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The Rise And Fall Of Spanish-Language Weekly Newspapers In California

Spanish-language weeklies created by English-language dailies, which began to emerge in the mid in California's Central Valley in the 1990s, are now disappearing.
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FRESNO, Calif. -- In late December, the Spanish-language newspaper El Sol, published by the Visalia Times Delta -- a daily newspaper owned by Gannett -- announced that it would close after eight years and a circulation of 15,000 weekly readers.

The cited reason for the closure of the Visalia, Calif., newspaper was poor advertising revenue.

Across the country and Spanish and English language publishing, print publications' bottom lines have been decimated by a critical combination of factors. In the wake of the economic downturn -- with California being hit particularly hard -- and the widening reach of the internet, few print publications have been spared budget cuts, layoffs and even closures.

But many in the industry anticipated that given the rocketing growth of the Latino population in states like California -- and consequently, the Spanish language market -- newspapers speaking to this audience would be a sustainable investment.

El Sol's potential audience -- and consumer reach -- has increased steadily, according to 2010 census data. In Tulare County, where the newspaper circulated, the Latino population increased by 10 percent in the last 10 years, becoming 60 percent of the 500,000 residents in the county, situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In the mid-1990s, Spanish-language weeklies created by English-language dailies began to emerge in nearly every city in California's Central Valley.

Commercial interest was the driving force behind the decision. To sell advertising revenue, why not charge a bit extra for a "combo" newspaper package in both English and Spanish? Considering the burgeoning Latino population, at first glance, the idea was not far fetched. Thus emerged El Californiano, published by the Californian, of Bakersfield; Noticiero Semanal, published by the Porterville Recorder, of Porterville; Las Noticias del Valle, published by the Hanford Sentinel, of Hanford; El Tiempo, published by the Merced County Times, of Merced, although the newspaper later became an independent; Vida en el Valle, published by the Fresno Bee of Fresno; El Sol 2000, published by the Modesto Bee, of Modesto; and El Sol of Visalia, among others.

Of these Spanish-language, or bilingual newspapers that depended on English-language dailies, the only survivors are the Noticiero Semanal, which went from a 26,000-circulation paper to 8,000 and is limited to eastern Tulare County, and Vida en el Valle, which began printing 170,000 copies weekly after integrating with El Sol 2000 of Modesto. It should be noted, though, that many of these English language weeklies that published the Spanish-language dailies have suffered as well.

But not considered here are the independent family newspapers, a species also on the brink of extinction, as demonstrated by the 2008 demise of San Joaquin Valley's oldest weekly, El Mexicalo -- published out of Bakersfield -- after almost a quarter-century in existence.

Some inside the industry believe that beyond the economic difficulties of the industry on the whole, the acute suffering of the California Spanish-language daily may be more political than financial.

But why have even papers under the "protection" of an established major publisher failed or faced difficulties?

"Those who established these newspapers (the English-language dailies) saw it only as business, that's why when things went wrong, they simply closed," said Miguel Baez, former editor of Noticiero Semanal. "It's hard to put a face on a project like that if your only interest is money. If you don't believe in the project, how are you going to promote it?"

"There are no strategies to promote the publication, let alone to garner publicity," Baez added. He said the larger papers were unable to sell their "little brother," the Spanish-language weeklies. The strategy of selling "combos" advertising packages meant that advertisers paid mere cents to run the same ad in the Spanish-language papers. This commercial strategy demonstrated the difficulty that English-language newspaper publishers had selling advertising in Spanish.

Rosario Ortiz said she gave up writing despite two state awards and being considered an "emerging star" in Central California's Latino journalism community. "I left a bit disillusioned," she said. "How is it possible that, with such a broad audience, these newspapers disappear?"

Ortiz used to write for El Popular, El Californiano and other papers in Bakersfield. She believes that the closure of newspapers that are dependent on English publications is also politically motivated.

"I think that papers such as The Californian were criticized by their own allies for issuing a Spanish-language newspaper (the bilingual El Californiano, which circulated for less than three years) and that influenced its closure."

And it goes even further, she said.

"Those that have the power -- supervisors in charge of the English-language media -- tell you what to report, so you're out of touch with the community."

Both Baez and Ortiz acknowledge the importance of Spanish-language outlets in the Valley.

"Because this is a rural area, information outlets are fewer," Baez said.

Ortiz said a Spanish-language community paper is a necessity.

"Television in Spanish is an imitation of English-language television," she said. "We need a newspaper. We need to promote and participate in community dialogue."

Nicolas Kanellos, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Houston, also acknowledged the importance of a Spanish-language press. "The community needs this type of newspaper. It's part of the culture," he said, adding that "eliminating access to local news leaves people out of the system."

The report "The State of the Spanish Language Media 2010" from the Center for Spanish Language Media at the University of North Texas stated that newspaper advertising in these Spanish-language publications declined 25.3 percent from $103 million in 2008 to $77 million in 2009. National Hispanic magazine ad revenue declined 38.2 percent from $182 million in 2008 to $112.5 million in 2009. In 2010, the same study observed a spike of only 1.5 percent in advertising revenue. The report said that the reduction in revenue forced publishers to take steps to cuts costs, ranging from staff reductions to cutting the numbers of publications days. These changes are the result of a weakened economy, not a waning audience.

The growth of Spanish-language television -- including access through cable and satellite outlets to channels from Latin American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and others -- demonstrates the growing demand for Spanish-language media, according to experts.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and '70s, the Chicano movement pressured media outlets to integrate Latino personnel on staff.

Even in the early '80s there were fewer English-language television broadcasters willing to contract Latino reporters and news anchors for Latino or other ethnic news.

Today, however, publishers have sought to tap into the growing Latino market.

Gradually Latinos appeared to gain ground in mass media. Hispanic newspapers began to emerge, whether independent or supported consequently by demand placed on English-language media. But many of the newspapers that appeared during this time are now disappearing.

"In general, most of these newspapers no longer exist, and journalists who wrote for these outlets found work elsewhere," Kanellos said. "Now, there is a shortage of Latinos in media companies."

The importance of a Spanish-language press in California is underscored by the strong historic ties between the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Increasing trade with Latin America keeps the connection alive. In 2011, two airlines -- Aeromexico and Volaris -- began direct flights from Fresno to Guadalajara.

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