Helen Ubinas

359. Reporter uses pop-up newsrooms to amplify Philly’s unheard voices

Many a wide-eyed, hungry young journalist vows to do her best to amplify the voice of the unheard and shine a light on those hidden in the shadows of the community she covers.

“That’s very much evolved in my thinking as a journalist,” says Helen Ubiñas, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. “Everyone has a voice. We have chosen whose voices we hear, whose voices we don’t, whose voices we validate and whose voices we don’t.”

Growing up in the Bronx before starting her career in Connecticut, Ubiñas lived in some of those “unseen” neighborhoods and spent years talking with those “unseen” people. “I think I had a voice when I was younger that wasn’t always heard. That very much drives my journalism and … the stories I tell.”

During a Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) last summer, she was introduced to the concept of a pop-up newsroom. She might’ve been in the workshop, or on a hike, or in another session, she’s not entirely sure, but the idea was one that got her thinking.

Ubiñas is something of an old-school reporter: “You will not find me at my desk. I’m not a big fan of doing interviews on my phone. I like meeting people one-on-one,” she says. “I like the idea of meeting people where they are, where they live, where they attend an event. Talking to them about stories, maybe their stories, but also introducing myself, reintroducing journalists that cover their city to them. I ask them where they get their news, who do you like to read, what kind of story do you like to read, what isn’t being covered that should be.”

Armed with the idea of creating an impromptu newsroom, she piggybacked with a school in South Philly that was having an event. She brought reporter’s notebooks for the kids, chocolates and pens branded with her Twitter handle, and set up a table.

“I listened to parents tell me about their lives as immigrants in Philly, some documented, some not. What it’s like to have their child serve as a translator as they’re learning the language,” Ubiñas says. “The parents weren’t sure what to make of me. They were a little leery, what is this woman doing, why is she asking so many questions.”

But it was an opportunity to find those voices and hear those stories, ones not necessarily ignored but ones that aren’t always told on a smaller scale.

Ubiñas also found the inspiration for another column at the same event: the woman standing next to her was a local photographer. They struck up a conversation and, it turns out, she’d just returned from the U.S.-Mexico border where she’d been covering the migrant caravan.

“Maybe I would’ve met her. She was local, it wasn’t like she had an agent or a press person,” Ubiñas says. “I happened to be standing there. We were chit-chatting. That turned into another column. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that column if I wasn’t there.”  

Helen Ubiñas, a columnist and reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, joins producer Michael O’Connell to share the joy of showing up at events to talk with people about journalism and the importance of knowing your audience — and bringing chocolate.

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