Demographics drive the Latino media story

Rural Georgia is not the place you'd expect to find a boom in Spanish-language media. But Dalton, a small town in the north, is now home to three Spanish-language newspapers and a Spanish-language pop radio station.

Hispanic media have grown in the past decade - newspapers alone have increased 55 percent - and with the news this year from the census that Hispanics are the largest US minority, more attention is being paid to how to reach this group (see related story, page 15) that has a purchasing power of more than $490 billion a year.

The idea of tapping a new market is on the minds of some mainstream papers, which have been watching their profits and circulation go south recently.

"We have to find new readers and new revenue streams," says Tim Franklin, editor of The Orlando Sentinel, which announced this month that it will launch a bilingual paper, El Sentinel, in August.

Existing Spanish-language media outlets are hopeful that the census news will bring them more business from national advertisers and more competitive ad rates. Some say they are already hearing from ad people and gaining in stature in the eyes of their mainstream peers, who are learning of their large following and quality journalism.

"It hit like a bomb: 'Hey, we're here!'," says Maria Elena Salinas, co-anchor for top-rated network Univision, which often gets better ratings than mainstream competitors and has won Emmys for its coverage. "I think we're going through one of our best times," adds the 20-year veteran.

Even before the 2000 head count, Hispanic media - print, radio, and TV in Spanish, English, or both -were on the rise. Since 1990, Hispanic newspapers have grown from 355 to 550, according the National Hispanic Media Directory. Hispanic magazines grew from 177 to 352.

Some of these publications are affiliated with mainstream entities - like five-year-old People en Espanol from Time Inc., which now has a circulation of 325,000. Kirk Whisler, publisher of the directory says that 132 of the Hispanic newspapers not owned by Hispanics, including those published by papers like The Orange Country Register (Excelsior) and The Chicago Tribune (AExito!).

The Orlando Sentinel was already talking about starting a bilingual paper at the end of last year, but local census figures sealed the deal.

"Hispanics now make up 18 percent of our market," says Mr. Franklin, adding that in Osceola County, to the south of Orlando, the Hispanic population has risen 182 percent in the past decade.

Growth like that is not lost on advertisers. Mr. Whisler, who has tracked Hispanic media for decades, says in the last five years there's been huge growth in national and local ad dollars for print. National advertising alone has grown 207 percent, from $82 million to $252 million.

Debora Parker, in Dalton, knows about that firsthand. She's in charge of sales for both the Spanish-language radio station and one of the weekly papers, El Tiempo, recently acquired by the same owner.

"I've been in this business [radio sales] for 12 years, but never have I had the opportunity to work with big companies like Home Depot," she says.

With the demand for more media has come a need for bilingual journalists. Some are being wooed away from mainstream media by Spanish-language publications and networks. Those who do the hiring say it can be tough to find staff who can speak and write well in both languages. Some Latinos, for example, don't speak Spanish; others have strong Spanish skills but can't do interviews in English or translate written reports.

Those who do cross over say there are advantages to working in Spanish-language media, including the opportunity to advance into management, to work with colleagues who understand the needs of the Hispanic community, and to practice advocacy-based journalism in which the target audience is clear. "There is this sense that you are really doing something to help the community," says Angelo Figueroa, editor of the monthly People en Espanol, and former editor of Nuevo Mundo, sister publication to the San Jose Mercury News.

He and others in the industry say that rather than segregating Spanish-dominate Latinos, Spanish-language media can help them to be better citizens.

"We never say to people, 'Don't learn English' -in fact, we encourage them" to learn it as a way to participate in the community, says Fernando Lopez, general manager of Telemundo station KVEA in Los Angeles, who was recently hired away from a local CBS station. (Telemundo is the No. 2 Spanish-language network.)

Many immigrants in his audience want to participate. He says -speaking from experience. They want to live like other Americans do, educating their children, buying homes, and voting. But first, many need to understand how everything from PTA meetings to politics works.

Spanish-language media often take a different approach from mainstream outlets -focusing, not surprisingly, on issues of importance to their audience. Some outlets might adopt a more opinionated tone, as is taken by media in immigrants' home countries, or cover international news from those countries.

On a national level, Ms. Salinas says that her coverage would include questions to politicians about policies that affect Hispanics. Or, when there is an earthquake in El Salvador, for example, she might spend four days reporting from there. Local outlets also target stories mainstream media spend less time on. When the federal government recently offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants, KVEA had continuous coverage on the deadline day, reporting how many hours were left to file.

In Miami, The Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, often take different approaches to the same issue. When the Elian Gonzalez custody battle came to a head, and the Miami relatives refused to give Elian back, the front-page headline of The Miami Herald read: "Family Defies Order." Whereas El Nuevo Herald captured the relief many in the local Cuban community felt: "Jubilo en Miami" (Joy in Miami).

"People pick up El Nuevo Herald not only because it's in Spanish, but because it speaks to them," says Barbara Gutierrez, a reader representative for both papers, who points out that El Nuevo Herald has shorter articles and is more opinionated. "It's just a different kind of style, and closer, I think, to what many Hispanics are used to."

The census took some people by surprise, but Ms. Gutierrez says she and her colleagues could see what was coming. She looks forward to what happens next: "The next 10 years are going to be very exciting."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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