Ethnic Media Relations and Other Council Staffers Let Go

At former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s farewell ethnic media roundtable in December: (l. to r.) Erica Gonzalez, Juana Ponce de León and Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Right after he distributed the leadership positions of the City Council to the members with a smiling face, the new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson turned to the council staffers with a solemn face and some pink slips. At least 10 people working for the Council have been told their jobs were terminated. The team formed by former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to conduct communications with ethnic media was dismissed. A spokesperson for the Council said the layoffs are only a normal human resources rearrangement. But those who were laid off said this is a double whammy to ethnic media after the recent closure of New America Media, which had served the sector nationwide for decades.

The ethnic media communications team, which was under the Council’s public tech unit, was an initiative of former Speaker Mark-Viverito to help grow the ethnic media sector. And it was the only unit serving such functions in city councils nationwide. Mark-Viverito, who held a roundtable with ethnic media reporters soon after she was elected in 2014, wrapped up her term with a farewell roundtable with ethnic media reporters last December. At the meeting, which was held during the competitive speaker’s campaign, she said she hoped whoever succeeded her would continue to offer equal treatment to ethnic media.

But the wish seems to be facing many uncertainties now. After he was elected by fellow council members less than a month ago, Speaker Johnson kicked off the first round of layoffs. The public tech unit was composed of eight staffers plus two interns. On Jan. 19, four of them got pink slips, all Latinas holding leadership positions in the unit, including Erica Gonzalez, Mark-Viverito’s senior advisor and the head of the unit, and Juana Ponce de León, the director of media diversity and relations. And on Jan. 22 an intern working with media diversity was also let go.

De León said her division was formed because former Speaker Mark-Viverito realized the important role ethnic media plays in the city and the fact that the value of this sector is largely underestimated. Through the years, her team tried its best to better serve ethnic media, from handing out translated press releases to building up direct communications between reporters and the speaker. “We tried to build up a replicable model for local municipalities in the country,” de León said. As for murmurs that staffers pledged allegiance to the former speaker and not the current one, de León said: “One in four people in the city doesn’t speak English. We pledged allegiance to New Yorkers.”

De León said that after New America Media’s closure, the dismantling of the only City Council division serving ethnic media in the country made her worry about a setback for ethnic media services. “I only hope our work had raised the awareness of the value of ethnic media and helped draw more attention to this sector,” said de León.

Robin Levine, a spokesperson for the Council, said the press office of the City Council will keep working with ethnic media and assist reporters on media inquiries. “As part of a Council-wide review of the speaker’s office conducted during the transition, the Council is restructuring some divisions to better streamline services,” she said about the layoffs. “As the new deputy leader for digital communication, Council member Rafael Espinal Jr. is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the Council’s digital strategy.”

Former Speaker Mark-Viverito’s contribution to ethnic media is not confined to communications. The city’s advertising in ethnic media grew threefold during her term, and it now makes up 32 percent of the total advertisement dollars by the city and its agencies.

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