By Justin Mitchell, Feet in 2 Worlds
When Angelo Falcón wrote “The End of El Diario/La Prensa?”, he didn’t have particularly high expectations. But the article, a look at possible future scenarios for New York’s legendary, nearly 100 year-old Spanish-language newspaper hit a nerve with New York’s Latino establishment.
“I write all these things all the time, and most of the time people ignore me,” Falcón told Fi2W with a laugh. As the president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy, and a prominent writer, researcher, and academic in the field of Latino studies in the United States, Falcón knows that he writes for a select audience.
But soon after the piece’s July 16 publication, Falcón realized he had something special.
“This time, I was like, oh my god!” he said
Earlier this year, ImpreMedia, the company that operates El Diario and several other Spanish-language dailies throughout the United States, was acquired by US Hispanic Media Inc. a subsidiary of S.A. La Nación, an Argentinian company. This was just the latest in a long line of ownership and management shake-ups in the last decade or so, a decade that has seen a drop in the paper’s circulation, dramatic staffing cuts, and a growing sentiment among prominent New York Latinos that the paper’s overall quality and commitment to its community have declined considerably.
Several people pointed out that S.A. La Nación runs one of the most prominent conservative papers in Argentina, while El Diario has long been known for reflecting progressive views in New York’s Latino community. Many feel this is another reason to worry about the future of El Diario/La Prensa.
According to Falcón, S.A. La Nación paid a paltry price for ImpreMedia, while at the same time dismissing many of its executives. He also cited rumors about the impending departure of Rossana Rosado, who has been the paper’s publisher since 1999, as well as an apparent redefinition of her role as working under ImpreMedia CEO Monica Lozano to “implement an impactful external agenda that builds solid and lucrative relationships with leading business, civic, political and community partners,” which Falcón suggested as constituting “a demotion or preamble to a buyout.”
Among possible scenarios Falcón suggests in his article are the new owners pushing a more conservative agenda for the paper, allowing the paper to fail by not investing resources, or possibly shutting the paper down outright.
As Falcón is quick to admit, the article is just him “speculating.” Yet based on the response, he feels he clearly expressed concerns that have been stewing for quite some time.
“Sometimes you write these things and you feel like you tapped into something out there,” he said. ”This was the case in this regard.”
Recently, El Diario columnist Dolores Prida wrote a response to Falcón’s article, in which she argues that New York’s Latino community won’t allow the paper’s demise. No comment has come from the paper’s management, and El Diario/La Prensa declined to comment directly for this story.
But in conversations with various media figures, academics, and former employees of El Diario, Fi2W found a remarkable concord of opinion on the current state of the paper. Nearly everyone agreed that the paper is not what it used to be.
“You can see a marked difference between the newspaper, El Diario of today, and the newspaper, El Diario of twelve or fifteen years ago,” said the leader of a prominent Latino community organization who asked to remain anonymous. “I used to read El Diario every day many years ago. I don’t even look at it now.”
According to him and other community leaders, two of the most important aspects of El Diario’s past greatness have slowly been abandoned: a strong editorial voice, and a community-based, investigative approach to reporting that made the paper more than a news source, but a community advocate.
“Its editorials used to actually have an impact on City Hall, and up in Albany,” Falcón said.
Marta Garcia is a member of the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s New York Chapter, a group Falcón also belongs to. She told Fi2W that the most unfortunate decline is in El Diario’s on-the-ground reporting.
She noted that the paper no longer covers a host of issues important to the Latino community, and the coverage it does have lacks depth. ”You have reporters that are not familiar with our community,” she said. ”The substance of the reporting is very poor.”
Miguel Sarmiento, El Diario’s former managing editor, also served as interim executive manager and ombudsman before resigning for medical reasons in November 2010. When he started with the paper, Sarmiento recalled he had over 50 reporters in his newsroom. By the time he left, that number had shrunk to 31. According to Sarmiento, the paper cut 15 more staff members soon after he left. He said that with such a small staff, the coverage suffers.
“They’re just reacting to police blotter and depending on the wire services a lot,” Sarmiento said. ”And that’s because they don’t have the personnel to cover all the areas.”
Sarmiento sees the decline of El Diario over the last decade as mostly the result of an excessive focus on transitioning to digital media before the Latino community was ready.
“El Diario readers, they are a whole different segment of the market,” he said. ”They do not have access or easy access to computers, iPods, or any other of the digital era tools yet. They will, but we lag behind a few years.”
This argument is supported by a 2010 study from the Pew Hispanic Center that found Latinos fall considerably behind whites and slightly behind African Americans in general Internet use as well as home broadband Internet access.
Sarmiento himself was hired to help with the paper’s digital transition, as he had previously worked for AOL, and as a digital supervisor for the Spanish service of the Associated Press.
Yet with time, Sarmiento became convinced that for El Diario the secret to future success was expanding the print edition while maintaining high editorial and reporting standards. El Diario showed a slight growth in print sales a few years ago, he said, yet the company inexplicably decided to neglect that aspect of their operation.
A report from the Pew Research Center, based on data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, does show slight growth in El Diario’s circulation from roughly 2006 to 2007, with that level basically maintained until 2009, before dropping precipitously.
“You cannot bet all your marbles on one venture that doesn’t guarantee results. I saw that the print edition was the money-maker of the company,” said Sarmiento.
Many people who spoke with Fi2W wanted the paper’s editorial staff to meet with leaders in New York’s Latino community in order to learn about the issues that need to be covered. This, with a return to the high editorial and reporting standards of the past, might bring the paper back, they said.
But Miguel Pérez, a journalist and professor at Lehman College, feels that this is unlikely. People have grown tired of El Diario, he said, and the chances of the paper taking any outside advice is low.
“I’ve actually sat down with them on several occasions and suggested ideas that frankly go in one ear and out the other,” he said. He calls the current state of the paper a “failure of management,” and calls the circulation losses in such a burgeoning Latino market “inexplicable.”
This leads to the worst-case-scenario that Falcón suggested: what if El Diario goes out of business?
But others say El Diario continues to fulfill an important role in the Hispanic community.
Valería Treves, the Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a nonprofit that supports immigrants in Queens, told Fi2W that she still reads the paper to learn about what is going on.
Marta Garcia expressed doubt that the paper would go out of business, but instead focused on worries about whether is would take on the new owner’s conservative viewpoint.
“My concern is, is El Diario/La Prensa going to change as we know it?” she said.
“The reactions go from people who are really saddened and concerned about it, to a number of people saying, you know, who cares?” Falcón said. ”It’s kind of a range of reactions.”
If the paper were to go out of business, most people seem to believe that it would quickly be replaced.
“It would be devastating, it would be a shame,” said Pérez. ”But I don’t think it would last for very long. I know people who would jump at the opportunity to start another daily.”
Falcón argues that it is up to El Diario to tell the community where their beloved institution is going as it closes out its first century of publication.
In a voice mail message, executive editor Erica Gonzalez told Fi2W that Impremedia CEO Monica Lozano and Rosado are ”possibly going to issue a statement soon.” Further calls to Gonzalez, Rosado, and Impremedia’s New York office asking for a timetable on the statement went unanswered.
“Right now, it’s kind of a wait and see what the next step’s going to be,” Falcón said. ”How they react, I think, is going to be very telling in terms of what the future of the paper is.”
This article was first published in Feet in 2 Worlds.
Justin Mitchell was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theater, and worked as an ESL teacher in the Czech Republic, Cambodia, and Korea. He is now a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in international journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mittinjuschell.
Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.
[Photo by Justin Mitchell/Fi2W]