January 19, 2004

¡Viva la Competencia!

The newspaper battle for the Hispanics of Los Angeles is fully engaged. The Tribune Company announced today that in March it will publish a Los Angeles edition of its successful Spanish-language tabloid Hoy, going head-to-head against the venerable La Opinion, which until a few months ago was half owned by Tribune.

The battle is part of a fascinating struggle for the nationís largest minority market and it holds lessons that mainstream newspapers could employ in their own readership efforts.

The Tribune-La Opinion relationship was doomed from the beginning, the result of Tribune's $6.5 billion acquisition of Times-Mirror in 2000. La Opinion, still family run and managed by the grandchildren of founder Ignacio Lozano, is proud of its identity and wanted nothing more from Tribune than capital. Tribune, though, had grander plans - a network of Spanish-language dailies built on the tabloid template of Hoy and scaled to a national level. The two visions had no chance of meshing and Tribune and La Opinion announced their corporate divorce in October of last year, a month after Tribune had launched the Chicago edition of Hoy. Los Angeles - the nation's largest Hispanic market (more than 40 percent of the 16.6 million population) - was next.

To counter Tribune's coming bilingual expansion in Los Angeles, La Opinion and El Diario/La Prensa of New York, the nation's oldest Spanish-language daily, last week formed a new company that will publish its own a national chain of Latino-targeted newspapers.

I wrote about why Hispanics are such an untapped - and tantalizing - market for U.S. publishers for American Journalism Review last fall. [ Read: Dismantling the Language Barrier ]. Here are some data from that piece:

 There were 38 million Hispanics in 2002, 58 percent more than a decade earlier. By 2020, one in five residents will be Hispanic.
 Hispanic spending power, now $580 billion, grows 8.7 percent annually, nearly twice that of non-Hispanics. California holds one-third of this economic clout.
 Hispanic-oriented newspapers and magazines generated $1.3 billion in revenue in 2002. By comparison, the operating revenue for Knight Ridder's 31 newspapers that year was $2.8 billion.

The decision by Tribune and other major U.S. newspaper companies (Knight Ridder in Miami and Fort Worth, and Belo in Dallas) to go after Spanish-speaking readers in their own language represents the industry's creeping realization that one-size newspaper not only doesn't fit all, but it can also alienate for lifetime an entire class of would-be readers.

Newspapers covering communities with significant Hispanic populations have tried for decades to entice Spanish-speaking readers with weekly, community-oriented publications. For the most part, these weeklies have been under-funded by publishers, understaffed by newsrooms and undersold by advertising departments, and thereby often perceived by the English-speaking staffs of their parent papers as weak journalistically and evidence that Hispanics don't read papers.

Indeed, a June 2003 study by the Public Research Institute of news consumption habits by ethnic minorities in the San Francisco Bay Area concluded that Hispanics preferred to receive their news from television rather than from newspapers in part because of their low level of education compared to Asian immigrants.

Of course, Anglo Americans also (overwhelmingly) prefer TV as their primary news source over newspapers, so this was not a shocking finding. Unfortunately, the Public Research Institute suffered because there are no Spanish-language dailies in the Bay Area so it could not measure how Hispanics might have responded to a news menu that included a full-service, daily newspaper in their native language as wells as several Spanish-language TV stations.

Publishers are betting millions - emboldened by the success of Hoy in New York and El Nuevo Herald in Miami - that Hispanics will read newspapers designed and written with them in mind.

Can lessons be drawn from these Spanish-language initiatives that mainstream newspapers can use to invigorate readership?

Certainly. Among them:

 Follow the reader: When the community changes, so must the journalism. A news formula that's right for one community is wrong for another. That doesn't mean writing feel-good stories to appeal to a certain demographic; it means applying the highest level of journalistic skill to the issue that matter most to your community.

 Be a demographics demon: Know the audience. Don't pander. Understand. Respond.

 Speak the language of the community in the newsroom: Whether the language is Spanish, hip-hop, Texan or Bronx, readers will notice if you try to fake it.

 Take chances: Newspapers are losing readers already. So what if you launch a youth-oriented tab and it fails? The lessons learned from failure often lead to success.

 Aim high: Forget weeklies. They get no respect in the newsroom. If you want new readers, go after them every day and fund the resources to make that happen.

Posted by Tim Porter at January 19, 2004 04:13 PM