December 12, 2003

Clash of Values in Spanish-Language Newspapers

By Marcelo Ballvé

An investment stampede into Latino print media this year is transforming the business. Media corporations’ bottom-line motivations and mainstream news values are beginning to eclipse an old guard of community-based entrepreneurs and journalists.

The older papers, most family-operated, are part of a Latino publishing tradition stretching back to at least 1808 when a newspaper called El Misisipi was launched in present-day Louisiana.

Today, media corporations talk up community service as they rush to roll out Latino publications, but it is only as an afterthought, says Hilbert Morales, publisher of the San Jose, California bilingual weekly El Observador since the 1980s.

“The diversity of opinion and that kind of perception through a different cultural value system, that different kind of ethos, that will disappear,” with the corporate rush, he says.

According to Morales, who competes week-to-week in San Jose with the Knight Ridder news chain’s Spanish-language paper Nuevo Mundo, “(Corporations) are establishing their own Spanish language media, not to serve that community… but to divert Spanish-language advertising dollars to help their bottom-line.”

The Chicago-based Tribune Co. has made the biggest splash with its successful Hoy brand, a tabloid daily that expanded to Chicago this year after establishing a flagship paper in New York. Also this year, Knight Ridder launched a daily, El Diario La Estrella, in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Another chain, the Hearst Corp., owner of The San Francisco Chronicle, announced in 2003 it would syndicate a new Spanish-language weekly insert called “Diversión”. Spanish-language dailies were also announced or launched in San Diego, Orlando and Dallas; even relatively modest weeklies have received injections of investment cash.

At many Latino newspapers controlled by mainstream media companies a “culture clash” soon surfaces. The traditional advocacy role clashes with mainstream standards that generally preclude taking a strong stand in news pages for causes like immigrants’ rights, says Claudia Melendez, who teaches “Journalism and the Latino Community,” at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Javier Aldape, publisher of Knight Ridder’s El Diario La Estrella, disputes that. “I certainly don’t shy away from the term advocacy journalism.” He says the investment in doubling his editorial staff this year as Knight Ridder transformed the weekly into a daily means better news is available to Dallas-Ft. Worth readers.

Still, a clash of values was clearly evident this year in Los Angeles when the country’s largest Spanish-language daily, La Opinión, with a circulation of 130,000, suddenly announced a “divorce” from the Tribune Co., which had owned 50% of the newspaper. The Lozano family—grandchildren of founder Ignacio E. Lozano — is now searching for venture capital to go independent.

The paper’s editorial page, the day the split was publicized, declared La Opinión’s community-oriented vision “incompatible” with its former partner’s goals: “We are in deep disagreement with the idea that a newspaper be principally a vehicle for marketing or that we be forced to abandon the principles that are close to our hearts.”

Tribune, for its part, is saying it supports La Opinión becoming independent. But industry journal Editor & Publisher and The Wall Street Journal claim such a statement is disingenuous. Both sources say Tribune is likely to expand its Hoy brand with a third edition in Los Angeles as early as the beginning of next year, in which case the 77-year-old La Opinión and Hoy would compete head-to-head.

Tribune’s Hoy business model includes consolidated newsrooms to maximize “business efficiencies.” National and international news, for example, can come from a central desk in New York, says Tribune spokeswoman Christine Hennessey. When Tribune’s Chicago Spanish-language publication converted from a weekly known as Éxito to publishing daily as Hoy, she says, Tribune only had to add “three or four” editorial staffers.

Felix Gutiérrez, a visiting professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, says corporate media should not skimp on editorial costs in hopes of squeezing higher profits out of new Spanish-language papers. “If you’re not putting a heavy focus on editorial content in these communities people are not going to pick up your product,” he says.

Critics say some editorial freedom already has been eroded. In July 2003, Entravi-sion, a Latino-owned media conglomerate, announced its sale of the 90-year-old New York City Spanish-language daily El Diario/La Prensa for some $20 million to a private group, an alphabet soup of investment firms: Clarity Partners LP, BMO Halyard Partners, ACON Investments and Knight Paton Media.

The editor, Gerson Borrero, resigned only three months later when the new owners spiked a column he had planned to run penned by Cuban President Fidel Castro, apparently deeming it too controversial. That wasn’t the end of the story. Both Hoy and the New York Daily News decided to publish Castro’s column on education anyway, embarrassing the new owners.

Borrero says the flap would never have occurred under the old ownership, and expects similar situations to occur as media impresarios inexperienced in the business enter the Spanish-language market. He says, “I hope that when it does happen again, journalists will have the good conscience to resist owners’ pressures.”

Ballvé is an associate editor at The Pacific News Service (mballve@pacificnews. org). “El Norte Digest” is a weekly column on news and views from the Latino and Latin American press and communities.

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