EL PASO, TEXAS — Borderzine.com director Zita Arocha founded the site at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with two goals. “One is to tell the unreported stories of the [U.S.-Mexico] border region, which mainstream media doesn’t do very well,” says Arocha, a senior lecturer in journalism at UTEP. The second is to create “a pipeline” into the journalism profession for young Latinos who have grown up on the border–“to give them a leg up so that they can move into media positions throughout the country, and help create some diversity within news media.”
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Operating under the Spanglish tagline “Journalism across fronteras” (fronteras means “borders”), the website publishes a new batch of student journalism once a week. Coverage concentrates on Latino issues and items about life on the border, featuring hard news and pieces on on politics, health, and culture.
Each semester, a fresh batch of fifteen to twenty student reporters join the site as part of the Applied Interactive Magazine course, which is required for the journalism major. The course is focused entirely on producing news for Borderzine, though the site’s content also comes from students in other courses and majors; additional content comes from students at other universities.
About 80 percent of UTEP’s 22,600 students are Hispanic, many from working class families. Arocha sees Borderzine as a “tremendous learning opportunity” for her students, whom she often affectionately refers to as “the kids.”
“Many of these kids were the very first ones in their families ever to go to college,” she explains. “The raw talent was there. It just needed to be nurtured and developed.”
UTEP journalism senior lecturer David Smith-Soto teaches the course. He also happens to be Arocha’s husband; the two met twenty years ago while working for the Miami Herald. Smith-Soto serves as Borderzine’s editor.
The Borderzine class is offered exclusively as an advanced course for undergrads. By the time they enroll in the course, they’ve had some previous experience in news writing, video, and photography. Smith-Soto works closely with each student, and most stories go through two or three drafts before they get posted. Each semester he appoints a student as city editor; that student is responsible for helping Smith-Soto assign stories, follow up with reporters, and enforce deadlines.
Arocha joined UTEP about ten years ago after four years as executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She arrived with the mission of training Hispanic journalists, but thought UTEP’s journalism program was “kind of old-fashioned” with its emphasis on print and TV.
Shortly after arriving at the university, Arocha launched Journalism in July, a workshop in which UTEP journalism students mentor about twenty high-school students from El Paso and Juarez. Funded by Dow Jones, the workshop is now in its ninth year.
Borderzine itself began around the same time, with a $15,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation. Arocha planned the online magazine with input from students and professors, including Thomas E. Ruggiero, a faculty member with similar ideas about educating journalists for the online world. The project caught the eye of the Knight Foundation, which awarded a grant of $430,000 to build and launch the site. In addition, UTEP contributed about $150,000 worth of office space, salaries, computer-lab facilities, and other resources.
Borderzine.com went live in 2008, concentrating then and now on news and feature stories. Recent stories include a piece on the impact of drugs, drought, and deforestation on the Tarahumara tribe of the Sierra Madre; coverage of a performance piece on the history and culture of the zoot suit; and a report on protests by students and Occupy El Paso over tuition costs, unemployment, and student debt.
Webmaster Lourdes Cueva Chacón designed the prototype of Borderzine and is now a UTEP faculty member. Arocha says traffic varies between 10,000 and 18,000 unique visitors per month, and adds that readership peaked with the posting last summer of “Mexodus,” a bilingual series documenting the migration of border Mexicans due to drug-related violence, either to the U.S. or to more peaceful places in Mexico. Contributors included student reporters from UTEP, Cal State Northridge, and universities in Chihuahua and Mexico City. The series was also printed in the El Paso Times and reposted on several Hispanic-centered web sites. Arocha continues to partner with other schools to get Hispanic students publishing stories on Borderzine. About a dozen schools now participate.
“Borderzine is more than a course,” Arocha emphasizes. “It’s a project to train and move young Latino journalists from the classroom to the newsroom. Our vision is that it become a national model that others can emulate…. Borderzine would like to provide training assistance to journalism classes or programs at schools with large percentages of Latino students.”
She strongly encourages students to pursue internships at news organizations, and notes that so far Borderzine alums have done internships at major papers in Washington, Boston, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, and other places. “For a lot of these kids it’s the very first time that they ever leave the border.”
The Knight grant has helped to fund paid internships, transportation for interns, administrative support, and computer hardware and software. It expired last summer, so Arocha is now looking for more funding. Smith-Soto adds that UTEP’s commitment to Borderzine continues to give life to the project. Changing the curriculum to include the site is “not an easy thing to do in academia,” he says. He and Arocha recently met with business-school faculty members to talk about raising advertising money.
University rules prevent Smith-Soto from sending student reporters into Mexico, but many commute from Juarez, and are able to report from there if they choose. Arocha says she sees El Paso as “one of the most fascinating border towns in the country, if not the world, frankly. The drug war, immigration, customs, NAFTA … the amount of stuff that happens there is just unbelievable.” Life on the border is a “unique reality,” she says. “You’re in between things all the time.”
“It’s a big news town,” Smith-Soto adds.
City: El Paso