Media And Publishing Are Still So White — And Shea Serrano Is Joining The Fight To Change That

'It would make such a difference if more often, stories were allowed to be written through the eyeballs of people who know the place'

The current state of journalism, and publishing as a whole, is dire almost everywhere you look. According to Business Insider, 7,800 people in journalism lost their jobs due to layoffs and cuts in 2019 — and that’s after several brutal years of similar job losses. That narrowing opportunity pool can often feel compounded by other factors, especially for those belonging to minority groups: The American Society of News Editors found that most of the biggest newsrooms in the United States still have more male employees than female employees, and the Pew Research Center notes that newsrooms nationwide are still overwhelmingly white. (Numbers are even lower for local media.) And a report from Publisher’s Weekly found that only 5 percent of jobs in publishing are held by people of Asian descent; that number shrinks to an even more dismal 3 percent and 2 percent for Latinx and Black people, respectively (there was no specific data available for Indigenous peoples).

While the democratization of blogs, social media accounts, and self-published work has helped plenty of people carve their own paths, such opportunities don’t necessarily pay the bills. It’s easy to feel demoralized — a study by the University of El Paso and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists found that 22 percent of Latinx journalists said they are considering a career switch. Such low points further underscore the need for organizations that advocate for and support people who are struggling to survive while carving a space for themselves, their cultures, and their stories in an overwhelmingly hostile media landscape.

Enter Shea Serrano, a San Antonio-based writer whose most recent book, Movies (and Other Things), debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. On Tuesday (December 17), he announced that he and the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists (SAAHJ) were teaming up to establish a scholarship spanning four years; each year, they’ll award $5,000 to a Latinx person at the start of their journalism or publishing career. “It doesn't matter what year of school you're in or what school you go to or want to go to,” he tweeted. “I don't even care about your GPA. I wanna see some young writers who look like me get a shot too.”

During a recent phone conversation, Serrano reflected on the genesis of his scholarship, the power of paying it forward, and what it means to read work by people whose lived experiences uniquely inform their writing and reporting.

MTV News: How did the scholarship with the SAAHJ come about?

Shea Serrano: The SAAHJ, they reached out to me. Krista [Torralva, the organization’s secretary] wanted to do a Q&A with me for an event, so I said, "Alright, sign me up. We'll do it after the book stuff slows down." I met most of the leadership for the organization and I could see how eager they were to just do some cool stuff.

When you meet a group of people who are like that, that's really beneficial. But it's also really convenient because I knew after talking to them for 10 minutes, I could just be like, "Hey, I'm just going to give you all some money and you all do something with it." I’ve wanted to do some sort of scholarship for a while, and I knew they were going to get everything done. And then I saw the Publisher's Weekly story that confirmed all these feelings about what publishing looks like. Krista told me that the numbers in journalism look almost identical. I talked to Larami [Serrano, his wife] about it, and she gives me her advice and points me in the direction I need to go. And then there you go.

MTV News: Was there any other benefit that you saw in going with a more local organization rather than a national one?

Serrano: Them being local also means their reach is, too. You reach as far as your arms can go. So most of the kids whose stuff we’ll see are going to be from San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, this area, before other places. Smaller organizations are so resourceful and they're ready to do all of the little, sucky stuff that needs to get done.

MTV News: Were there ever any organizations you worked with, or any opportunities like this when you were starting out as a writer, which you wanted to pay forward in any way?

Serrano: I didn't know that any of these places even existed until recently. They had the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference here in San Antonio this year — that was the first time that I'd ever even known about it, and I met a bunch of people there. It was a bunch of young talent, who were just starting out or heading in that direction. You just start seeing that more and more and feeling very good about things.

MTV News: What was it like to realize that the numbers of Latinx people in publishing and in journalism — as well as every other minority group relative to a white majority — are just so small?

Serrano: It sucks. It just straight up sucks. I don't have a nuanced answer. I just see the numbers and I'm like, "Dang, this is the worst. It would be cool if it wasn't this way." There are very few times where I'm doing an interview with somebody and it's somebody like you on the other end of the phone. And it'd be cool if it wasn't like that all the time.

If I get on the phone with Danette Chavez from AV Club, and we're talking about the Selena movie, there's just some stuff I don't have to say and she knows it and I know it. Or if I'm doing a podcast with José Olivarez, there's just some stuff that we sort of understand implicitly. And number one, that just feels good. But number two, that will inform all of the conversations you're allowed to have so you don't have to have this beginner dialogue first. And if you've got 12 minutes with somebody, you can get straight into it, and that's pretty great.

MTV News: What does that kind of lack of representation do to people who want to write, and be in publishing or journalism, but think there's no room for them in this or a similar industry?

Shea Serrano: I think it does exactly that. I think it makes you feel like you don't belong there, and there's not a spot for you. Worse than that, there's not a need for you. Because if there was, wouldn't it be filled? If I needed a breath, I would take a breath. I don't see people with last names that end in a vowel or an S or a Z often enough. Then it just feels like, Well, I guess we don't need to be part of this conversation.

MTV News: What do you think American journalism in particular has lost out by not including Latinx voices as part of the norm? 

Serrano: I think you miss out on a lot of nuance, and a lot of the texture or richness that could otherwise be in a story that you wouldn't see. This is a tragic example to give, but we saw it with the El Paso shooting. You could tell the difference between somebody who was from from El Paso or a place that looked like El Paso, versus somebody who didn't or who wasn't. It would make such a difference if more often, stories were allowed to be written through the eyeballs of people who know the place.

MTV News: On that point, minority writers can often feel like there's an expectation that we'll maintain a given beat for our identity and our culture, or that if we don’t write about our own, someone else from the outside is going to try — and they might get things wrong. Do you have thoughts on how scholarships like this might be able to help broaden the playing field regarding what we can and should write about?

Serrano: I get when Coco comes out and everybody is like, "Oh, we need a Latinx writer for this." I get the impulse there, but that should happen we watch other movies as well. It would be cool to read Monica Castillo on whatever new movie. She interpreted Joker differently than somebody else did. And I think it just works better when you have those voices are not relegated to only those topics.

Especially when you're first starting out, you're just trying to figure out a way into the game. So what are you supposed to be writing about? If you're comfortable in one space, absolutely do it. But I just hope that you don't feel you have to stay there. White people have been writing about our stuff forever. You can write about their stuff. You like Radiohead? Write about Radiohead. Who cares?

MTV News: Your career has been so varied. How do you advocate for working through what you're interested in?

Serrano: I don't think Bill Simmons gets enough credit for this: When he brought me in at Grantland first and then now at the Ringer, he's always very much like, "I just want you to write about the stuff that you care about. And if you do that, then you're usually going to do a better job than if you are writing about stuff that you didn't care about." So he lets me write about a basketball game, or a song that I like, or a rom-com starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. He has never put that sort of expectation or burden on me. I think that if you can end up with bosses who operate the way that he does, it's greatly, greatly helpful.

White people have been writing about our stuff forever. You can write about their stuff. You like Radiohead? Write about Radiohead. Who cares?

MTV News: The scholarship is also coming at a time when journalism as a whole is basically in free-fall. Why do you think journalism is vital these days and why should we continue to fight even though the battle just seems so insurmountable?

Serrano: I think that there are a couple of different answers here because there are several different forms of journalism. You have service-oriented stuff that's really important right now. Obed Manuel from the Dallas Morning News is doing really great work, writing about DACA. That's where I get my information from — you need him in that spot. But also we should have some people who want to write about Star Wars. I think you just need people thinking in every way and writing in every way. It makes things more interesting.

I think more than anything, people are going to write about something or talk about things in a way that I have just not anticipated at all. I think that's the most exciting part of it. Somebody new is going to show up and do these new interesting things and I just can't anticipate what those will be, but I know that they're going to be good or exciting. At the very least, they’re going to get a shot.

MTV News: The book you wrote with illustrator Arturo Torres, Movies (And Other Things), debuted at number one — and it wasn’t the first number one for you and Torres, either. What was it like to see that happen, and at any point did you realize that you might also be inspiring other people that they could do it, too?

Serrano: That's the main thing that I hope happens. I think if anytime somebody experiences any level of success, it doesn't matter how big or small it is, there are two different ways to reflect it back out into the world. You're either going to be like, "Isn't this great? Doesn't just mean that I'm great and better than everyone else?" Or are you going to be like, "Isn't this great? Because this means if I was able to figure this out, mostly everybody else can too."

I didn't get very good grades in school. I was not the best student. I didn't go to any sort of journalism through any sort of journalism program. We just figured it out. Me and Arturo figured it out, or we're in the process of figuring it out.

More and more often I'm hearing people saying, "Oh, I would like to write a book." Somebody tweeted me today about how he wanted to be a writer when he was younger but never got around to it. But now his son is 10 years old and writing and he's just like, "Oh, you can actually go do this." Those little things are cool and I would never say that I'm responsible for any of this stuff. I'd be like, "Nah, that's on everybody else." But it does make me feel good too to hear it nonetheless.

MTV News: What drives you to continue to pay that forward?

Serrano: Well, what's the other option? The option is to not do that, which just seems like a crappy way to be. If you have the chance to help out a little bit, it's not that much work. It's not that hard to send some tweets or collect some money or write a check. Nobody's asking me to go outside and mow the lawn. If I have to choose between doing it or not doing it, I'll do it.