January 30, 2004

Newspaper War: Spanish-Language Press Battles for Booming Audience

By Marcello Ballve

“We’re here to fight.” Ninety years ago, that feisty mission statement launched the U.S. publishing career of Ignacio E. Lozano, founder of Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión, the country’s largest Spanish-language daily.

This month, those same words launched a newspaper war — a national contest for Spanish-speaking audiences pitting La Opinión and allies against the powerful Chicago-based Tribune Co. The outcome will have important implications for Spanish-speaking communities because it will help shape the kind of journalism that will serve these booming populations.

In a Jan. 16 editorial that repeated its founder’s pugnacious motto, La Opinión announced the Lozano family had dissolved its 50-50 partnership with Tribune Co. The paper said it was joining with private investment group CPK Media, which already owns New York City daily El Diario/La Prensa, to start the country’s first-ever national chain dedicated to Spanish-language newspapers: Impremedia.

The Tribune Co., which established commercially successful editions of the Spanish-language tabloid daily Hoy in New York City and Chicago, had long been eager to expand this chain to Los Angeles. The investment in La Opinión interfered, since the two papers would compete. That’s no longer a problem: just days after La Opinión’s announcement of the break, Tribune Co. announced L.A.’s Hoy edition would launch in March.

The 130,000-circulation La Opinión says that its purpose will remain the same: providing its mainly immigrant readership with tools to “advance in this society.” The paper says it will not bend on its commitment to community and service-oriented journalism. Instead, it envisions these “principles” spreading coast-to-coast through Impremedia, which plans more acquisitions.

With the Lozanos’ support, La Opinión frames news coverage with a focus on immigrants’ rights and Latinos’ participation in U.S. civic life. But with CPK Media investors no doubt desiring a decent return on their money, it may become more difficult for La Opinión to maintain its proclaimed vision of combative, but serious, journalism.

Competition with Tribune Co. will at least create pressure for the same kind of tight-fisted spending and resource pooling (like the “Hoy model” of multi-city editions) common to chains. The risk-averse cultures of corporatized media and its “business efficiencies” are often blamed for many newspapers’ bland editorial stances and homogenized feel.

A recent misstep at El Diario/La Prensa shows high-minded editorial ideals are not always a priority for skittish investors. Shortly after CPK Media bought El Diario/La Prensa in 2003, the new owners forced editor Gerson Borrero to cancel a column on education penned by Cuban President Fidel Castro. Borrero resigned in protest. Then, El Diario/La Prensa was embarrassed when two competitors, New York-Hoy and the New York Daily News (which plans to launch its own Spanish-language weekly) published the column.

Vicky Pelaez, an El Diario/La Prensa columnist, said the new ownership should not have meddled with editorial freedom. But she wrote that the competing publications had a commercial motive for “wrapping themselves in the flag of press freedom.”

The Lozanos may use their clout on the Impremedia board to head off attempts to meddle with editorial autonomy. They strongly maintained that each paper would remain “independent” and, unlike the Hoy model, each would preserve its separate identity. In Los Angeles, 78-year-old Ignacio E. Lozano Jr., who led La Opinión between 1953 and 1986, acknowledged in the paper that merging into a chain was “a different step than others taken during the newspaper’s history.”

Recently, Ignacio Lozano Jr. went on a kind of family pilgrimage with his daughters, including Mónica Lozano, who will now run La Opinión, to San Antonio, Texas. There, they combed through library archives and found the first copy of the newspaper that Lozano Jr.’s father published in the Texas city in 1913 before moving to Los Angeles. La Opinión “will absolutely not change,” Lozano Jr. says.

La Opinión enjoys a towering reputation in “Latino L.A.” and is the paper of record among the nearly 5 million Latinos who make the city the top Spanish-language media market. Similar are El Diario/La Prensa’s historic ties to New York’s Puerto Rican community. People have poked fun at the paper for its frequent stories on banal subjects such as leaky roofs in housing projects, but it is acknowledged as a community institution.

Still, New York’s Hoy, launched in 1998, eclipsed the 90-year-old El Diario/La Prensa’s numbers and now has a circulation of 94,000.

La Opinión, which is a broadsheet, must fear that L.A. readers will become enamored of Hoy’s tabloid format, slick design and often-sensational front-page photos and headlines. The cover of Hoy-New York on Jan. 23, for example, showed a woman awaiting deportation with an electronic monitoring device strapped to her ankle. The headline: “Like an Animal.”

On the same day, La Opinion’s more sober main headline was: “New Mexican Consuls Presented.”

Regarding Impremedia, La Opinión’s José I. Lozano, now vice chairman, told industry journal Editor & Publisher: “It was about as perfect an alignment of stars as you could get.” But Tribune Co. clouds the picture.

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