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Bringing diverse coverage into the heartland

Bobby Calvan
(Note from the editor: Minorities have long advocated for more coverage of their communities. The Heartland Project is an attempt to bring that coverage to the heartland. Bobby Calvan, lead reporter of the project, agreed to answer a few questions via email)


What is the Heartland project?


The Heartland Project is a bold experiment to increase news coverage of communities that seldom get attention from mainstream news media – including Asian Americans, Latinos, blacks, Native Americans, and the LGBT communities.


The project is based in Nebraska – deep in the country’s heartland – and is a partnership among the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Funding comes from the generosity of the Ford Foundation.


I’m the lead reporter on the project. Over the course of the project, I will be partnering with newsrooms across Nebraska to identify and produce stories on communities of color and on gay and lesbian issues. I will also be coaching reporters, sometimes teaming with them on stories. I will also be serving as a guest lecturer at the university and be working with students on multimedia projects.


Why is this so important? Is there really an Asian American or gay community in the heartland?


Increasing coverage of minority communities is important for a host of reasons. Two come to mind especially – community service and the industry’s economic survival.


Journalism is a community service that shines a mirror back on the people it is supposed to serve. In that mission, it needs to reflect the community in its entirety – not just a certain segment.


There are growing communities of color across Nebraska. In the past 15 years, the Hispanic population has nearly doubled, and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have grown by about 70 percent, according the U.S. Census Bureau.


That growth is an opportunity for news media companies. News companies are for-profit companies, too. With increasing worry that the industry is losing its traditional audience, it would behoove the industry to attempt to expand its audience to some of the country’s largest ethnic groups. It’s good for circulation and good for advertisers who want to attract more eyes to their ads.


But these growing populations won’t pick up the paper or tune into broadcasts if there is nothing that interests them.


Where will your work be published?


The intent of the project is to collaborate with Nebraska’s news outlets – in newspapers, broadcast stations and online. Some of the project’s work will be distributed through the university’s news services, which serves many of the state’s smaller newspapers.


But we will also partner with national outlets.


What type of stories are you hoping to find?


We are looking to do a range of stories – from investigative pieces, to human-interest narratives.


As for subject matter, nothing is off limits.


Many of the stories, however, will revolve around four key topics: Immigration, economic recovery, health care and domestic violence.


We will look at a wide range of stories – from politics to sports, from health care to agriculture – but do it through the lens of diversity.


I know it’s early, but what type of reaction are you getting from your readers?


A project on high school proms that we produced for the Lincoln Journal Star, the state’s second-largest daily, was well received. The story looked at Lincoln’s growing diversity by looking at the shifting demographics of schools. The high school prom was used as a peg to profile students from different backgrounds.


Of course, there are probably some folks out there who don’t grasp the intent of the project, and perhaps never will.


In fact, one online reader of the prom story used the story to criticized teachers at one school for allegedly showing favoritism toward a certain group of students by dipping into their own pockets to buy prom tickets and help these kids, most of whom would not otherwise be able to experience prom, obtain gowns and tuxedos.


For those who’ve never been to or lived in the heartland. What’s it like for an Asian American?


I arrived in Nebraska without any connection to the state. I have no family here. I arrived knowing only one other Asian American in Lincoln – an AAJA colleague working for the CBS affiliate. (I have friends who grew up in Nebraska or attended college in the Cornhusker State.)


There are a lot of Asian Americans in Nebraska. The state has absorbed a lot of refugees over the years, including thousands from Vietnam and Burma. There are robust communities of immigrants.


As an immigrant myself – I was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States with my parents when I was 4 years old – I understand the challenges faced by many immigrants of Asian descent, especially the thousands of refugees uprooted from their countries and starting new lives in this country.


I’ve been in Nebraska for just a couple of months and live in the state’s capital of Lincoln. In truth, the place is no different than many parts of the country. Certainly, there aren’t as many Asian faces here compared to, say, the San Francisco Bay Area. But I don’t feel alone or isolated.


How much freedom do you have to choose your own stories?


I have all the freedom I need. I don’t have an editor assigning me stories. Certainly, there are colleagues at the university who suggest stories and serve as resources for me in developing story ideas.


As a seasoned reporter who has covered lots of stories, big and small, I rely on my own news sense to determine which stories to pursue. I’ve been in the business for a quarter century and worked in some of the country’s largest and best newsrooms; it’s my job to discover the untold stories of Nebraska.


I have an editor who serves more as a copy editor and who, as a longtime Nebraska resident, guides me when necessary.


The folks who put me in this job trust my instincts, and the have faith that I will deliver on the central mission of the project.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?


I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest the project has gotten from editors across Nebraska. Most concede they haven’t been able to do as much as they should.


Some of the problem is with staffing. Newsrooms can’t afford to hire huge staffs and devote a reporter to diversity reporting. (I tell them that every reporter should work hard to reflect the diversity of their communities, and that responsibility should not fall on just one reporter but should extend across beats.)


Another problem is the lack of diversity in newsrooms. Let’s face it — we’re more comfortable writing about what we know. Some reporters have conceded that they don’t venture outside their comfort zones because they are afraid to do so, or lack the familiarity with other cultures or communities. (I say take the risk. Expand your own personal zones. Visit neighborhoods you seldom visit. Shop at an Asian market, for example. Travel abroad. Do whatever you can to expand your own horizons. You’ll be a better and more cultured person for it, and it could help in how you view your role as a journalist.)


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