AUSTIN, Texas – Univision, the No. 1 network for the fast-growing Hispanic community in the United States, has a very different approach to English-language media giants when it comes to earning the trust of viewers.
This became clear during a discussion between Isaac Lee, Univision’s president of news, and Jay Rosen, a teacher of journalism at New York University, at the 2015 International Symposium of Online Journalism, held April 17-19 at UT-Austin.
Rosen asked this question of Lee: “Most of the mainstream media organizations in the U.S. would say we are trusted because we are not anyone’s champion. We are trusted because we just present the news. We don’t support this group or that group. We are not partial. You obviously have a different view of trust. So, what is Univision’s theory of trust?”
Lee responded: “It is not a position without controversy. When people see Jorge Ramos interviewing someone they know, Univision’s audience knows that Jorge is representing them. That he is not asking the questions to be celebrated as a fair and balanced journalist. He is asking the questions to represent them. He is going to ask the person whatever is necessary to push the agenda for a more fair society, for a more inclusive society and for the Hispanic community to be better.”
Lee said Univision is pro-Hispanic.
“We want our community to have a better life because we believe that if the Hispanic population, with the growth that you see today… if that community is well-educated, has access to healthcare, embraces technology, the future of America will be better and vice versa. If you White people in this country do not understand that the education and the advancement of the Hispanic community will end up affecting the GDP of the country, you have a problem.”
Rosen said journalism is about truth-telling. Lee responded “yes.” Rosen then said: “You said you are the champion of the Hispanic community. You actually have a cause you are trying to achieve to make sure this group is part of American society and to change attitudes about it. So what happens when Univision has to tell a hard truth to this community and what is involved in that?”
Lee answered: “We do. If you are an American journalist covering the Second World War, it is not a problem for you to want the Nazis to lose. I do not think you need to be saying, well, the Allied Expeditionary Force commander says this and on the other hand the Fuhrer said that. I think it is okay sometimes to be on the right side of the issues in history. That does not mean that if as a journalist you see the Allied Expeditionary Force committing crimes against humanity you will not denounce them. That is your job as a journalist.”
Lee pointed out that Univision has 80 percent of the Spanish-language TV market and pulls in $3 billion in advertising. He said this has allowed Univision to expand its operations and take risks, to go beyond just airing hugely popular, Mexican-produced, telenovelas and to start investing in top quality news reporting, investigative journalism, and documentaries.
Univision has joined forces with ABC to launch Fusion, a multi-platform media company to serve a younger, diverse population with a mix of pop culture, news and satire. Lee is CEO of Fusion.
Rosen asked Lee how Univision and ABC could work together on Fusion when they have different approaches to delivering news. “The people at ABC News with whom you are partnering at Fusion don’t believe in being the champion of anything. I know because I have asked them. So, how does that partnership work if you believe in being the champion of the Hispanic community in the United States?” Rosen said.
“Respect,” Lee answered. “But they don’t respect that,” Rosen replied. “They respect us. They respect our approach and we respect theirs,” Lee answered. “That does not answer my question,” Rosen said. “Why not? One is ABC News and a very completely different thing is Univision. And a different one is Fusion. Fusion’s mission statement is to champion a smart, diverse, multi-cultural America. And that is it.”
“And ABC says, yes, we are fine with that, we are champions of a multi-cultural America?” Rosen asked. “ABC says whatever it wants to say for themselves,” Lee responded. “Sort of like Iran and the United States? You have your interpretation, we have our interpretation?” Rosen asked. “No,” said Lee. “It is like when you and your wife decide to have a kid. It is not either you or her it is him or her and she has her own identity and you cannot pretend for her with your life or your wife’s life.”
A reporter asked Lee what he thought of a recent column by political pundit Ruben Navarrette that basically argued that Univision was in the tank for the Democrats and that is why Republicans will not agree to Univision running a presidential debate, Lee would only say that Navarrette was entitled to his opinion.
Lee’s speech at the ISOJ conference was titled “Engaging New Audiences: Hispanics and Millennials.” He started his remarks by pointing out that Univision had very different news values to the big mainstream news operators in the U.S. By way of example he said that while mainstream news operations may have made the Ebola scare their top story of 2014, Univision focused in depth on the surge of undocumented immigrant children that came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, up through Mexico and across the southwest border into the United States.
Lee said that for the briefest of moments U.S. politicians and the mainstream media paid attention to this huge immigration story. Univision, he said, stayed on it all year. “For us at Univision it was not about the mid-terms, it was not about the borders, it was about the kids. For our audience at Univision, this wasn’t abstract. It wasn’t part of a debate in Washington. It was our most important story.
“Do you think there is something more relatable than the children of your friends, of your family, of your neighbors being stranded at the border without any assistance? Do you think there is anything more relatable than a human crisis like this one? There isn’t.”
Lee then asked the audience why Univision has been successful, why has it earned the trust of its large audience. “It is because we are trying to help them find a meaningful place in society. Because we champion their cause, with no shame,” Lee said. “It is a lot easier to champion anything when you have Jorge Ramos as your White Knight. He makes my job so easy. You talk about trust, you talk about Jorge Ramos.”
Lee pointed out that during the 2012 presidential campaign Univision was not invited to participate in the televised debates. “We were not white enough, so we did our own presidential forum,” Lee said. “Jorge asked the most relevant questions.” Lee said the mainstream media paid attention when Ramos asked President Obama about keeping his promise to the Hispanic community.
In addition to focusing on investigative journalism and documentaries, Lee said, Univision is also investing heavily in local TV. “The contact with our communities happens every day at our local news stations. In Los Angeles, KMEX is No. 1 station in the nation, regardless of language, period,” Lee said.
Lee said the relationship the audience has with Univision is very different to most networks. “They call our newsroom to ask which school they should send their kids to, which doctor we can recommend. It is a huge responsibility to know there is that level of trust.”
Lee said he joined Univision around the time of the 2010 Census. He joked that that was when “everyone woke up and decided that there are a lot of Hispanics living in America” and that “we (Hispanics) are a force to be reckoned with.”
Lee said the 2010 Census was a great reason to think about the future, to think about a diverse America and to partner with the most important media company in the world. He was referring to Walt Disney, owner of ABC. “Fusion is a bet to stay ahead of the curve. It is a bet to have the ability to experiment, to create a real digital first,” Lee said. In other words, he said it was a means to working in a different environment with different responsibilities without being a slave to TV ratings.
Lee then went back to census analysis. He said that in the U.S. as a whole, a majority of children entering K-12 schools are non-White. He said when he was born in 1971, 87 percent of the U.S. was White. Now, it is close to being majority minority. “It is a huge tectonic demographic shift,” he said.
“While other networks are declining in ratings we are seeing growth. Our newscasts are being watched more than ever. Univision was the No. 1 network in the July sweeps of last year and No. 1 of the July sweeps the year before. We are happy with that,” Lee said.
Lee said the growth in the use of mobile digital devices is “staggering.” He predicted that wearable digital devices would also be big. “Get at ease with the fact that apps such as Facebook or Snapshot are going to be where people will prefer to look at their news, instead of logging onto clunky websites.” He predicted that Facebook’s newest features will put the final nail in the coffin for websites being the place people visit and stay. “It is over. If we are not prepared to go and search for the audience wherever they live we will lose. For us, as content creators, it is up to us to win that fight.”
Lee said the advent of Fusion came about after a lot of research and an acknowledgement that a different approach was needed to reach out to the millennial generation. He said Fusion has four main pillars, humor, journey, context and conjones. “If we are not willing to be bold, if we are not willing to challenge orthodoxies, get out of the game.” He said Univision’s aim is to “champion” a diverse and inclusive America.
“When we talk about the great divide in this country, some people think it is because we do not get along between Republicans and Democrats, black or white, gays or straight. The truth is that the divide in this country is between those who are confident about being in a room with other people who are different than them and the ones who are not. And Fusion’s mission is to end that divide, to produce irresistible content for a new, diverse, generation that doesn’t identify people with labels. It sounds crazy that it is possible but that is was we will do.”
Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this story Jay Rosen and Isaac Lee are pictured at the 2015 International Symposium on Online Journalism.