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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

The Hispanic Challenge   

Newspapers across the country struggle to attract readers from America’s fastest-growing ethnic group.


By Rosario Garriga
Rosario Garriga is a Boston-based writer who worked as a journalist in Argentina for seven years.      

In 1983, a team of reporters and editors at the Los Angeles Times worked for six months to prepare a three-week series on Southern California's growing Hispanic population. The effort won the Times a Pulitzer Prize, but not a new crop of Hispanic readers.

Four years later, the paper got serious about boosting its appeal among Latinos: It launched Nuestro Tiempo, a monthly bilingual supplement, which became a weekly and circulated 400,000 copies at its peak. In '90, another step — the Times bought 50 percent of La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily that had been the leading independent source of news for the area's Hispanics. Nuestro Tiempo folded in 1992, and in 1998, the paper rolled out yet another plan. The Latino Initiative incorporated 12 Latino beats in the Times' culture, business, sports, religion, general assignment and photography departments — a move designed to ensure deeper and more frequent coverage of the community.

Will this attempt prove to be more successful than the others in building a vibrant Hispanic readership? Associate Editor Frank del Olmo, who estimates Hispanics make up 19 percent of the Times' readers, says the paper hasn't conducted any surveys to gauge the impact of the initiative. But he's pleased that it's upped the number of stories about Latinos in the daily paper. He says the paper strives to publish at least one story a day concerning Latinos.

The L.A. Times has plenty of company in its struggle to reach America's fastest-growing ethnic group. As circulation of daily newspapers in the United States continues to drop, the number of Hispanics has grown to 13 percent of the U.S. population, a number projected to increase to 25 percent by 2050. Publishers and editors, keenly aware of these demographics, are beginning to concentrate resources on attracting the Hispanic community. They are publishing articles in Spanish, launching Spanish editions, engaging newspapers in community activities and diversifying newsrooms. Despite these efforts, a 2001 Newspaper Association of America report found that only 6.7 percent of newspaper readers are Hispanic, leaving editors to wonder: How can they attract the loyalty of this elusive population?

Part of the problem in wooing Hispanic readers is that publishers are searching for a magic bullet, says the NAA's Christine Wood. "There is no perfect solution; there is no one right answer," says Wood, project director of a new NAA training program that helps newspapers attract marginal readers and nonreaders. Because Hispanics hail from so many countries and include new immigrants as well as those who have lived in the United States for years, the strategy differs from city to city. "Part of the challenge is understanding those differences and figuring out what group you're trying to serve."

Newspapers have done little to measure the impact of their efforts, so it's difficult to know if the challenge is being met. Special sections or editions targeted to Hispanics produce varying results and can potentially diminish the presence of Latino issues in the main paper. But more than any other factor, economic realities fuel the drive to reach Hispanics. "If newspapers do not include those readers they lose advertisers, and to serve readers they need advertisers," Wood says. "It's a vicious cycle."

When El Nuevo Herald debuted as an insert in the Miami Herald in 1976, it represented the first Spanish-language publication put out by an English-language newspaper. In the 1980s, the efforts to reach Hispanic readers spread. Hispanic Link News Service began syndicating three columns in English and Spanish to newspapers each week in 1980. Several English-language publications aimed at Hispanic readers, such as Hispanic Business, also debuted that decade.

But it wasn't until the late '80s and into the '90s that newspapers began printing stories in Spanish within the main paper or putting out Spanish-language publications and inserts. Hiram Soto, editorial writer at Enlace, the weekly Spanish edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, says that American newspapers haven't recognized and addressed the complexity of the Hispanic market. The same articles that work for a recent immigrant don't work for a third- or fourth-generation descendant of immigrants, he says.

Newcomers usually prefer Spanish articles, while those who've been here a while feel comfortable in English or Spanish. Education and economic positions also vary across generations. The L.A. Times' del Olmo, for instance, says he is a third-generation Mexican American but the first one in the family to attend college.

In addition, nationality can affect people's taste in news. Baseball is a big sport for Cubans but of little interest to Argentines. In the California market, where the largest Hispanic group is Mexicans, readers prefer news about Mexico's politics, not Peru's.

Language is also part of the strategy: Spanish is not always the best way to reach the Hispanic community. The idea that Español is preferred "is absurd," says Erna Smith, who teaches journalism at San Francisco State University, "especially in southwestern states such as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where a substantial portion of the Latino population speaks English only." In 1997, del Olmo, along with other L.A. Times editors who contributed to the 1983 series, realized that Spanish was not always the best choice. "I understood we had to stop thinking of the Latino community as a linguistic market, as a niche for which we have to do something in Spanish," he says.

The Latino population expanded quickly in Los Angeles, and the Times' coverage was slow to catch up to the growth, says del Olmo. Today, 44 percent of Los Angeles County's population is Hispanic. While most are Mexicans, there are also Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans, who fall into three distinct groups: One is new immigrants, who prefer to get their news and entertainment in Spanish; another is third- or fourth-generation people who prefer English; and third is a group in the middle that swings back and forth between the two.

"We decided to focus on the English speakers and those who feel comfortable in either language since they could be attracted to English editions," del Olmo says.

The L.A. Times also didn't want to compete directly with the ethnic press, publications that address Hispanics that are usually published in Spanish. (According to the Latino Print Network, the number of Hispanic newspapers in the country grew from 232 in 1970 to 543 in 2000.)

But not every newspaper takes the L.A. approach.

In Miami, El Nuevo Herald caters to parts of the Latino community that prefer to read in Spanish. The paper, which has a daily circulation of 90,000, features stories about Fidel Castro and Cuba almost every day. One of El Nuevo Herald's distinctive characteristics, which may be the reason for its success, is that it's different in style and substance from its English-language counterpart, says Jerry Ceppos, vice president for news at Knight Ridder, the paper's parent company. It resembles a Latin American newspaper.

In Fort Worth and Dallas, most of the Hispanic population is of Mexican descent and prefers reading in Spanish. For that reason, the Star-Telegram in 1999 converted La Estrella from a bilingual insert to a Spanish-language edition, says Publisher Javier Aldape. A bilingual insert was difficult to market to advertisers, he says. The semiweekly La Estrella has a circulation of 65,000.

The edition focuses on local Mexican and Latin American news, immigration concerns and articles that help newcomers adapt to the States. More than 85 percent of its content differs from the Star-Telegram's. "As the community develops, they need a real newspaper that covers their own issues," Aldape says. "I think that's where the market is going."

In California's Santa Clara County, where the San Jose Mercury News is located, the Hispanics who make up 26 percent of the population speak both English and Spanish. The paper first tried to reach them by running articles in Spanish within the newspaper. Then, in 1995, the paper launched a weekly Spanish edition, Nuevo Mundo. The 45,000-circulation paper, which has a separate five-person newsroom, also translates stories from the daily newspaper. Though readers find the basics of local, national and international news, its coverage focuses on Latin America and Mexico along with family life news, entertainment, immigration law and soccer. In the mid-'90s, the Merc also created a team of four reporters that covers race and demographics to reflect the community's diversity in the daily paper.

Mercury News Executive Editor David Yarnold says 2000 was the first year Nuevo Mundo broke even. Plus, it increased the newspaper's penetration among all adults by 5 percent, according to an NAA report.

In Chicago, the third-largest Hispanic market in the United States, the Chicago Tribune launched a free weekly Spanish edition, called Exito, in 1993. "We apply the same journalistic rigor of the Chicago Tribune, but the coverage of Latin America is wider and different," says former Publisher Liza Gross. "We include issues related to immigration, education and health that tend to help the community." Of the 95,000 issues of Exito published, 80 percent are distributed in the city and 20 percent in the suburbs.

Special Spanish editions and sections can create a danger, though — one that Raul Ramirez calls "ghettoizing." Papers can be tempted to place all Latino coverage in these targeted areas, excluding topics that involve Hispanics from the main paper. "We do not live our life in special sections and these sections sometimes put you in a little box," says Ramirez, news director of KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. "It's a limited vision."

The dilemma is whether Hispanics should be treated as a niche or "mainstreamed" into all stories. "That's a philosophical argument we always have with the Chicago Tribune," Gross says. "They could do better covering the Hispanic community without necessarily becoming us."

Still, Ramirez says he has come to believe that having a Hispanic reporter or beat could act as an anchor and help the paper cover the community in more detail and depth. "What makes sense is to incorporate the diversity of communities in all of your stories," he says.

When that doesn't happen, the Hispanic community notices, as the Tampa Tribune found out. The paper used to have a Hispanic page. But four years ago, editors discovered that Latinos thought coverage of their issues wasn't serious enough. "Hispanic readers complained they thought it was tokenism; they wanted to be treated as any other readers," says Lee Barnes, a former senior editor of the Tampa Tribune and now executive editor of Burlington, North Carolina's Times-News.

The paper abandoned its page and now has Hispanic reporters throughout the newsroom. One full-time reporter — a Tampa native who is Hispanic — specifically covers the community. Every day after the paper is published, editors go through a checklist that includes making sure each section has diverse voices, including those of Hispanics, says Senior Editor Larry Fletcher.

Reporter Patty Ryan, a member of the Tribune's diversity committee, says, like any newspaper, hers struggles to reflect the community in staffing and in coverage. "But I think we've made some gains in covering Hispanics. Language is paramount. Editors have made a genuine effort to hire Spanish-speaking reporters and to offer Spanish classes to English speakers. Several years ago, the paper allowed me to attend a Spanish-language immersion program in Guatemala," she adds. "The training paid off: I've reported from Cuba three times, and I've been able to interview Spanish speakers while writing police stories and covering the U.S. Census."

The San Antonio Express-News also makes an effort to incorporate Latinos throughout its pages. "If you read our paper, there are a lot of Hispanics in photos, Hispanic reporters and Hispanic stories about people, companies, sports...because this is a Hispanic city," says Editor Robert Rivard. Hispanics make up about 60 percent of the city's population and almost half of the Express-News' readers. "We reach them by giving them a product in which they feel part of it."

The paper's surveys showed that it didn't have a substantial enough audience to maintain a Spanish-language publication. Rivard says most of the Hispanics there are third or fourth-generation who came at a time when they were banned from speaking and writing Spanish at school. "Spanish was the language of the kitchen," Rivard says. Consequently, most of the Hispanics prefer to read in English.

"Little by little, we are offering a more attractive product to the Hispanic community," says Rivard. "There are more Hispanics writing and taking photos — this is a long-term strategy." Alina Lambiet, national and foreign editor of the Sun-Sentinel, in Fort Lauderdale, says the newspaper offers workshops that promote the use of different sources, including Latinos, and teaches reporters how to deal with other cultures. Lambiet says covering the Hispanic community is a challenge in South Florida, where a variety of immigrant groups come together: established Cubans; migrant Caribbeans; new immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala; and affluent newcomers from countries such as Brazil and Venezuela. In 10 years, the Sun-Sentinel's Hispanic readership has doubled from 3 to 6 percent, according to the paper's annual surveys. But that number doesn't come close to the 17 percent of Hispanics living in Broward County, where the newspaper is based.

Critics such as Smith of San Francisco State suggest that newspapers will only begin to reach Hispanics when they fully diversify their staffs and coverage patterns. Over the past 10 years, she has audited the content of 10 newspapers, including the Sun-Sentinel, San Antonio Express-News, San Jose Mercury News and Seattle Times, and discovered that having little staff expertise can contribute to inaccurate or incomplete coverage of the Hispanic population. Lack of awareness about the growth of this community, lack of imagination in the coverage, and lack of a consistent and coordinated strategy are all challenges, Smith says.

At the San Antonio Express-News, minorities represented 17 percent of the staff in 1993. Today, that number has almost doubled to 33 percent. "The first big step is to get people in the staff who can speak to [Hispanics]," Rivard says. "Once you diversify your staff, changes follow."

California's Orange County Register is also making an effort to hire Latinos or people who speak Spanish and are well informed about the community, says Valeria Godinez, reporter and chair of the paper's diversity committee. Godinez, a Mexican American who lived in Latin America for several months, says the paper created her position — Latino affairs reporter — two years ago in response to the growing Hispanic population. The Register already had immigration and minority business beats and a Latino issues columnist.

Still, the number of Hispanics in newspapers, as with other minority groups, has lagged behind the population's growth: Hispanics make up only 3.7 percent of the total editorial workforce in newspapers, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Among those, 19 percent are in supervisory positions, 16 percent are copy/layout editors, 18 percent are photographers, and 47 percent are reporters.

Experience seems to be telling editors, publishers and analysts that to cover the Hispanic community fairly and well takes more than a Spanish edition, a Latino beat or specific pages. To succeed newspapers have to incorporate Latinos in newsrooms and include Latino sources in stories. In other words, treat them as any other segment of the community.

Godinez says reaching that population is more than just being politically correct. "It's a matter of surviving," she says. "We should be investing in this because [Hispanics] are the ones who are going to be reading the paper."

Rosario Garriga is a Boston-based writer who worked as a journalist in Argentina for seven years.