By: Mark Fitzgerald
Dalton, Ga., likes to brag a bit. The town of 27,912 calls itself “The Carpet Capital of the World,” and, indeed, its mills annually spin 40% of the carpet made on earth. Alongside that, its other boasts are somewhat small-bore: There’s the railroad tunnel that’s the “oldest south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” and in the town square, the visitor’s bureau notes, there’s the “only outdoor statue of Confederate General Joseph Johnston.”
But little Dalton, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians 85 miles north of Atlanta, is home to one more superlative: Three competing Spanish-language weeklies now slug it out where the Blue and the Gray fought the Battle of Tunnel Hill in 1864.
“Fifteen years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find three Hispanic people in Dalton, and now there’s three competing Hispanic weeklies. I tell you, I’ve been back for a year and a half and I’m still amazed,” said Jimmy Espy, who grew up about 30 miles away and now is the executive editor of The Daily Citizen, a 12,801-circulation paper owned by Birmingham, Ala.-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.
Dalton’s three weeklies — El Informador, El Tiempo, and La Voz — have sprung up in the last five years to serve a Spanish-speaking population that has exploded since the first Mexicans began filling jobs in the carpet mills and poultry-processing plants in the 1990s. A construction boom attracted even more. Just 151 Hispanics attended the town’s public schools in 1989. By the end of the last school year, the 2,750 Hispanics accounted for 51% of all students.
And it isn’t just Dalton. Throughout the South, quickly growing pockets of Spanish-speaking immigrants are transforming newspaper markets. In five years, La Noticia in Charlotte, N.C., has grown to be a 26,000-free-distribution paper, and attracted the competition of a semimonthly called El Progresso Hispano and a Greenville-based paper called Ecos. A bilingual paper, Latino, distributes 35,000 copies from offices in Mauldin, S.C. (population 15,224).
The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal has found an indirect way to profit from the new demographics. It had the contract to print a struggling Spanish-language semimonthly called Que Pasa. When Cuban-born businessman Jose Isasi bought the paper two years ago, the Journal acted as his newspaper mentor. It showed Que Pasa how to get better production from its front-end systems. The Journal‘s ad staff sold space in the weekly and attracted better accounts.
“We spent a fair amount of money and time with our folks getting him up to speed,” Journal General Manager Pat Taylor said. It’s paying off: Que Pasa now publishes weekly, its press run has increased — and so has the Journal‘s contract-printing revenue.
In Dalton, The Daily Citizen skipped the middleman by creating the area’s first Spanish-language weekly, El Informador. The daily soon learned that, even with a booming population, it is no easy task for a small Southern newspaper to create a successful Spanish-language product. “Unless you’re absolutely sure you want to do it — don’t do it,” Espy said. “The language barrier is enormous. And there are cultural differences, too. Not just in dealing with your staff but in the news coverage as well.”
One example: Every issue of El Informador carries far more photos of barely draped celebrities than Daily Citizen readers would tolerate. “There’s a lot of cleavage. … If I see one more picture of Jennifer Lopez, I’m gonna scream,” Espy said. But El Informador Editor Juan Valera also gives readers plenty of sports news, especially from the many local soccer leagues, plus heavy coverage of Mexico and Latin America. Crime news is also a staple in the free paper, which distributes 6,000 copies weekly.
One irony is that with all the Mexicans migrating to Dalton jobs, El Informador finds it very hard to recruit any as reporters. “It’s a real pain in the neck,” said Valera, a native of Honduras.
El Informador got its first competition when a former employee left to start El Tiempo — and the latest entry into the newspaper war is Palacio-Rios Communications, which about two years ago created two papers called La Voz, distributing 9,000 copies in Dalton and 6,000 in Rome and Calhoun to the south.
“Our vision is to stay local,” said Vice President Ricardo Rios. “The other papers concentrate on national and international news. … They’re just a source of news in Spanish, not a help for the community.”