Maria Hinojosa has paved the way for and inspired thousands throughout the country. A journalist, anchor, producer, author, mother, friend, and Latina, she has broken many cultural barriers and given a voice to the voiceless. With a goal of changing the media landscape and the conversation regarding the America of the 21st Century, Hinojosa launched the Futuro Media Group, which produces the show “America By the Numbers.” Through the program, Hinojosa is talking about how the America we know is rapidly changing. All Digitocracy spoke with Hinojosa about her path to success, her struggles as a Latina woman in an industry that isn’t always kind to them, and her dedication to making the “invisible, visible”.
All Digitocracy: What inspired “America By the Numbers”?
Maria Hinojosa: We knew that we wanted to be looking into the future I mean, the name of my company is the Futuro Media Group. Because of the kind of journalism and stories that I have always told, which are usually revolving around people who are voiceless. Because I do this kind of reporting–some people call it social justice, I just call it the truth-people always assumed that I had some political bent. So, with the notion of “By the Numbers,” knowing that we wanted to talk about the future and demographic change, and to be able to say to those who [said]- ‘well you have some kind of political bent’ it’s like “no” we’re basing our reporting on numbers, on facts. This is not about an agenda. It is about the truth, about the future.
AD: What type of audience, besides the Latino community, are you trying to reach?
MH: What we are trying to do is to actually diversify the demographic that is consuming public media while at the same time educating the public. I’m not approaching my stories saying, “Well, this is going to be a story for a Latino audience” and “This is going to be a story for a white audience.” I approach it as “I’m a journalist. I’m curious. There’s a great story here. How am I going to tell it so that everyone wants to watch it?”.
AD: What affect do you hope to have on your audience?
MH: We are a very diverse staff, and because we all come from these different backgrounds, and are owning our personal narratives in a moment of historic demographic change in the United States, we don’t look at demographic change and race as something that we should be afraid of, or concerned about, or worried about. Our team would like to feel like if we did anything in terms of impact, is to lessen the fear of the reality that exists right now.
AD: How have your personal experiences as a Latina impacted your work?
MH: I have never lost touch with the fact that I grew up feeling like the ‘other.’ I certainly wasn’t visible in any mainstream media. I also grew up in the midst of the Civil Rights Era. What this has allowed me to do is understand that there is a world beyond the United States, [and] helped me to understand being the ‘other’ and being an immigrant. Because I was not born in this country, and chose to become an American citizen, this has made me very conscious of what my civic duty is. I own it, and I also understand that Latinas in particular are in a moment where we have power. That influences how I move in the world, as a journalist and an entrepreneur.
AD: What kind of power are you talking about?
MH: Power in the sense that the numbers are clear, and at every turn I see more. Whether it’s people in the world of business, or in the world of politics who are testifying, it is irrefutable what is going on here. I understand it in terms of what is happening with the consumer society, but also from Latinas coming from a place of understanding their personal narratives and their role as leaders.
AD: Why did you become a journalist, and did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
MH: I could never have grown up knowing I wanted to be a journalist because they were nothing like me. Barbara Walters on the “Today Show” was the first woman who I saw doing national television. I understood that, one: that there was an audience that wanted to hear stories that I was telling from a different perspective and, two: that because of my background and where I was at school, it was an extraordinary privilege and responsibility. There were a couple of people who spoke to me, and said, “You understand, you have something here.” So then I understood, I kind of have to do this. I have a responsibility because I have been given an extraordinary privilege in my life to have been at Barnard and then at Columbia University, so that, I think was a big push for me. I always wanted to make the invisible, visible and to show the America that I live in, and own that as the essential part of the story of American journalism today.
AD: You mentioned diversity in your newsroom, but how would you specifically define “diversity” in America and what does America mean to you?
MH: I think really, in terms of journalists, for me, diversity is not just race, it’s class, it’s political orientation, and it’s religious background. For example, it’s important for me to have somebody on my team who is from Latin America, who will bring the Latin American perspective. To me, diversity is really broad. So we look for that, and we also think it makes for better journalism, a better newsroom. The more diversity, the more people talking back and engaging in conversation. I think you get stronger ideas, journalistically.
AD: For other journalists, how would you say they can improve their coverage on diverse communities?
MH: If you’re a journalist, you should be booking up stories left and right. There’s so much to be doing. Everywhere I go I see a great story to be told. I think you have to open your eyes. I’ve always told plenty of journalists that the best stories will come from their actual personal interaction with fill-in-the-blank: a person who unbeknownst to them is revealing phenomenal things. You could’ve happened to meet this person on the subway and started talking to them. I just say that I’m hungry as a journalist, I’ve been doing this for a long time. So if you’re young, I can’t even imagine. Then for journalistic institutions, I think that it’s not about doing the right thing, in the sense of diversifying your staff. It’s that if you don’t do that, it’s unclear to me how you survive. I’m not sure the audience that you think you’re going to be able to have.
AD: What story have you been most proud of, what was the turning point for you?
MH: Wow, there isn’t one. I mean, definitely a turning point for me in my life and as a journalist and as a human being was 9-11. That just was a real marker and changed my life in every way, shape and form as a journalist and as a human being. But you know what? There’s just so many. I mean I literally have to say I have a lifetime of extraordinary stories. Whether its meeting- one of my first stories that was an award winning story on gang members here in New York, who were desperate for a voice- seeing one of those young men become a young professional. To meeting Sonia Sotomayor to being in Africa and reporting from Rwanda to being on the frontlines in El Salvador. How do you even put that all together? It’s an extraordinary series of stories that I’ve had at every turn. I just believe that as a journalist I would like to think that I work with an open heart and that I allow myself to be moved and motivated by the most recent story that I am doing, as opposed to hanging on to “that one great story”. I’m just always motivated by the people who I meet and the stories that they do share with us. And I’m completely humbled by that.
AD: What led you to launch the Futuro Media Group?
MH: It was the middle of the economic downturn, and the world of journalism was contracting, no one was hiring, they had just cancelled my PBS show. So I didn’t have a television show to be working on and Latino USA was going to be from KUT in Austin. So it was a real moment in transition, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it had I not met somebody who believed in me and therefore agreed to be my angel-funder. I think that if I would’ve had to start with zero; I don’t know how I would’ve done that. I’m very, very lucky that I had somebody who believed in me. [Being a] Latina, that is very rare, and a woman, that is very rare. I believe it was just an extraordinary situation. Life is a very strange thing. That’s why I was going to say “eyes open”. I walk, and I live in the world, I believe, with an open heart. And that, I think has helped me as a journalist.
AD: What difficulties have you encountered for being a Latina and a woman?
MH: You have to understand- and it sounds weird and it’s ancient history, but I was the first Latina at NPR, first Latina correspondent at CNN, the first Latina anchor at PBS, the first Latina to anchor “Frontline”. I’ve encountered the “first” a lot. It’s something that has been very real for me. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times when people said things to me that really just like furrowed my brow, and say “What did this person just say to me?”. But I didn’t let it stop me, is what I’m saying. I didn’t let it stop me.
AD: If you would do anything differently in your career, what would you do?
MH: I don’t think I would change anything. I’m glad I didn’t get stuck in one network forever and then all of a sudden lose my job. That would’ve been really, really hard. So I feel like I’ve had a highly engaged and dynamic career. And that has lead me to be more successful and flexible with change and the future.
AD: What advice would you give to young Latino journalists?
MH: Understanding why you are a journalist is core. For me, it was understanding that there was a whole entire, in this case, United States of America that was invisible and I wanted to tell those stories. For other people, there may be other core missions, but you really need to understand what that is. By the way, it didn’t become clear to me until my late twenties, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it quickly. It’s absolutely a process. I think understanding why you’re doing this is the best advice, because if you maintain that you’re always going to be finding some challenge. Its going to be difficult to fight for your ideas and you might be frustrated a lot of the time. You need to be prepared for the fight and the long haul. I would convince myself I knew what the hell I was talking about and that the ideas I had were wicked smart and super important and I would force myself to carry myself in the world like that.