What does it look like working at a legacy newspaper in 2023? Martina Ibañez-Baldor of the LA Times can tell us.
Ibañez-Baldor has been working at the heralded publication for eight years, cutting her teeth by designing on the print side before transitioning to digital. Now, she serves as the deputy design director for the LA Times’ fledgling platform, De Los, which focuses on everything Latinidad in Los Angeles and across the country.
De Los comprises a team of Latino reporters, editors, illustrators, and creatives who proudly “tell stories not just about our community, but for our community.” Ibañez-Baldor is a fascinating person who’s navigated significant changes in the newspaper and cultural landscapes throughout her career. I had the chance to speak with Ibañez-Baldor directly just after De Los first launched to learn more about her journey, the creation of De Los, and what’s next for the platform.
How did you first join the LA Times?
I went to school for journalism and Spanish, and minored in graphic design. Then I had a couple internships, one at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and from there I started at the LA Times through a diversity fellowship back in 2015. I was a fellow for two years.
When I started at the LA Times, I started strictly as a print designer, designing the print sections from the California local section to main news, business, opinion. I’ve been at the Times for eight years now, and that job has changed a lot. Most designers aren’t doing strictly just print anymore. They’re multifaceted, multi-platform designers who are designing for Instagram, the newsletters, the website, for TikTok, all sorts of things. So it’s been a really interesting transition.
I transitioned out of print by doing newsletters and then designing for the LA Times Plants Instagram. From there, we decided to launch this bigger initiative called De Los, which is an extension of the Latinx Files newsletter, and I moved into this position as the design director. I’m commissioning illustrations, I’m making my own illustrations, working with art directors and comic artists. But then the other facet of this is I’m also the social strategy coordinator. So I’m also working with a bunch of freelance video content creators across LA to produce short videos for Instagram and Tiktok. It’s really interesting how I started working strictly in print, designing old-fashioned newspapers, and then made this transition to where art directors and designers have much more editorial say in projects, and we’re designing for so many different platforms now.
One of the pitfalls of this transition from old-school print journalism to the modern-day, digital-first version is the speed at which journalists are expected to churn out stories—the fleeting nature of digital can lead to the thinning of quality control. How do you maintain quality and journalistic integrity in digital spaces?
I spent four years doing just print design, and the LA Times is a relatively big newspaper with high, high quality control that my bosses were sticklers about. So I think having that training and that background and then transitioning it to a project like De Los, which is all digital focused, that quality control is still important for me. We have a style guide that we follow, everything looks like a brand, that’s all important to me.
What’s your personal relationship to LA?
I had zero relationship to LA before getting hired at the LA Times. I thought that the fellowship was going to be a six month thing, but I really just fell in love with LA the first time I moved here. The first time I came to LA for this job was the first time I’d ever been in the city, but here I am, eight years later. I just love LA! I love all of the diversity. As a Latina, I feel like I belong here. There’s people that look like me, that think like me, who have similar backgrounds.
I mostly grew up in Milwaukee, and Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country. My mom’s Argentinian and my dad’s Chilean, and they met some people through an Argentinian expat society, so I had some family friends that were similar backgrounds to us. But I mostly grew up around white people. Coming to LA, I joined a couple of nonprofits to volunteer at, like Las Fotos Project which is in Boyle Heights. I made a lot of friends there. They’re mostly all Latinas, a lot of them are from LA, so I felt a sense of home when I came here. We had similar little anecdotes from childhood, and cultural things that I thought I had experienced alone, I learned were cultural experiences nationwide.
How did De Los come to be?
The main creators of De Los are Fidel Martinez, who’s the editorial director, and Angel Rodriguez, who’s the executive director. They’re the ones who also created the Latinx Files newsletter, which they had actually originally pitched as a podcast, maybe five years ago, but it had never gotten approved by upper management.
Then after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, I feel like that was a cultural shift in a lot of different newsrooms and organizations, and that’s when leaders really started paying attention to some of the ideas that we had. That’s when the Latinx Files started, and it has over 40,000 subscribers now. So it kind of proved to leadership that there’s a readership for these kinds of stories, and that led to the creation of De Los.
We’ve been launched for about three months now, but it’s been over a year in the making. It started as just a little Slack group throwing out ideas of what a larger Latinx Files thing could look like. We brought different Latinos inside the newsroom, we did a focus group study, we talked to a consulting firm to help us organize our thoughts. It’s been a lot of brainstorming, a lot of conversations, a lot of intentionality on how to best represent this community that’s been marginalized and largely ignored by the LA Times in the past.
What has that experience been like for you, reconciling the past missteps of the LA Times with the growth they’ve shown with investing in platforms and initiatives like De Los?
A month or two ago was the anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots, and we shared a lot of the newspaper clips from the LA Times coverage that show that bias towards the servicemen that were attacking Latinos in LA. They were placing the blame on a lot of the Latino folks.
But on the other side of that coin, we recognize the achievements that a lot of our predecessors have made. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Latino Culture Prize-winning series that the LA Times produced, which was written by all Latino LA Times journalists. So we also recognize all of the accomplishments and the path that they have paved for us as well.
As the Design Director of De Los, how did you develop the look and feel of the platform?
I’ve worked on a few different Latino-focused projects before, the last one being the Latinx Files newsletter, and another big project was the Chicano Moratorium 50 Years Later series. For all of those projects, I did a lot of research into the trends happening at the time. Like for the Chicano Moratorium, I looked at a lot of protest posters and protest literature from that time that was made by Latinos.
It was the same process with De Los. A lot of research, looking at LA Latino art throughout the years, seeing what the themes were. I reached out to Diana Ramirez, who is now our full-time art director on the team. She’s an LA native Latina who has a lot of history with different art mediums; she used to do graffiti, her dad is a tattoo artist, she has her own merch shop where she designs specifically for a Latino audience. So we brought her in to work on the logo and the branding and she did such a great job that we hired her to work on our art direction as well.
We wanted to respect and appreciate the trends that exist in Latino art and design, without leaning too much into any stereotypical area.
Diana had a similar process, looking at a lot of Latino graffiti. The De Los black letter typeface is similar to the LA Times logo, so we drew inspiration from our parent publication, but it also resembles a lot of graffiti and typography and design that is in Latino culture as well. It’s a tricky balance because a lot of the time when people are designing for Latino audiences and for things like Hispanic Heritage Month, you see what people think Latinos are looking for in design and art. It’s really easy to lean into stereotypes and cliches, so that’s something that we were very aware of and very intentional in avoiding. We wanted to respect and appreciate the trends that exist in Latino art and design, without leaning too much into any stereotypical area.
What goals do you have for De Los?
Our big goals are to be interactive with our community, face to face. Our Dia De Los Muertos event at Hollywood Forever is a great example of that.
For the last two years we’ve done a digital altar for Dia De Los Muertos where readers can submit an ofrenda— a photo and a little saying about a loved one that’s passed away. Last year we received over 1,000 submissions in three or four different languages. We also hosted an event at Hollywood Forever Cemetery last year, where we had a live, in-person altar that was designed by a Latino artist, and we included some of those readers’ submissions on the altar. So we’re doing that again this year! We want it to be bigger and better, where we can talk to our audience, get feedback, and just be involved in the community. Jessica Perez, who is our community editor, is heading that, and she’s also heading a few different partnerships with community organizations like Las Fotos Project and Boyle Heights Beat, which is a youth newspaper in Boyle Heights.
We’re not trying to reinvent any wheel, we just want to be there to support existing organizations, uplift those voices, and give them a space to tell their stories in the LA Times.
We’re not trying to reinvent any wheel, we just want to be there to support existing organizations, uplift those voices, and give them a space to tell their stories in the LA Times. That’s been a big goal of mine, too. With all of our art and videos, we try to hire locally and hire people that usually would not be in a place like the LA Times. We’re giving a chance to community college students, people who maybe don’t have editorial work, but we’re working closely with them, giving them mentorship to create art and videos for De Los.
What’s been the most rewarding part of working on De Los for you so far?
It’s being able to work with all these different artists and give them a platform. When I started at the Times, we had a roster of illustrators that we worked with, and they were usually all white men. So when I got promoted to being an art director and was able to assign my own illustrations and projects, I was really excited about the opportunity to work with women, people of color, and people who don’t have as much editorial experience.
It really is a dream job. It’s really exciting every day to work with a team that’s all Latino. It feels like a safe place, like you don’t have to explain yourself or your background or your heritage to anyone. The stories that we pitch to each other are all heard and respected. I’m excited for what’s next.