How El Tecolote Flooded the Mission’s Media Desert

May 8, 2019
Three people getting stacks of newspapers out of vehicle

By Nuala Sawyer

Every two weeks 10,000 copies of the city’s largest free, bilingual newspaper hit the streets of San Francisco, providing vital news and insights for a population left out of mainstream coverage.

San Francisco has had its fair share of media closures and launches in the past few decades. The Bay Guardian shuttered in 2014, around the same time that neighborhood news site Hoodline launched. The Bold Italic and SFist both shut down, got bought, and then reopened. But throughout all the ups and downs of the city’s media landscape, one paper has been pumping out issues every two weeks since 1970. El Tecolote is the longest-running English and Spanish newspaper in the state of California, and it’s going strong. It’s not a small operation, either: Twice a month, 10,000 free papers are distributed along its carefully curated route.

Its history is based in revolution. In 1968, S.F. State students went on strike for months, protesting a Eurocentric curriculum and demanding a proper ethnic studies department that honored the histories of people of color. They eventually won, but the energy to lift up the voices and issues that mattered to their communities was still raging long after — and one teacher saw its potential.

“The joke was that the ink on his teaching credential wasn’t even dry yet,” El Tecolote Editor in Chief Alexis Terrazas says of Juan Gonzales, a young S.F. State professor who, with a group of students, helped launch the paper.

In the 1960s the Mission was a news desert — and what little coverage there was by citywide papers tended to be sensationalized. Reporters parachuted in to cover murders and gang violence, but never stuck around to hear from the community about what issues mattered most to them. El Tecolote — which was bilingual from the get-go — has changed that.

“We have to have representation in newsrooms. There’s not just two sides, there are multiple sides to a story,” Terrazas says. “You’re not going to get all of those angles if you don’t have community media like this, if you don’t have journalists from these communities.”

It’s an honest vision, one that other neighborhood-specific blogs around the city replicate. But while many of those eventually fizzle out, El Tecolote is thriving, possibly because it’s almost entirely community-run. Terrazas is full-time, but all the writers, photographers and translators are volunteers. Today, a steady stream of avid readers offers their support, but it wasn’t always that way.

“When I started here in 2014, the pool was really small,” Terrazas says. “It was not uncommon for me, as the editor-in-chief, to write three to four stories an issue, which was exhausting.”

But a fateful collaboration with Jon Funabiki’s journalism class at S.F. State, where the paper was born, has over time become integral to the paper’s production. Students in the program have an opportunity to work for El Tecolote and learn how a community paper works from the inside out.

In the beginning, “it was rough,” Terrazas laughs. “Definitely a learning experience. But last semester, it was really awesome.”

San Francisco has had its fair share of media closures and launches in the past few decades. The Bay Guardian shuttered in 2014, around the same time that neighborhood news site Hoodline launched. The Bold Italic and SFist both shut down, got bought, and then reopened. But throughout all the ups and downs of the city’s media landscape, one paper has been pumping out issues every two weeks since 1970. El Tecolote is the longest-running English and Spanish newspaper in the state of California, and it’s going strong. It’s not a small operation, either: Twice a month, 10,000 free papers are distributed along its carefully curated route.

Its history is based in revolution. In 1968, S.F. State students went on strike for months, protesting a Eurocentric curriculum and demanding a proper ethnic studies department that honored the histories of people of color. They eventually won, but the energy to lift up the voices and issues that mattered to their communities was still raging long after — and one teacher saw its potential.

“The joke was that the ink on his teaching credential wasn’t even dry yet,” El Tecolote Editor in Chief Alexis Terrazas says of Juan Gonzales, a young S.F. State professor who, with a group of students, helped launch the paper.

In the 1960s the Mission was a news desert — and what little coverage there was by citywide papers tended to be sensationalized. Reporters parachuted in to cover murders and gang violence, but never stuck around to hear from the community about what issues mattered most to them. El Tecolote — which was bilingual from the get-go — has changed that.

“We have to have representation in newsrooms. There’s not just two sides, there are multiple sides to a story,” Terrazas says. “You’re not going to get all of those angles if you don’t have community media like this, if you don’t have journalists from these communities.”

It’s an honest vision, one that other neighborhood-specific blogs around the city replicate. But while many of those eventually fizzle out, El Tecolote is thriving, possibly because it’s almost entirely community-run. Terrazas is full-time, but all the writers, photographers and translators are volunteers. Today, a steady stream of avid readers offers their support, but it wasn’t always that way.

“When I started here in 2014, the pool was really small,” Terrazas says. “It was not uncommon for me, as the editor-in-chief, to write three to four stories an issue, which was exhausting.”

But a fateful collaboration with Jon Funabiki’s journalism class at S.F. State, where the paper was born, has over time become integral to the paper’s production. Students in the program have an opportunity to work for El Tecolote and learn how a community paper works from the inside out.

In the beginning, “it was rough,” Terrazas laughs. “Definitely a learning experience. But last semester, it was really awesome.”

Image: Johnny Garcia (left), Alexis Terrazas (center), and Jose Martinez load El Tecolote newspapers into a car for its biweekly delivery in San Francisco. (Photo by Julio Marcial)

View the story on SF Weekly