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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Transforming a Nicaraguan Newspaper   

The once-political La Prensa newspaper has undergone credibility-boosting changes.

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 feminine form).

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 in-depth reporting.

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 carried before."

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