Sandra Lilley, the managing editor at NBC Latino, has always known she was a storyteller.
“I was a kid who absolutely loved books and writing,” she remembers.
Lilley was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland for college to study history. After graduating, she moved to New York City and was offered her first opportunity as an editorial assistant for a food magazine. She seized it and the opportunities kept coming.
Through New York’s editorial grapevine, she was connected with one of the Telemundo Channel 47 editors, who was seeking bilingual reporters who spoke Spanish as a first language. At the time, Lilley had never done television reporting work, but her name was tossed on the recruiting table, and she was called in for a screen test.
“They gave me a chance. I was only twenty-three years old,” Lilley says.
For the next seven years as a Telemundo reporter, she covered major news for New York City and the surrounding communities in Spanish. She developed her voice as a Latina journalist and cultivated an understanding of the diversity of stories in the community. One day might include covering a local fire; the next day, she could be off to the United Nations. Lilley focused on topics including health, money, and political debate.
“As you can imagine, covering local news in New York City is an amazing experience,” she says.
After she was promoted to executive producer and then news director at Channel 47, the scope of her role became more top-down. “I went from knowing what it’s like to be on the street reporting to deciding more what we should cover and why,” she says.
When her second child was born, she stepped away from her role, relocated to Florida, and spent time freelancing, consulting, and raising her children.
It wasn’t long before an old colleague persuaded her to return to a New York City newsroom. She worked at MSNBC for several years, including as a dayside managing editor and at the NBC News network and planning desk. Here, she expressed to her team that there was ample opportunity to cover stories on US Latinos, but not necessarily enough time to explore the nuances and complexities within the community.
So when NBC Latino was born, Lilley was the first hire as a national reporter.
“As part of a daily news site, NBC News has four sections with editors that are constantly publishing, generating, and planning stories around diverse communities. We have NBC Latino, NBC Asian America, NBC Out, and NBC BLK,” Lilley explains. “We are not just writing stories for our communities. We want these stories to be appreciated by a broad audience.”
As managing editor of NBC Latino, she focuses on reporting on national and international news stories while also gravitates toward stories that elicit curiosity or have a practical daily impact on readers’ lives.
“There is no one Latino experience,” Lilley says. “We are sixty million-plus folks here in the mainland US—some being fifth-generation Latinos, some being recent immigrants, some speaking only English, some bilingual. We have very unique experiences depending on our families [and] our countries of origin.”
Lilley’s editorial team is part of the community they cover, so their own experiences as Latinos inform their journalistic approach. For Lilley, it’s a point of pride. “We look at what we’d like to know, right?”
And not all Latinos speak Spanish. While being bilingual was one of the skills that helped Lilley get her foot in the door, Spanish fluency is an aging standard that can overshadow the myriad of Latino experiences in the US.
“Sometimes, Latinos feel like there is a litmus test, or they’re looked at the wrong way if they don’t [speak Spanish],” Lilley comments. “It really shouldn’t be that way. Americans [sometimes] forget that the large majority of Latinos are US-born.”
Every day, Lilley balances daily news with feature stories. Her team works quickly and effectively to turn around news as it happens—like when Ariana DeBose made history as the first Afro-Latina to win an Oscar or when new legislation affects the Latino community.
Feature stories are inspired by larger trends and topics of interest. This includes the New Latino Landscape report, which analyzed recent census figures and compiled Latino stories in places across the US that aren’t historically associated with Latinos, like small towns in New Hampshire or Montana.
Lilley particularly enjoys Hidden Histories, which uncovers Latino stories that get lost through the generations—like a hundred-year-old civil rights case in Texas involving a Mexican-American family that had to fight for their child to attend the neighborhood school.
From politics to pop culture, new books to film premieres, and local news to international coverage in Latin America, NBC Latino offers readers a universe of experiences, a wealth of Latino-focused narratives.
“Latino stories are American stories,” Lilley says. “What we try to show is that we [represent] really big, diverse, fascinating, evolving groups of Americans—the way all groups are—and within that, there are wonderful stories, challenges, [and] complexities.”
Lilley’s work goes beyond the NBC Latino team. By utilizing the larger NBCU News Group system’s resources and collaborating with colleagues across its various channels, more content is made available for use. If another team covers a story that impacts Latinos, Lilley and her team often include the piece in her section.
“We love what we do. We love reading. We love talking to people. We love connecting. And it helps that we’re collaborative,” Lilley says.
This natural curiosity and hunger for knowledge keeps Lilley driven. The field is ever-changing and there’s never a lack of inspiration.
“It’s one story at a time,” says Lilley.