Dismantling the Language Barrier  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2003

Dismantling the Language Barrier   

In an effort to crack the burgeoning Hispanic market, major newspaper companies are investing in new and expanded Spanish-language editions.

By Tim Porter
Tim Porter, former assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, is associate director of Tomorrow's Workforce, a newsroom development project, and a freelance writer. He wrote about major newspaper companies' investment in Spanish-language papers in AJR's October/November 2003 issue. He can be reached at www.timporter.com/firstdraft.     

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   » Español Airwaves

"My friend." When Louis Sito, publisher and editor of Hoy, a splashy, Spanish-language tabloid published by Newsday in New York City, has a point to make, which is most of the time, he rarely utters a sentence without those words.

"Let me tell you, my friend." "The fact is, my friend." "The world is changing, my friend."

Sito uses the phrase like a glove to soften the way he punches through a conversation. He speaks rapidly, passionately and, if not interrupted by a question, at length about Hoy, about the Hispanic community, about the need for newspapers to rediscover creativity, about the rising tide of Spanish-language publishing that is spilling across the American newspaper landscape.

"I am on a crusade on this thing, my friend," he says one morning, juggling a cell phone while maneuvering through the commute to Hoy's midtown Manhattan offices. "We were all, as an industry, asleep at the wheel. While we were trying to protect markets...our customers changed dramatically, and we have not adapted to the marketplace gracefully."

Put another way, many Hispanics, the nation's largest ethnic community and the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, cannot read--or choose not to read--mainstream newspapers in English even though they hunger for information to help them make the transition from immigrant to citizen.

The dilemma of the newspaper industry--desperate for new audiences but excluded by language from the one with the most potential--is summed up by Alberto Ibargüen, publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald: "I can put out the most wonderful newspaper in English, and if you can't read English, it doesn't make any difference that it's the most wonderful newspaper. And that's the reality we have."

Hispanic--and, to a lesser extent, Asian--immigrants represent a magnetic market that has helped stimulate a surge in non-English news media. The ethnic press, a mélange that includes hyperlocal weeklies or monthlies, professional-level dailies and U.S. editions of multinational newspapers, is flourishing. The selling and buying of Spanish-language television and radio networks are multibillion-dollar deals.

Mainstream newspaper companies, frustrated by their inability to increase circulation through traditional means and emboldened by the successes of El Nuevo Herald and Hoy, are switching languages and entering the fray in Spanish. The Tribune Co., Belo Corp. and Knight Ridder launched daily Spanish-language papers this year, committing millions of dollars and dozens of staff members to publications that, ironically, many of their corporate executives can't read.

Sito, who is also vice president of Hispanic media for the Tribune Co., took Hoy's urban tabloid template from New York and replicated it in Chicago, replacing the Tribune's 10-year-old weekly, ¡Exito!. The Dallas Morning News, which had not had a Spanish-language publication since 2001, created Al Día, a six-day-a-week paper. In response to Al Día, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pumped up its twice-weekly La Estrella to a five-day publication and renamed it Diario La Estrella.

These new dailies are a calculated push into a market whose immensity can no longer be ignored, even by an industry that is slow to embrace change.

Moreover, they are a significant--and expensive--departure from the weekly Spanish-language supplement that is standard newspaper fare in heavily Latino cities from California to Florida but too often is an undernourished stepchild of its mainstream parent. Typically, these supplements employ less than a handful of reporters to flesh out a skeletal content mix filled by features, wire stories and entertainment listings.

In total, mainstream newspapers own 46 Hispanic publications--nearly all of them weeklies--that have a combined circulation of 2.9 million, according to the Latino Print Network, a Carlsbad, California, marketing and research company that specializes in the Hispanic press. Most bring in sufficient revenue to offset costs and give the parent paper a not-insignificant toehold in the market, but, evidenced by the stagnant (or worse) circulation numbers of their core newspapers, this once-a-week ethnic approach has had little measurable impact on overall readership.

Numbers abound that underscore the allure of the U.S. ethnic market. Here are a few:

• There were 38.8 million Hispanics living in the U.S. in 2002, 73 percent more than in 1990. By 2020, one in five residents is expected to be Hispanic.

• Hispanic spending power, now $580 billion, grows 8.7 percent annually, nearly twice that of non-Hispanics. California holds one-third of this economic clout.

• Hispanic-oriented newspapers and magazines generated $1.3 billion in revenue in 2002. By comparison, the operating revenue that year for Knight Ridder's 32 papers was $2.8 billion.

• The Asian population increased as much as 74 percent between 1990 and 2000, reaching 11.9 million. New York and Los Angeles are more than 10 percent Asian; San Francisco is 33 percent.

These statistics add up to opportunity.

Kirk Whisler, president of the Latino Print Network, has tracked the Hispanic press for 26 years. He sees creating relationships with the Spanish-language media as a low-cost way newspapers can capture circulation and attract advertising. "There has not only not been any growth [in newspaper circulation] since 1960; there is actually 1.5 million less circulation today than in 1960," Whisler says. "They need to show the advertising community that they can deliver larger circulations."

Sandy Close, befitting her role as recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship and founder of New California Media, an association of more than 600 ethnic newspapers, magazines and broadcasters, holds a loftier view. She senses a shift in the journalistic zeitgeist, a signal that we are verging upon the next "great boom" in news coverage. "Mainstream media," says Close, "is morphing into something new that we may never have seen before that responds to a situation of multiethnicity, of social fragmentation, of hunger for commons, all that, that we also may never have seen before."

If revolution is indeed afoot, leading the charge is Louis Sito.

Sito was an advertising senior vice president at Newsday in 1998 when he noticed a disturbing pattern: In several Long Island communities where the paper once had a 65 percent penetration rate, readership had fallen by half. Coincidentally, these towns were home to an influx of middle-class Hispanics who had bypassed the traditional immigrant stopover in New York City. They were moving directly to the suburbs, their Spanish language still intact, and they weren't reading Newsday.

"That sent a whole bunch of alarm bells to the company," says Sito. "The more I read about it, the more I studied it, the more I realized that this was something that was not going to change very quickly. It was a phenomenon that was going to continue to grow. I went to my publisher and said, 'We have an opportunity over here.' "

New York City already had two Spanish-language dailies with a combined circulation of about 100,000, as well as papers from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and a score of weeklies. But Sito believed their "circulation levels were very, very minimal when compared to the population size." (New York, population 8 million, is 27 percent Hispanic; the Bronx, 1.3 million, is 48 percent Hispanic.)

Sito--who emigrated from Cuba in 1961 at age 16 and began his newspaper career in the backshop of the Chicago Sun-Times 39 years ago--wasted no time.

He urged Newsday Publisher Raymond A. Jansen to launch a daily instead of a weekly, and Hoy premiered on November 16, 1998, with a circulation of 25,000. It was an immediate hit.

Hoy was posting a profit 18 months after it launched, says Sito, and for the first few years, its revenue grew at a rate of 100 percent. "In 2001 and 2002 we grew revenues at a 50 percent rate," he says, while "general media was going down the tubes."

Today, Hoy sells 91,000 copies a day in the New York metro area, about 18 percent more than last year. By comparison, Newsday, circulation 579,000, has added only 3,000 new readers since 2000.

In February, the Tribune Co. put Sito in charge of its Spanish-language publications in Chicago, New York, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles.

Sito focused first on Chicago--with an estimated 1.6 million Latinos in the region--where Tribune's Spanish-language weekly, ¡Exito!, distributed 87,000 free copies. Sito replaced ¡Exito! with the Chicago version of Hoy, a 25-cent tabloid with local news, entertainment and sports that draws on the New York paper for national and international stories.

The long-term strategy, says Sito, is to make Hoy a "national brand with a very strong local presence."

"It is our plan to become really branded in the top metro Hispanic markets with a single product like Hoy," Sito says. "Chicago has been the first hurdle."

Tribune Publishing operates Spanish-language weeklies at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the Orlando Sentinel, and owns 50 percent of La Opinión in Los Angeles. (Coincidentally, El Nuevo Día, the 203,000-circulation Puerto Rican newspaper, has begun publishing a Spanish-language edition in Orlando.)

Clearly, Sito's ambitions for Hoy mean change of some sort is sure to come in those cities, but as of late summer he would only say the company was "in the process of going to the other markets" and asking "what kind of products can we either create or improve upon."

On the surface, Gilbert Bailon and Louis Sito couldn't be more dissimilar. Bailon is as measured as Sito is ebullient. Bailon was a newsroom guy; Sito pushed papers and sold ads from the business side. Bailon is Arizona, Kansas City, Dallas; Sito is the city of Big Shoulders and the Big Apple. What they do share is this: a vision of a journalism future foretold in both English and Spanish.

The Dallas-Fort Worth market contains 1.3 million Latinos--22 percent of the population and growing (estimated to reach 38 percent by 2006). The Dallas Morning News developed Al Día to entice that audience and put Bailon, executive editor, in charge of the project. The Monday-through-Saturday paper debuted in September with a staff of 50, an initial circulation of 40,000 and a newsstand price of 25 cents.

When asked about the impetus behind the creation of Al Día, Bailon, the paper's president and editor, first dons his business hat: "There are a growing number of people in the market who we're not reaching who are primary Spanish speakers. These people are neither reading nor consuming our advertising in the way we would like, and really need, for the future for this company to grow. We determined that to get this market we had to do something different from what we've done for the last 150 years or so."

And then he puts on his editorial one: "There is a vacuum of frequent, quality news on a daily basis in print for Spanish speakers.... You can go on the Web and read lots of papers around the world, but they can't tell you what the school lunch menu is, or are the roads closed, or when I can vote in Dallas, Texas, or San Antonio, Texas, because it's just not there in Spanish."

Bailon believes Al Día "is just one of many publications that are going to be created in the next few years.... Hoy certainly demonstrated that a startup can succeed.... Whether it be a Web site or a magazine or a newspaper, more and more publications are going to be in Spanish."

Before Al Día, there were no Spanish-language daily newspapers in Dallas, says Bailon, only some "free weeklies that have limited news resources." Now, Dallas-Fort Worth has two Spanish dailies and the enduring North Texas turf war between Belo and Knight Ridder has jumped the language barrier, creating an unprecedented display of bilingual chest-thumping involving two huge U.S. media companies.

Diario La Estrella, which Bailon calls his "biggest competitor," began nine years ago as a dual-language insert of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and first grew into an all-Spanish stand-alone paper with a twice-weekly total circulation of 75,000 copies distributed free via newsstands and selective home delivery.

It certainly seems that Knight Ridder's decision to add the "Diario" to La Estrella was a reaction to Belo's announced launch of Al Día, but you can try all day and Javier Aldape, publisher of Diario La Estrella, will never concede that.

Aldape does admit, grudgingly, that "competitive pressures did enter into our consideration" to more than double La Estrella's staff (to at least 16) and open an office in Dallas, add circulation and publish Tuesday through Saturday, but he prefers to say that Diario La Estrella is "part of an overall strategy to provide news and information on multiple platforms. This just happens to be in a different language."

"The days of treating [Diario La Estrella] as a circulation funnel are dead," says Aldape. "This is a distinct product. The most interesting thing that our surveys have shown us...is that even among functionally bilingual Latinos in the market there is a tremendous increase in English-language newspaper readership but there is not a corresponding decrease in Spanish-language newspaper readership."

All prognostications remain unproven, though, until Dallas-Fort Worth Hispanics speak with their quarters and advertisers make contractual commitments. Until then, both Al Día and Diario La Estrella are just another costly roll of the demographic dice.

Aldape would not disclose how much Knight Ridder is spending to expand La Estrella, but Belo projects its net operating investment in Al Día to be less than $4 million over the next 18 months, not including up to $1.5 million in startup costs. Bailon says he expects the paper "to break even by year three."

John Morton, president of a newspaper consulting firm and an AJR columnist, calls that goal ambitious. "Three years is a fairly short time frame to establish a new product and achieve enough circulation for advertisers to be attracted to it," he says, "and particularly when you're dealing with a segment of the population that isn't highly attractive to a lot of newspaper advertisers.

"Like most battles of this kind," Morton adds, "it's expensive and tends to harm the bottom line because nobody ever really completely wins."

While Belo and Knight Ridder going mano a mano en Español breaks competitive ground, mainstream newspapers have dabbled in Spanish publishing for decades. In 1976 the Miami Herald tempted Hispanic readers with El Herald, a one-page Spanish insert that was reborn in 1987 as El Nuevo Herald, a daily supplement to the Miami Herald. El Nuevo Herald became independent of the Herald in 1998 and today has an average daily circulation of 90,300.

As early as 1981, Gannett ventured into daily Spanish publishing when it bought El Diario/La Prensa, a 52,000-circulation New York City tabloid that is the nation's oldest Spanish daily and one of Hoy's prime competitors. The other, 50,000-circulation (unaudited) Noticias del Mundo, is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Gannett sold its paper in 1989 to Entravision, a Spanish-language media company that in turn sold the paper this summer to a private investment group.

With the notable exception of Viet Mercury, a five-year-old, 35,000-circulation weekly Vietnamese-language paper published by Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News, U.S. media companies have generally eschewed the Asian market even though daily papers in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese are thriving in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities.

A cumulative circulation figure for the Asian press is hard to come by, but directories compiled by New California Media and the Independent Press Association of New York lists more than 110 newspapers and magazines that target various segments of the Asian community. Some are huge, such as the Mandarin-language World Journal, which distributes from San Francisco to Toronto and states a circulation (unaudited) of 350,000. World Journal; its biggest competitor, Sing Tao (181,000 circulation unaudited); and Korea Times (254,000, also unaudited) are owned by international media giants based in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Seoul, respectively.

While the reach of the Asian press may not extend as far as its Hispanic counterpart (the Latino Print Network places the combined circulation of Hispanic newspapers in the United States at 16.2 million), studies show it penetrates deeper into the community.

Research done in 2002 for New California Media by Sergio Bendixen, a Miami communications consultant, found that 34 percent of California's Asians prefer ethnic newspapers compared with only 23 percent of Hispanics.

The disparity is partly attributable to access. "There are six big newspapers in California that publish every day for those three [Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese] communities," says Bendixen, and there is only one daily Spanish paper, La Opinión in Los Angeles.

Also, a study of media use by the Public Research Institute of San Francisco State University found that only 10 percent of Latino immigrants living in the San Francisco Bay Area are college graduates, compared with 38 percent of Chinese immigrants. "It is no wonder," then-director Rufus Browning wrote in a draft of the study, "that television is such a large part of Spanish-language media in the United States." (See "Español Airwaves," page 55.)

But, says Browning, Latino immigrants, who learn English rapidly, retain their attachment to ethnic media longer than Asian immigrants. His study found that nearly 75 percent of second-generation and about half of third-generation Latinos continue to use Spanish-language print or broadcast; use of Chinese-oriented media by Chinese Americans drops to less than 25 percent for the same groups.

The rise of the ethnic press in the last decade--from 1990 to 2000, the number of Hispanic newspapers alone nearly doubled from 355 to 652, according to the Latino Print Network--is the current incarnation of a publishing phenomenon that accompanies each wave of immigrants to U.S. shores.

Mitchell Stephens, a New York University journalism professor and author of "A History of News," says foreign-language newspapers, with their emphasis on news from immigrants' native countries, flourished at the turn of the last century, as did English-language papers that adapted to this new audience.

"It was always thus," Stephens says. "One of the reasons the New York Times was initially successful under Adolph Ochs was its emphasis on international news, the same thing we get today. That was a huge selling point because of the huge immigrant population in the early decades of the 20th century. Any argument that the large number of foreign [language] newspapers now is unprecedented is probably wrong."

The ethnic press prospered then, as it prospers now, by focusing on a formula of homeland news, community advocacy and practical information needed to survive in a new world.

Interestingly, larger newspapers have mostly relegated this recipe of community-oriented journalism to weekly neighborhood supplements, but editors serving Spanish-speaking readers consider it a fundamental ingredient.

"People are looking for something more intimate, more focused on their interests when they pick up that paper," says Al Día's Bailon. "That's what we're going to do. It will be more personal. In some cases, quite frankly, it will be more advocacy. In the news columns we're not going to do that, but...if we feel as though a fund is being cut for bilingual education that could hurt people, we're going to go out and do that story."

Although Bailon envisions a "lot of sharing" between the editorial staffs of Al Día and the Dallas Morning News, he stresses that the "key for this to succeed is that it needs to have its own personality and feel.... Otherwise people will say, 'This is just the Dallas Morning News translated.' We know that model won't work."

In an industry where tradition can be so sacrosanct that issues such as "Courtesy Titles--Yes or No?" merit years of newsroom discussion, launching a new publication that is discrete from the core newspaper can be liberating for staffers.

"Once you split it off," says Ibargüen, who waged a two-year corporate battle to break El Nuevo Herald free of its Anglo parent, "then there were no more rules. Once we became independent we could ask, 'Now, what does our market want?' "

When Ibargüen recruited legendary Latin American editor Carlos Castañeda to edit El Nuevo Herald, he says he gave Castañeda a single instruction: "Give me a newspaper that cannot be confused with the Miami Herald."

Castañeda died in October 2002 at age 70, but El Nuevo Herald carries his imprint. A front page from earlier this year included a photo tease to Fidel Castro landing on Forbes magazine's richest people list (he's worth $110 million), news about the record amount of money being sent home to Latin America by Hispanic Americans, an enterprising account of the violence associated with carnaval in Rio de Janeiro and a third-of-a-page centerpiece devoted to the recovery from cancer of Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz. (Cruz died in July.)

This is not your padre's Miami Herald.

"It's got a fast pace. It's bright. It's lively," says Ibargüen. "It's not afraid to put sports or entertainment above the fold on the front page if it's fun--even just because it's fun. At the same time it has very serious news like that Brazil story you saw today."

In 2001, El Nuevo Herald won the international Ortega y Gasset journalism award given to the world's best Spanish-language daily.

As a New York City tabloid with a hefty red-and-yellow logo, Hoy was born bold. One February morning, a day after a harsh winter storm, Hoy arrived at newsstands with a double-truck photograph enveloping its front and back covers: Times Square, paved in snow, shrouded in clouds, devoid of traffic, traversed only by a dark-hooded woman, all emblazoned with the one-word headline--Tormenta (Blizzard). That's a quarter's worth of coverage right there.

In Hoy, and other startups such as Al Día, Sito sees hope for an industry grown moribund through arrogance and complacency. "Look at most of the newspapers," Sito says, his voice rising. "They are boring! They are boring! What are we doing to attract new readers to a product that competes with the 24/7 coverage of news on the electronic media? We have to evolve into something that has more analysis, has more relevancy, has more educational punch to it, has more fun.... If you look at our circulation levels across the industry, they go down every year. So we cannot be smug and say that because we have been here forever we are going to continue to be here forever. That is crazy."

Niche is to mass as oil is to water, and newspapers, by tradition a mass-market medium, have been loath to mix the two. Even though they publish neatly packaged zoned editions for suburbanites and sprightly designed entertainment tabs for the so-called urban market, a foreign-language edition is a long, more targeted step away from mass and toward class--if you don't habla the idiom, then it's not for you.

Some embrace this fragmentation of market, and of message, as a necessary future. "Newspapers have to branch out beyond their core product regardless of how good that may be, or how profitable or long-standing it may be, if they're going to reach new audiences," says Bailon. "Those audiences can range from Spanish speakers to young people to young women to young professionals.... [Al Día] is our first big, bold step. I think there are going to be some others that are coming behind it."

But some, such as Aly Colón, ethics groups leader/ diversity program director at the Poynter Institute, worry about dilution of the "common conversation" that binds society together. "One of the powerful elements of newspapers in general," says Colón, "has been that they tend to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible all at the same time.... They are a tool that helps unify and strengthen the democratic experience that we care about. Newspapers give us a way to connect in a way that niche publications cannot."

Browning, formerly of the Public Research Institute, disagrees. He doesn't think traditional newspapers provide such a national conversation, he says, and we now communicate as much through our differences as our similarities. "We talk about this notion of common ground" in the media, Browning says. "But I don't see this common ground there. It's all split up anyhow. People are [already] choosing which mass media to use. They're not watching CBS; they're listening to Rush Limbaugh, or somebody worse, to hear somebody whose views are more like their own. That whole thing about common ground is really exaggerated."

What's important now, says Sandy Close of New California Media, is visibility--and ethnic media, whether published by someone in the basement of a bodega in the Bronx or by a media Goliath like Knight Ridder, give a sense of belonging to the "isolated, the alone and the invisible."

"Community is a word we use all the time, but it has no meaning because it really doesn't exist anymore," says Close. "You don't go home and the neighbor says, 'How are you?' because you don't even know the neighbor.... Communications has become the substitute for community, giving you a sense that you belong.... So what gives people a sense of visibility, a sense that they matter in the culture more and more depends on whether they're visible in the media."

As mainstream and ethnic newspapers converge, Close sees each changing the other. "A new generation of ethnic media is inventing itself, in English, with culture as opposed to race," she says. "By culture I don't mean by single ethnicity, but multiethnic. So you get hip-hop magazines, you get Latina magazine.... Maybe mainstream media will morph into something; maybe ethnic media will morph into something. My sense is that the two have a tremendous potential for synergy that could energize both and create a more inclusive journalism. My fear is that they'll collide instead of collaborating."

Back in New York, nearing the end of his commute, Louis Sito ponders a similar question about the broader social implications of the bilingual world he lives in--and sells newspapers to.

"The idea of the United States becoming bilingual," he says, "it makes no difference. Who cares? We have made the world bilingual. If you want to fly an airplane, you have to know how to speak English. If you want to do business in this world, the language of business is English.

"Even the French," he adds with a laugh, "when it comes to business have to speak English.

"Our world," says Sito, "and our country are becoming smaller and much more integrated and much more interrelated, and that's going to be the future, my friend."

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