Transforming a Nicaraguan Newspaper
The once-political La Prensa newspaper has undergone
By Kris Kodrich
Kodrich teaches journalism at Colorado State University.
The female journalists in La Prensa's newsroom were not happy with their
executive editor--they hated his suggested name for a planned weekly
section aimed at women, Hogar y Cocina (Home and Kitchen). "Women are
interested in more than home and kitchen," copy editor Gretchen Robleto
argued. Executive Editor David Hume calmly listened to their alternative
names and other ideas for the section. The debate then went to focus
groups of readers, who preferred the more inclusive Nosotras (Us, in the
Such group dynamics and shared decision-making in the newsroom of
this 75-year-old daily in Managua, Nicaragua, would have been unheard of
a few years ago. But when David Hume arrived on the scene in 1999, first
as a consultant, then as executive editor, he immediately began shaking
things up at the country's storied daily, a bastion of traditional ways
and politicized coverage.
After 20 months at the helm of La Prensa, Hume plans to leave in
December to return to the Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm he
founded, Mediamericas. "There still is a lot of unfinished business
here. But it's going to take much longer than what I'm prepared to
commit to the project," Hume says. He says he's accomplished his main
goal--transforming La Prensa from a newspaper that was losing prestige,
money and circulation to Nicaragua's leading newspaper. "We have
successfully recovered the newspaper's credibility."
La Prensa owners hired Hume, 55, after learning of his consulting
work for newspapers in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica. A longtime journalist
and native of Argentina, Hume says it was obvious La Prensa needed
intensive care. "This was like starting from minus-zero," he says.
He went to work on eliminating much of the paper's political bias. He
encouraged shorter writing, held reader focus groups, enforced strict
ethical standards and freed up pages inside for in-depth reports. He
even created an investigative team, which has reported on the widespread
corruption in Nicaragua, including an acclaimed story on money
laundering at the federal taxing agency. In August, those who worked on
the series won a 2001 Inter American Press Association award for
Alberto Alemán, international editor, says the paper is a very
different newspaper than it used to be. "La Prensa is still a
conservative newspaper," he says, "but we are open to different
political parties and movements. We are carrying stories we have never
But when Hume decided in May to drop a "Sunday reading" page written
by the Catholic Church, some church officials said God was being
censored. "I think it's a news-media directive to destroy the church at
all costs, to discredit it," said Monsignor Silvio Fonseca, editor of
the page. Even Violeta Chamorro, the former president of Nicaragua and
owner of one-third of La Prensa, denounced the decision to stop running
the page, a nine-year fixture.
Hume took it all in stride. "My loyalty is to the readers. They're
buying La Prensa more and more. That's the only thing that counts." Hume
says surveys indicated only 5 percent of La Prensa's circulation read
the Catholic page, so he replaced it with a more diverse Religión y Fe
(Religion and Faith) page.
La Prensa's readership hasn't been affected by the move, Hume says.
"We lost 10 subscribers – that's it." He says the Sunday circulation has
continued to grow, even increasing by 1,000 copies in one week shortly
after the change.
La Prensa's circulation stands at about 42,000 daily, moving ahead of
its main competition, El Nuevo Diario, which supports the opposition
Sandinista political party. The Sandinistas, who took over following the
1979 revolution that deposed the long-ruling Somoza family, have been
the opposition since former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega lost to
Violeta Chamorro in the 1990 election. Ortega lost again in 1996 to
Arnoldo Alemán and this past November 4 to Enrique Bolaños.
Hume wanted to stay until after the election to ensure the newspaper
did not revert to its partisanship of the past. He says he was
successful, for the most part.
Total circulation of daily newspapers is dismally low in this Central
American country of 5 million, mostly because of the weak economy. "The
people have to decide whether to buy a tortilla or a newspaper," says
Alfonso Malespín, a professor in the journalism program at Nicaragua's
Jesuit-run Universidad Centroamericana.
Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of Violeta and member of the board of
directors of La Prensa, says Hume's decision to do away with the church
page has been criticized for good reason. "They see him as a foreigner
coming in here and making a decision that the Nicaraguan people don't
like, without thinking about what the Nicaraguan people want."
But Nicaraguan readers seem to support the changes at La Prensa.
Surveys commissioned by the paper showed it was the paper preferred by
the targeted middle-to-upper classes. Journalism professor Malespín says
the paper has made great strides. "The journalists are more professional
now than before," he says.
Publisher Jaime Chamorro says La Prensa will stick with the changes.
"Many other newspapers prostitute themselves in favor of one political
party or another. But we won't do that. We've been around for 75 years,
and we will continue to survive."
Edited by Jill Rosen###