Spanish-Language Papers Pose Unique Challenge for Media Companies

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The controversy this week over ethical breaches at The Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sibling highlights broader challenges facing media companies that seek to publish Spanish-language papers in major U.S. media markets.

Spanish-language newspapers have taken off in recent years, growing by more than 30 percent since 2000 alone, with nearly 400 daily and weekly papers at newsstands across the country and ad revenue of nearly $1 billion (?790 million). The McClatchy Co.’s El Nuevo Herald in Miami is among the oldest and most successful.

Yet the revelation that eight of its reporters and 29 of its freelancers received payment for appearing on the U.S. government-owned Radio and TV Marti networks, illustrates some of the differences in philosophy and practice at Spanish-language newspapers that can seem jarring to the English-speaking press and public.

Those differences come in large part because a majority of reporters who write fluently in Spanish still come from Latin America, which lacks the United States’ history of freedom of the press.

“The Spanish-language daily papers in the United States by and large adhere to the standards of the English dailies,” said Gilbert Bailon, president and editor of Al Dia, the Spanish-language sibling of Belo Corp.’s The Dallas Morning News. “But I do think where you have some conflicts is that we all import people from other countries to work in newspapers.”

Journalists trained there may be unaware of government open records policies, making them more likely to use less reliable or anonymous sources.

“That doesn’t mean they are unethical, it just means they may not have the same training,” Bailon said.

The region also has a strong tradition of advocacy journalism, where the appearance of objectivity is less paramount, although these days it is equally frowned upon for journalists at independent newspapers in Latin America to accept money from the government.

Making things more difficult for Spanish-language newspapers in major markets is that they usually have smaller budgets, staff and circulations than their English-language siblings. Yet because they are often linked to these high-profile papers, they are held to the same standards.

“If two dailies coexist in the same city, one in English, one in Spanish, same building, same company, there is no question in my mind that the Spanish staff is sort of the poor cousin, who gets the hand me downs,” said Tampa-based media consultant Mario Garcia.

The Tribune Co.’s Orlando Sentinel tries to avoid that problem by keeping the weekly El Sentinel staff in the same newsroom, said Orlando Sentinel Managing Editor Mark Russell.

“There’s no separation with El Sentinel staff on training,” he said.

And even large Spanish-language papers generally have a much more narrow audience than their English counterparts ? one that often does not get a voice in the mainstream press. As a result, their audience expects them to advocate on their behalf, especially in the area of immigration, where Spanish-language news coverage is strongly sympathetic toward illegal immigrants.

“They tend to be part of the community, not speaking to the community,” said University of Southern California journalism professor Felix Gutierrez, who specializes in Hispanic media. “If that changed, they would lose their audience.”

Advocacy journalism and the appearance of objectivity was at the heart of a recent Miami Herald investigation, which found that nearly 50 local journalists ? including the El Nuevo Herald writers ? received payment from Radio and TV Marti. The U.S. government networks beam programming into Cuba aimed at undermining the Castro government.

Most of the Miami reporters were Cuban-born, and their public opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro was widely supported in the city’s exile community.

On Tuesday, the papers’ publisher, Jesus Diaz, resigned over the conflict, saying the company’s ethics policies had previously been poorly communicated, inconsistently applied and misunderstood. He said the company would strengthen its ethics policies and would no longer tolerate reporters getting paid for appearing on government broadcasts. Two staff reporters who had been fired took their jobs back.

Still, editors from The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald remain at odds over whether journalists should be allowed to make unpaid appearances. El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Humberto Castello said that though he opposes journalists accepting government money, he considered unpaid Marti appearances to be consistent with his paper’s mission and saw no conflict.

Differences between the English and Spanish-language publications may decrease over time as universities in the U.S. offer their own Spanish-language programs, including Florida International University, the University of Miami, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Texas, El Paso.

A growing number of their students are U.S.-born, including Rocio Zamora, 27, who is getting her masters in communication at USC.

“I’m used to English-language papers,” said Zamora, who was born to Mexican immigrants and raised in Los Angeles. “I chose journalism in Spanish because I wanted my parents and the rest of my family to be able to enjoy my work.”

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