the only day on the year that you can promote your business. So we know what you do and everything. So it's just one day because there are not ads allowed on WhatsApp. And then, well, we have the radio show that we have once a week. We have the newsletter that is biweekly. The web page we try to upload, update it at least once a day. So we're trying to always create everything, but everything is based on the listening. So I guess my community is like, do you want to know what's going on in Peru? No, okay. I don't follow up on that and I probably it's gonna be just one ponte al dia. And some days it's like I want to know everything about essential oils and everybody's yes yes yes they're important. So I got an essential oils expert to join us in the group because something that I learned during these three years is I assume so much being a journalist. I was used to be always providing providing providing providing that I never stop and actually listen and ask the right questions to the communities. And it's hard. As I told you, some days they're really silent and that means something too. Maybe the community is grieving, maybe they're busy because they got back to work, maybe they're super excited because there is the work up or the Super Bowl is in town. And those are the things that you learn. But then having those conversations, I already know who had a baby, who got COVID three times, who got laid off, whose son committed suicide during the pandemic. So we know the strengths and the areas of opportunity that we have in the group, and that is really important. And I think they do value a lot what we're doing because we're investing time in them. And we're really transparent when I'm struggling because I still have to do my freelance and everything. And I told him, it's like, I haven't like from the morning to this afternoon, I haven't had time to look at the news. What's up? Just put me up today. Now is your turn. And then we'll start with those conversations. Or maybe they're in Mexico and they know better what happened during the weekend. It's like, you tell me what's going on over there.
Rigor and fact-checking in community conversations
Regan-Porter: And that, it's It's really interesting what you're doing. It's certainly not the traditional mode. It's a combination of listening as you start with listening and then you bring journalism to bear on that. One of the things you wrote about, I think it was for NBCU, you said, “It seems like creating this connection with the community is effortless. But no, behind every word we publish, there's a process of journalistic rigor, fact checking, and data verification.” And, you know, I think the listening is probably the thing journalists most need to learn new skills around, but I think they also need to be reassured that there is this rigor behind it. Can you talk a little bit about how you apply that to what you're doing?
Félix: Yes, we do. And for example, there are so many lessons that we have learned in the past three years. One of them is sometimes people share the link that they found online because they think that it's good. And something now we have processes like if you want to share a link, just please send us to ask first so we can verify whatever you’re… because sometimes the videos are real but they're out of context. It happens a lot with news from Mexico mostly. At the beginning it was a lot about health. So we did have this. These are our red flags from our conversation today. These are the trends, these are the topics. This is what we need to address. And me, and there is another reporter that helps me out now, we go over and we start doing the fact-shaking. At the beginning it was just us, against the world, trying to get experts in Spanish, that after we did the fact-shaking, we invited them to the Cafecito so they can explain what we were saying was right or wrong. But that's really important. It's like we always verify the sources that we quote. Even when it's like, I don't know, there is another earthquake in Turkey. Then we go to the source and then we try to make a phone call. The good thing is that we always know somebody in somewhere in the world. We need to be really transparent and everything, the jokes that we said. They’re like—Gustavo makes fun of me because like you verify, you fact-check even the jokes that you're gonna say or the memes that I'm gonna share. It's like yeah there is some, a lot of misinformation being spread on memes and graphics that you can never think of. So whenever I'm gonna put a meme even though it's really funny I need to double check that that is not saying something that is not correctly. And now that we have more products and more platforms and more original content, we're putting all our skills on that. And in the conversation is doing fact-checking at the minute. It's like fact-checking like a state of the union address from the President that he's saying something and you are at the minute is like, this is wrong. This is out of context. This is like, I need more information and then I'll get back to you. So if I don't know something, I cannot do everything at the moment. I put a pin in it and then the next day is like, this is the response or this is the information that you need to know. And educating to people that opinions cannot be fact-checked. That's something that we have worked really hard to explain to them. That we can fact-check information, we can fact-check news, it's like we can double check that the resources that are being shared are going through, but we cannot fact-check opinions. That's something that we don't do. And we allow you to have the opinion that you want to have but you cannot impose your opinion on everybody else. But yes, so all the numbers that we share, all these stats that we have, everything that we said needs to be always backed up with like a research or something. Even like joking about, I don't know, if you're drinking a glass of wine to have a good night's sleep because you had a rough day, are there any studies that said that actually drinking a cup of wine at night is gonna make you sleep better or not? So those things that nobody thinks of, we do because we can get quoted. And then I know that because there is so many people in the group that probably they don't know how to forward the information, but they do a screenshot and sometimes they send it to me as well. And it's the same conversation, something that I told them and they just like send them to everybody on their phone and I get it back. Or I see it on Facebook because some of them are my Facebook friends now. And so that's why we need to be really, really, really. really careful with everything that we put, even the emojis that we use.
Learning to think like an entrepreneur
Regan-Porter: So in addition to the JSK Community Impact Fellowship, you did the executive program in news innovation and leadership in journalism at the Craig Newmark School at CUNY. And so you've been really digging into how do you make this sustainable? Tell me about what you've learned and what experiments you're trying and where you hope this goes.
Félix: Yes, so I felt Stanford opened the door for me. Everything has been less difficult, not easy, but less difficult because with the Stanford network, I do feel that somebody has my back. And they always make fun of me because I said, if the world ends, I feel that my Stanford community, my Stanford fellows and myself, we're gonna be killing zombies together. It's like, this is gonna be fantastic. But they invested in me. And I think they helped me a lot to believe in myself and believe that I could do something great. When I got to CUNY, I think they gave me all the tools to start changing my mindset from being just a regular journalist to being a media leader. I don't know quite yet an entrepreneur, but at least a media leader. And since I'm an immigrant, so I went to school, I went to university in Mexico. Everything is completely different in the US, even the mindset, the cultural background is completely different. Sometimes it plays in your favor, sometimes it plays against you and that's something that we need to be conscious about. So I learned a lot and now I'm doing the MTC Poynter, Media Transformation Challenge. And now I'm feeling that my entrepreneur mindset is actually kicking in, finally after three years. But it was a combination of the three of us. And there's, and there is something funny because there are people who questions me. It's like, aren't you tired to be the quota on those programs? And it's like, no, I'm taking all that I can to make this thing that I realize now that is my passionate project, my passionate project happen and to last because I know it can die any day. And that’s fine, because everything has a cycle. But I really, really want to make a difference. And I really want to keep serving this community. So if I need to go back to school, I'll go back to school. And if I need to be the quota, I'll be the quota. I'm going to be learning from so many other different cultures. And then I realized that sometimes I need to learn how to speak like a white man to defend myself in this world of journalism, because that's the only voice that some listen to. And that’s the reality of things. It's like I need to learn how to play the game and that's something that I'm trying to do without leaving myself on the wall. And this is a very lonely path. One of my friends told me like probably I get lonely because I'm a little bit ahead of the curve of community journalism, and then there's people who's going to follow and hopefully they will. But then I think to myself, I need, if I'm walking this path, I better leave it open for more to come to walk on this. It's like I'm trying to create a path for more Latinas to know that it can be done, that you don't need to feel that you are the quota because finally you belong to a place and you are okay with you being there. And being, representing, not being the quota. Or just being the voice or the echo of your communities and not just because you're brown Latina and with a thick accent. So I, and I really like going to school. That's another thing is like, I do like all these programs and my mentors and the networks, all the contacts that you have. It’s like before that, I didn't even knew anybody at the New York Times. Now I have a couple of friends I can call. It's like, how do you do this? This is the New York Times or Futuro Media or Sewell Chan in the Texas Tribune, people who otherwise I couldn't even have a coffee with them before. It is really good, and the good thing is like they see me as they're equal, not as somebody who they need to foster and care and take care. No, it's like we're having this conversation together as media leaders and they're helping me advance to my next step on Conecta Arizona.
Regan-Porter: What is the path that you're seeing right now for monetizing it? Obviously, grant, philanthropic support is part of it. What other avenues are you looking at? And how do you address the scale issue that a lot of funders look for?
Félix: The scale issues is not an issue if we have money because we could have Conecta so many places. We can have Conecta Colorado, we can have Conecta California or Texas or Florida or Mexico or Ecuador or Colombia. It's like we could have a Conecta everywhere. It's a very inexpensive service like technology and those things. But where we need to invest is in people. It's like having coffee with people is part of your work description, job description and it is work. So we need to start changing the conversation about that. It's like having conversations, it is part of your work. And they are mandatory to understand the community you need to serve. But now what we're doing is trying to get an underwriter for the radio show. So we are an LLC fiscal sponsor, so we can have a hybrid right now. So in the future, when we have a bigger budget, one that actually makes sense, we obviously want to apply to be our own nonprofit. But for now being fiscally sponsored with the LLC gives us the opportunity. So we have done advertising on the radio show, we're exploring the possibility of having ads on our newsletter because we are the only Spanish newsletter in Arizona. And we do have a very good open rate, and people are extremely engaged because they even reply to the emails. And that's something that is important. We launched the webpage to be a landing place for funders so they can see that we're doing something, and they can get their traditional metrics that they want. But actually we can monetize them from there. And since the success that we had with the first season of Cruzando Líneas—that’s the name of the podcast that we launched—so probably we can do a second season and we can get some ads on the second season or get a sponsorship for the second season. And that could be another revenue that we can get. And obviously grants and foundations and that maybe partner up with health departments or labor departments or something. We have tried that already. We haven't been successful yet because remember we live in Arizona. In Arizona is a quite interesting state even though we're very like Latino, Hispanic, we do speak Spanish, politics tend to be a little bit tricky still around here. So let's see, that's something that we're still trying to do and hopefully we'll get it. And in collaborations, we do believe in the power, not because I wasn't against collaborating with the previous media outlet that I told you that they'd recommend me to do a partnership. I can do a partnership with them. That's fine. Actually, they need us more than what we need them because they need to have this perspective of the community that they're serving because their community looks just like me. But the thing is like we do believe in fair collaborations, in fair partnerships where we all get something out of it, not just the people who has the biggest name or the biggest brand out there. So this is something that we're still exploring and we do, I do have my North Star to make Conecta Arizona sustainable by the end of this year. So we can start growing and creating more Conectas. But I cannot grow and start another Conecta if this is not there yet. Because I do believe that we need to pay good to journalists. Journalists is a profession and we don't need to be doing 20 more things to be able to live out of this. No, there is money, this is a business, this is a service, there is a need and we need to make it work.
Regan-Porter: And you mentioned earlier about some people recommending you charge. And there's been a big move in the industry to look to reader revenue, audience revenue, subscriptions, paywalls, that sort of thing. And I think there's not been enough discussion of the equity impacts of that. And I would think with immigrant communities, that's especially prominent, not just the economic situations, but also you're dealing with people living in two different countries. with different currencies and the logistics of that. Is there any room for that in what you're doing, you think, in terms of membership or donations?
Félix: I think donations. And we actually did a news match campaign in December. And I could see all the names of the people who were donating. There were people who were donating a thousand dollars. And I think I was like, oh, my God, where did they get this money from? But I'm not the IRS. I'm not going to ask. But there was people from Mexico who donated ten dollars. That for them is two hundred pesos, and two hundred pesos are a lot of money in Mexico. So they appreciate the work that we're doing. But we need to understand the community that we're serving, because for example, and I don't know if this is good that I say it out loud, but I don't pay for anything. It's like I use my mom’s Netflix. I use my best friends’ Amazon. I use my brother’s Disney account. The only thing that I pay off is Spotify and because I have the student discount. And because I launched a podcast. But in our culture, it's like there is one in the family that pays for one service and we all get it. It is like we're not used to paying for those things. It's like you need to start, probably it's gonna be a mindset shift at the long run, but right now it is not. So something that we're saying is like, if you feel like what we're doing is helpful, help us to keep doing it. And we know if they have the money, they'll give it to us. I’m pretty sure, but I don't want to make them give us money because this is not a transaction, this is a service that is included in journalism. And that's why we have changed so much as journalists and as media organizations because everything needs to make sense financially to keep going. And that's why so many very cool projects die because we don't support them. So that's when I get back to the guilt money. That is like they're always complaining about the news desert. What are you doing to support them? There was one organization once. It was very early on Conecta Arizona. And we approached them and we told them we want to be part of your network. How can we do for us to get some funding or whatever. It's like oh no that's not our territory. That's not one of our cities. And then a year later they reached out to means like, oh Maritza how you became like an oasis in the desert. And I remember that I told them it's like because we flourish like the desert against everything, even you. And I haven't had any money from them so that's not a good business model. But the thing is like somebody needs to say these things out loud. It's like we want to be partners. We are here; we're not going anywhere. Let’s grow together. Why do we need to start fighting or justifying to be here? Or probably it comes because I'm an immigrant. And for so long when I was getting to the process and getting my green card, I always needed to prove to this country to my worker who wasn't sponsoring my visa or to everybody that I deserve it to be here. I always had to justify me being here. Why do we always—if we are actually making America great, why do I need to be always proving that I'm good enough for something? I speak too much.
Advice for non-Latino journalists serving Latino communities
Regan-Porter: Well said. No, no, that's great. Colorado, as you know, like most of the US, has a growing Hispanic or Latino population. And pretty much throughout the US, they are underserved. And we have some interesting work that's being done by even small weekly publications. What advice would you give? You know, these are predominantly carried out by white Americans and they're trying to speak to a community that they are not part of. There's a difference there. What advice would you give to them on how to start that listening process and figure out what the needs they need to serve are?
Félix: I think they need to start with the willingness to have conversations and to actually listen to the community that they're serve. Sometimes those newsrooms, they just hire a Latino reporter to do all the job. But the news editors or the news directors, they never go to the community. They never had a coffee with people. So they know about them through the reporter that they sent to cover the stories, but they never go and explore that community. They don't want to have those conversations and they think that it's a waste of time. They don't realize that they can be part of the community. And when a community is embraced and is empowered, they get really engaged and it's worth it. The investment of time is worth it. So the willingness to listen, to meet, to explore, but not do it from the privilege. We have so many privileges. For example, I know that, for example, my migration journey, it was a very privileged one compared to other ones. And I'm a migrant too, but it's completely two different scenarios completely. So those white people in leadership, they need to go out and understand from their community perspective, not their own. And being able to do so, it is really hard. But it can be that. I know so many great leaders that have done so and then they realize how important it is and how much they have grown since they started doing it. And stop overworking the Latino and Latinas reporting. Not just because they're Latinas, they need to do everything bilingual for you and they need to do their job and then translate yours because they speak Spanish. It's like we put so many pressure and they’s why they end up leaving the industry or changing to another job that doesn't require them to overwork just because of their race or their language skills. That is really important. And not being afraid of innovating. When I created Conecta Arizona, it was just an experiment. It was just a group on WhatsApp. I never in my life thought that three years later I was gonna be sit down with you talking about business plans and sustainability paths for the next three to five years with Conecta Arizona. That was not on my radar at all. I was doing good. I was making good money working on documentaries, doing the things that I like to do that is telling stories. But now I cannot imagine myself going back to that. I like what I'm doing better right now. It is more hyperlocal. It is more community oriented. It is less in depth, yes, it has zero glamor to it, zero and zero money, but we're making a difference and that's something that is important. So do it, innovate, experiment, take the chance, and sometimes you're gonna lose, yes for sure, if you don't get to connect, and if you don't get to connect, hire the right people to connect with those people. Not just like to fill out your quota and diversity in your newsrooms, but actually with the intention, with your mission, with your mission that actually serving the community, that pretty soon is gonna be majority, probably in your communities.
Regan-Porter: Yeah. And I wonder, I think too, and I'm curious as to your reaction, that sometimes people that look like me, to do this work, you have to be a little vulnerable and you have to not let fear paralyze you, that you're going to say the wrong thing or—Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, or, you know, refer to Americans when you really mean European descendants in America. We’re going to make those kinds of mistakes in, particularly, conversations versus written journalism. So I think you have to kind of get over that fear. I don't know if you've seen that.
Félix: Just say it. And if, for example, it's even with the language, if you don't speak fluent Spanish, that's fine. My English is not perfect either, and I'm not afraid to speak so, to speak it. It is the same. Just go over there and be, and let yourself make mistakes, and that's okay. But if you're transparent, if you're going from a good place, trying to create a human bridge between you and that community, they're gonna appreciate it and they'll be fine. And you can ask those questions. For example, once I asked a friend of mine who's Black, if I should say he's African-American. And he told me no, do I always say that you are Mexican-American? No, why do you need to say that I'm African-American? It's like I'm Black and that's okay. You can tell me Black. And he's like, okay. And I'm brown, I'm Latina, I'm Mexican. You can say that I'm Mexican. And that's fine. But we had that conversation, and we got out of the way that issue and now we communicate better. So that's something that we need to do. But having the conversation first, that's the first step that we need to do. And we always make mistakes. I do make mistakes all the time and that is fine. That is completely fine.
Investing time in community as a seed for democracy
Regan-Porter: Last question before we move into some rapid fire questions. One of the other things you wrote in that NBCU article was that, “we have shown them that investing time in community is the best seed that can be planted for democracy.” And we certainly need some seeds planted for democracy. So can you just expound a little bit on that?
Félix: It's so important to take the time to have these conversations and invest time in people. Because for example, 2020. Conecta Arizona was launched in May. I thought Conecta Arizona was going to be done by September, but no election happened in November and we were still here. I was debunking all the misinformation for COVID and I wasn't prepared to do so for politics. But there it was. Trump, the Sharpiegate, the election fraud, and everything that we saw around it. And we were answering like a hundred questions a day. Where do I vote? Does my vote count? Do I need to use a pen or a sharpie? If I'm a US citizen but I'm living in Mexico can I go back to the US and vote or can I vote remotely? How can I do it? Very basic questions that nobody else took the time to answer. And there was people who actually got to vote because somebody answered those questions for them, just in time. So now, for this 2022, there were the midterm elections. And for some they are not that important. We prepare a little bit better because we were just reacting during the election coverage. So we work on electoral guides, and it's like these are your candidates. This person’s last name is Latino or Hispanic, but this is what this person is for. In environment justice, in economic and education, in public safety and whatever. And we put the photo of that candidate is like, so you can put a face on the name that you're seeing on the ballot. And then it's like, where are the most important races that you need to be aware of? These are the ones that you should be looking at. And these are the ones that regardless if you care or not, they're gonna pass. This is like, just please read the ballot, that it was a very long ballot and not everybody understand. And for some, there are migrants and maybe they have been here for generations. They have never voted because they don't care because they come from countries where the corruption is so big that if they vote or not, it actually makes a difference. And they were like carrying that idea with them when they migrated. And this time, for the first time, they voted and they felt that they vote was counted because they can see the numbers and how close the races were and everything. But we realize that sometimes when we try to do elections coverage, we want to go really in depth and get the greatest story. And the community, actually, what they need is really basic, very informal, but very informative information. And how important it is for someone to get back to them with a very simple question like, should I use a Sharpie or a pen? That's it. That's the question. And that can make somebody go out to vote or not. Or reminding them. It's like, remember to sign the ballot before you drop it off. Oh, OK. I forgot that Arizona changed that. And now that I need to sign it. OK. Thank you for reminding me. And then starting to have the conversation, not just about the candidates, but about the political power that we have as a community in our own neighborhood, it is really important. And I think it showed during the past election in Arizona that it was a very close race and remember 2010 we were on one side of the … and then on 2020 we were completely on the other side. But 2022 we were like going back and forth. We didn't know where we're gonna end. And I think that now people that is understanding a little bit better the process are able to vote. And they feel proud of it. And then we're obviously doing these campaigns like show us your vote and whatever like that you voted with… and they they felt nice, taking in consideration that somebody actually cared that they did it.
Regan-Porter: Great. All right, so now for the rapid fire questions. So these are some common questions that I ask everybody. And your answers don't have to be rapid, but the questions will be brief. So compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news?
Félix: I'm more optimistic on Conecta Arizona because I know what I'm doing better, but I don't know if the whole local news ecosystem, because after the pandemic there is so many resources being pulled out for those local news outlets that I don't know if they're going to be able to survive.
Regan-Porter: What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
Félix: They always tell me not to do so and I do it. So probably that one. Or maybe like the JSK Stanford when my colleagues and friends told me, it's like no, because we apply already. We never got it; you have no chance. And then I did it. Yeah, maybe, maybe that one.
Regan-Porter: Do you have—part of innovation as failing as you probably heard many times at Stanford. Do you have a favorite failure of yours that put you on, that you either learned something that helped you evolve in a new way or just put you on a different trajectory because of the failure?
Félix: I have so many that will be longer than the list that I have of people in WhatsApp. One of the biggest failures that I had is, I used to work for a very large TV station. And not everything worked as I thought that it was gonna be. And when I left the station, I was crying and I thought that my career in journalism was gonna be done because, well, when you work in TV, you think that's it. And then I realized that thanks to that, I'm doing so many great things and the best years of my professional career have been after I left that TV station. But at that moment it felt like a failure. I was like, it was no paycheck anymore. It was like no health insurance and everything that I used to have. So it was just uncertainty. But at the end, it worked out for the better.
Regan-Porter: If there's one thing that you wish national media, or just the national narrative, really understood about immigrant communities and what's going on along the border specifically, what message would you convey to them?
Félix: We matter, we are enough, we like speaking Spanish and that is okay, and a wall doesn't stop us. So even though we cross the border legally, we are building bridges on top of it, of the wall, every single day, through tradition, through food, through education, through family, through partners and love and so many other things. And they need to understand that we are not just that place with people and drugs cross every single day, but they're families; they've been here for generations. And we even, when politics tried to separate us, people unite us.
Regan-Porter: Being a journalist can be very stressful. Being an entrepreneur can be stressful. Being an immigrant can be stressful. You have the triple combo. What do you do to restore yourself and just maintain your equilibrium and your sanity?
Félix: I travel. I travel for work and then I stay one day or two just to be able to sleep in a little bit because I'm also a mom of twins. So that's another thing and during the pandemic, that was hard. I read a lot. I woke up at 4.30 in the morning so I can go to the gym at five and I don't do much. I just drink coffee, I read a book and I'm sitting down in the bicycle just next to all the elderly people that are my friends now. And that's my me time. I need the quiet and the silence in the morning with a good cup of coffee just for me to refresh. And in spending time with friends that have nothing to do with journalism because they don't let me talk about journalism. And that is so good because I cannot complain about the industry. I cannot complain about funders. I cannot tell them all my crazy ideas because they don't get it. They know, and they support everything that I do. But it’s like, Maritza sit down, have another glass of wine. We're talking about menopause. Okay, let's do it.
Regan-Porter: In just sort of the everyday work you do, how do you measure success and impact?
Félix: I think everybody's definition of success is completely different. A couple of years ago, I thought success was to have my name or my credit, my byline in big media organizations, like in huge documentaries or maybe, see my name in the New York Times or something. So Conecta has already been in the New York Times, in the New Yorker, in the Washington Post, in Al Jazeera, in so many national media outlets, and at the end, I don't think that is actually success for me anymore. I think for me, success right now is looking like I'm building the newsroom that I always wanted to work for. And I'm treating people the way that I will have liked to be treated when I was working for somebody else. And then I can go and sleep at the night, and the only things that get me awake are all the things that I have to do, but nothing to regret the way that I did it. So my conscience is clear. So that's really important for me. So I think that's my definition of success. And the impact that we're having is that we're building a community. We're not a massive media outlet. We don't want to be a massive media outlet. We already have Univision and Telemundo for that. We want to fill those small gaps. And even my kids, they play around, and they know it's like, Mom, it's La Hora del Cafecito. Don't forget to open up the group. And it's like, they know, they are part of this, and I'm really proud of that. This is like a family project now.
Regan-Porter: Imagine we're five years out and you've been wildly successful at achieving what you want to achieve with Conecta. What does that look like?
Félix: I'm gonna be spending a month in Florence doing wine testing. So nice. Chasing my twins everywhere. Probably they're gonna be going like to bars or whatever. Discotheques and museums. No, that will be amazing to have a month off. No, but I think having more Conectas and creating of Conecta, not just these community organizations that they inspire us so much, but maybe being a platform for other freelance journalists who work in Spanish in the border regions where they can find a platform that they can distribute and show their passionate projects and work on stories that nobody else pay attention before, but now they're able to do so and getting paid good, like a white man to work on those.
Regan-Porter: Is there anything we haven't covered or any thoughts or questions you want to leave the audience with?
Félix: Good question. I think we have covered pretty much everything. But now I think if I wanna leave you thinking of something is important of the local journalism. I think for so long we have trusted always the big names. But at the end, the people who looks just like us, the reporter who was to the school board meetings, the one who covers all the city council in very boring and long meetings as well, is the one who's caring the most about your community and they do deserve the support of the community for sure. I think we have overused the American dream. I think we have overused the term of local journalism. I think we have used it so lightly that he has lost meaningful, the meaning for so many. So I think that's something that we need to take back and help those local reporters to reclaim the narratives of their own communities.
Regan-Porter: And last question, what are three to five pieces of media that you would recommend? It could be podcasts, books, movies, TVs, English or Spanish, just things that have been very impactful to you, or you just recommend others consume.
Félix: Podcasts, I love Radio Ambulante. I love them, love them, love them. And I think they inspire me a lot. And there is another one from Spain, the De Eso No Se Habla—We Don't Talk About That, I think that's the name in English—that I really love. And obviously, Cruzando Líneas from Conecta Arizona. And I do have another podcast, Comadres al Aire, that is Women's Health, with one of my partners in crime, Valeria Fernández. That is really, really good. Another project that you should support is Documented New York. I do believe in the work that they do. They are fantastic. They're always trying to meet the needs of the community. They do in-depth investigations. They're really, really good. Print and digital, I think North Carolina Enlace Latino, even though they're really local and regional, they have these greatest explainers about everything. It's like, work visas, those things, and they're really, really good. And the leadership of it is awesome. What else? What else? What am I missing? No, I think that's it. Those are my peers. I love them. Outlier Media, for example, that's another one that I really like. Candice is really good. Yeah, Southerly, the Mendocino Voice, I love them so much.
Regan-Porter: Maritza, thank you very much. Gracias por tu tiempo.
Félix: Muchas gracias a ti, Tim.
Regan-Porter: Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters Podcast, and thanks to Maritza for your time and all the work you do to serve communities along the border.
Check back next episode for my conversation with Steven Waldman, the founder and president of Rebuild Local News and co-founder and former president of Report for America.
A final thanks to our production partners at Pirate Audio. Pirate Audio believes every community deserves great things to listen to, and they are on a mission to help local newsrooms reach their communities via audio. If you’re interested in starting a podcast or need production support, let me know, and I’d be happy to connect you.
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