The Media Today

Q&A: The Haitian Times

Gary Pierre-Pierre and Vania Andre on swimming against the tide of local news

March 6, 2024
Alex Proimos/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

For anyone in the media business, a number of things have become so constant as to be inevitable. The every-other-week announcement of the compression (LA Times, layoff of 100+ people) or capitulation (The Messenger closes operations) of a media newsroom, because of and to market forces. Former employees extending well-wishes to now-former colleagues on X and assuring any potential employers on the timeline to hire them before someone else beats them to it. Then the op-eds, analyses warning of an impending extinction-level media event, whose arguments are held up by truly dire statistics: Between 2005 and 2024, roughly three thousand newspapers in the US have closed. Forty thousand staffers have lost jobs within the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Local papers usually better trusted by the reading public are in especially dire straits—on the extinction part—leading a coalition of philanthropic foundations to rally $500 million to find solutions.

In the midst of all this, some papers are enduring, even—their editors might protest this characterization—thriving. Enter the Haitian Times, a print and digital newspaper catering to Haitian immigrants and their descendants in the United States and beyond—otherwise known by media trades or other newspapers as a “diaspora paper”—which has done such a good job of listening to, understanding, acting upon, and even foreseeing what its audience wants that it is now expanding to cities in the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, and Europe: “essentially everywhere there are Haitians,” according to Vania Andre, the paper’s chief technology officer.

I spoke with Andre and with Haitian Times founder Gary Pierre-Pierre on how the paper is overcoming predominant media market trends against very significant odds to produce at a capacity that belies its size. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You are growing against the tide of American media right now: you are sustainable, you are expanding. How or why do you think you’re thriving amid the media apocalypse?

Pierre-Pierre: We still have our challenges, like everybody else. Yes, we are doing well. We are growing. But we’re scrappy. We use freelancers quite a bit. We are going to implement AI as part of our regular work to make sure that we can produce more to give the audience more than we are able to do right now. We don’t waste money. Sincerely, we don’t waste money. I mean, we take—you know, for instance, we got a ten-thousand-dollar grant from the Pulitzer Center. We give them forty thousand dollars’ worth of work. Because we’re able to make a lot of personal sacrifices. An editor is working way too much to deliver what we do. So that’s how foundations…when they give us a grant, we overdeliver on what we do.

Andre: We’re growing, but we have always been a very lean outfit from the beginning. And I think that has led to our longevity and sustainability. You know, when I think about the core Haitian Times team, it’s really an excellent example of when my passion meets purpose, because I can say this wholeheartedly: that every single one of us, we’re doing this not only for financial gain but because this is our service to our community. No one is going to be able to tell our story better than us. And that is something that’s very important to our community because, for decades, we have been a part of a media narrative that has very much pigeonholed what the Haitian experience looks like in Haiti and what the diaspora looks like. So that’s the first thing. We’re scrappy. We make a lot of sacrifices.

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We’re just following where our community is because we’re very aware that it’s not a stagnant community. We have a diaspora that is ever evolving. We have a diaspora that is multilingual now. We’re just really trying to keep up with the generation that’s to come, to make sure that their information needs are going to be serviced when they start looking for it.

Do you consider the Haitian Times a local paper, and is it so regarded, to the extent that it should attract philanthropic attention and financial interventions like other papers facing challenges right now?

Andre: When I think of local and community publications, I think there’s a tendency in the States to think of that purely [in the] geographical sense. We are local. We’re local in New York, we’re local in Miami, we’re local in Indianapolis, because those are where our local diaspora communities have grown to. In terms of how funders look at us, you know, that has been, again, kind of a back-and-forth. We’re constantly trying to get the message across that local is more than geography when it comes to diaspora communities, because what binds us all is our cultural heritage, regardless of where we are.

Pierre-Pierre: I was a bit surprised that philanthropy is challenged by this notion because diaspora papers, you know, that’s nothing new. It goes back as far as America, and that sector is alive and well. It’s there. It’s serving a population that’s ignored by everybody, mainstream or otherwise. A lot of these local papers don’t cover the community. If you look at publications like The City…it does cover communities when it intersects with the news—for instance, the fire in the Bronx. They give you a synopsis of the community, but day in and day out, it doesn’t cover communities. And so that work is still valuable. It’s not being addressed. If you look at other communities in the city, they have their own publications guiding that community. So the Haitian Times is [part of] a long tradition of immigrant press in the United States. After all, this is a country of immigrants.

So how do you convince funders? Are you making progress? Are you meeting resistance?

Pierre-Pierre: We let our work do the talking. Before we started covering Indianapolis, it was always rumors about, Oh, there are Haitians in Indianapolis, we hear there are a lot of Haitians. But now we’re showing we’re engaging with philanthropy foundations, local foundations, to say, Hey, you know, this is a community here. It’s local and we’re covering it and nobody else is. And so this is a plan. This is what we’d like to do more of. You agree that this community is growing and it needs those services because the school, the healthcare systems, are turning to the powers that be and saying, “Hey, we have a lot of Creole speakers coming into the schools and we need those issues addressed.” That means we need bilingual teachers. We need structure, support to onboard those students and to teach them accordingly. And so the Haitian Times, we are writing those stories. And so to me, if a foundation says that they are interested in supporting local [news] in Indianapolis, the Haitian Times is a local paper, because it’s the fastest-growing Haitian community in the country right now. The Ford Foundation gave us a two-year grant to explore the diaspora communities across the United States. We visited almost ten cities in the last year or so. Each city’s Haitian community is very different. We want to look at the uniqueness of each community so that we know how to cover that community. This is the sophistication, the nuance that we bring to this coverage.

You’re covering communities in different cities. While they may have their heritage in common, they presumably have different interests. How do you account for all those competing interests in your audience?

Andre: You make a great point. Their concerns are not the same. The folks in New York, what they are primarily caring about is housing insecurity. Some of it is also food insecurity. Some of it overlaps. The folks in Miami also care about housing issues, but then you go to cities like Indianapolis and some of these newer metropolises that are attracting Haitian migrants. They’re looking for resources on how to better embed themselves into the community: How do I find resources about putting my kids in school? How do I find resources about continuing education, job training, things of that sort? The way that we’re tackling that is…we embarked on a lot of audience listening and feedback. This is work that started about three, four years ago. We did audience surveys the following year to kind of find out where folks were coming from and then what type of news they were looking for. And that information actually was…a bit surprising, because although everybody really has different coverage interests, the one common thread was that they all wanted to still know what was going on in Haiti. So that really motivated us to invest in hiring talent in Haiti to make sure that we were covering the country just as much as we were covering these individual communities in the States.

What has come out of all of that is really just a suite of products that we’re thinking of [for] how to better serve folks. In one community, for example, in Atlanta, we have a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs—their need is that they really want visibility for their work. They want visibility for what they’re doing in the community. So out of that comes a directory that Gary has ideated that we’re in the process of getting funding for. So really this is where the engagement comes in. The engagement not only impacts what our products look like, but it also impacts what the editorial strategy is.

Pierre-Pierre: We are doing a pilot partnership with the Atlanta/Haitian Chamber of Commerce. That’s something that we’re going to test and then perhaps roll out similar partnerships across the country, because we’re going to need partners to help us stay in touch and be able to be in ten different places. So we need stakeholders who can guide us to what’s the story, what people are talking [about] in these neighborhoods.

Is this the first time doing these kinds of partnerships, for the paper?

Pierre-Pierre: Yes. Because this was something that was taboo in the past.


Pierre-Pierre: I mean, it was like, You don’t mingle with the community. If we’re going to be successful, we can’t have that approach.… You need to center the community. And speaking of centering the community, we’re going to do a couple of series of conversations telling them about our editorial policy. How do we come to a story? How do we choose photos? How do we choose headlines?

How do you prioritize? Obviously you’re stretched in different directions and can only do so much.

Andre: In terms of what we prioritize for editorial coverage, one thing I would say is that because you, Gary, and I are from the community—I’m second-generation Haitian American, Gary’s first-generation—our leadership, our team in part represent different generations and aspects of the Haitian American experience. That’s the first part, in the sense that I think we kind of have an innate understanding or an instinct of what we think that the community wants.

This year, the past year, folks are really going to want immigration coverage. We started putting out more immigration coverage specifically tied around the Biden parole program, resources tied around that. The first quarter of last year, our traffic almost tripled what it was in the year previous. That’s because we are in tune with the community and kind of already had that instinct, that this is something that they would want to know about, specifically the audience in Haiti. So we follow the numbers. We follow the analytics very closely, and that is really what helps inform a lot of our coverage. And then from there, we’re able to say, “Okay. We know that the folks that are finding us through Google search, they particularly read the news out of Haiti coverage.” So we elevate that more to the front page. And then we know because of the analytics that our folks that are on Instagram, on Twitter, on social [media], they really want more feature type of coverage—arts and culture, things that really show Haitian Americans’ footprint in America, either in their professional or their personal careers. And then we elevate that type of content. So it’s really like a moving target continuously, because honestly, what was driving traffic and having folks interact three months ago, it’s not what it is today. But because we’re in that constant communication, constant monitoring, we’re able to pivot as needed to make sure that we’re covering those topics that are important to them.

One challenge that all media outfits face is figuring out a sustainable revenue mix—advertising, subscriptions, etc. I imagine it gets even more complicated if your audience, predominantly immigrants, might have other immediate financial/economic concerns. How do you manage that?

Pierre-Pierre: This is a battle that we’re still fighting. I think we do better than most, to be quite honest, in terms of subscriptions.… But the other thing is, you have to diversify your revenue stream. And this is what we are getting ourselves out of, because we’ve been relying a lot on [New York] city advertising. But you know, cities, like foundations, are fickle.… Folks who are just on the philanthropy tip—I feel bad for them, because that’s a disaster in the making. I was at the Knight Media Forum last week, and the new president of the Knight Foundation, she said, “Again, this is a runway, don’t think that I’m going to be doing this forever. That’s not how it works.” Some people were pretty upset, but that’s the reality. They’re going to have to find a way to diversify revenue.

Andre: And, you know, we put a lot of thought and effort into really being creative about what that revenue pie looks like. We’ve launched a marketplace, so we have Haitian Times–branded merch. I’ve also been a big fan and followed The Guardian’s model, asking for subscriptions and donations. So we’ve had success in doing pop-up donation campaigns. For example, we did one about a year and a half ago that raised more than eight thousand dollars. And this was a very targeted donation campaign meant to support some technology needs for our team in Haiti.

You’ve previously mentioned using technology like AI to make up for limited resources. How are you doing this?

Andre: On the editorial side, what that looks like [is] a first edit. For example, have a reporter submit something, run it through [ChatGPT or Gemini] and say, “Hey, please edit this for clarity and grammar using AP Style guidelines.” Part of what I’m in the process of developing is actually creating basically like an AI style guide that we feed these bots, you know? So here’s the Haitian Times style guide.… [A] second way that we’re experimenting with AI on the editorial side is seeing what it can do with press releases, like reworking this into a Haitian Times type of article, suggesting experts that would be good to quote, and then we go and look for the experts.

There’s nothing that I’m not constantly [evaluating for] how we can use this just to help us do what we do more, because we are so small. We all have multiple commitments, and there’s literally not enough bodies to do this. So we’re able to have this presence of a bigger paper because we lean so heavily on automation and AI.

I know in the industry there’s a lot of fear about whether or not this will replace reporters’ jobs. We look at the complete opposite. Our goal is not to replace a reporter. It’s really more about the pace. Our reporter is still involved. It’s really about being able to turn out stuff in a much quicker capacity than what we would’ve been able to.

And we really relegate this to the type of stories that are quick turnarounds, because we want our reporters to spend their time working on the enterprise stuff, the community profiles, the type of stories that you can’t get off of a press release, the type of stories that it’s truly only a Haitian Times story.

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.