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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Reflecting Their Diverse Audiences   

Savvy newspapers cater to immigrants with non- English editions.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

A good newspaper should reflect the community it serves, a task that has become daunting in many parts of the country because of the huge numbers of recent immigrants with limited or no command of English. The nation may truly be the proverbial melting pot, but there is a lot of melting yet to be done before some newspapers will be able to rely on their traditional English-language publications to reach their markets.

For example, 44 percent of the people living in Los Angeles County are of Hispanic origin, according to 1997 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Not all are recent immigrants, of course, but there are enough without command of English to create large, unserved gaps in an English-language newspaper's market.

Other metropolitan areas with large Hispanic populations include Miami, with at least 56 percent of the total, New York with 25 percent, San Francisco-San Jose with 21 percent and Chicago with 14 percent. In smaller Southwestern cities, the percentages likely are much higher.

An unserved market attracts entrepreneurs, which explains why the number of Hispanic-oriented publications has swelled from 381 in 1970 to 1,256 last year, according to the 1999 National Hispanic Media Directory. Of those, 515 were newspapers.

What can an English-language daily do when the fastest-growing part of its market is being gobbled up by Spanish-language competitors? The answer, of course, is to publish something in Spanish. Increasingly, dailies are doing just that.

For perspective, let's go back to the 1960s in Florida, where the Miami Herald confronted this problem early on because of waves of immigrants from Cuba. Initially, the Herald's managers thought the Cubans' assimilation into an English-language culture would protect its market. Meanwhile, with many of Miami's English-reading residents fleeing northward to Broward and Palm Beach counties, the Herald sought to follow them with zoned editions.

Eventually, though, with the Hispanic population swelling, the Herald in 1976 launched a Spanish-language section. Now a separate newpaper called El Nuevo Herald, it has a circulation of 81,000 weekdays and 89,000 Sundays. Part of the Herald's motivation may have been the presence of an independent Spanish-language competitor in Miami, Diario Las Americas. It circulates to 69,000 weekdays and 73,000 Sundays.

As immigration has continued, with people coming not just from Cuba but also from Mexico, Central America and other Spanish-speaking areas, many newspapers have responded in recent years with Spanish-language publications, usually free-distribution weeklies.

Among the small dailies' efforts: Kansas' Garden City Telegram (circulation 11,000), began its La Semana (The Week) in 1991, and the Yuma Daily Sun in Yuma, Arizona (24,000 weekdays, 28,000 Sundays), launched its Bajo El Sol in 1992.

Among large newspapers, the Chicago Tribune started ĦExito! in 1993, and the San Jose Mercury News established Nuevo Mundo in 1996. Long Island's Newsday recently began its daily Hoy, and the New York Daily News is discussing a Spanish edition.

The Los Angeles Times, taking a different tack, invested in an established local Spanish-language daily, La Opinion, and last year created a special team of editors and reporters to cover the Hispanic market for the Times.

Not all immigrants are Hispanic, of course, and the San Jose Mercury News may have pointed to future strategies by launching its weekly Viet Mercury early this year to cover its market's large Vietnamese population.

At the heart of all these efforts is the desire of traditional dailies to maintain their dominant hold on local markets in an era of weakening circulation. In the past, the major threat to most daily newspaper franchises was the emergence of suburban communities, a threat newspapers countered with geographic zoning.

This new, language-based threat does not always conform to any particular geographic logic, forcing newspapers into a different, niche strategy. At one time newspapers tended to write off immigrant populations as too small and poor to be of interest to advertisers. But the populations no longer are small, and as the experience in Miami has shown, many immigrants move up rapidly into the middle class and become attractive to advertisers.

The hope is that after exposure to a newspaper's non-English publication, readers eventually will gravitate to the English-language paper as they assimilate. This may be a long time coming, but at least in the meantime a newspaper's foreign-language efforts will help it reflect the community it serves.