A New Front Page

Bill Lara and Pedro Gonzalez have a vision: Unite Miami's small community newspapers as a force to be reckoned with

The meeting had a lofty mission: to launch a committee to work on behalf of freedom of the press in Miami. It was early January 2000, and the gathering site was the Coral Gables office of the Community Media Council (CMC). This two-year-old nonprofit corporation has positioned itself as a kind of umbrella organization for small independent media outlets, principally the free tabloids that proliferate throughout Miami-Dade County's vast diversity of immigrant communities. Editors of several of these periodicals were invited to the meeting, as well as representatives of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, the Society of Professional Journalists, and New Times. About fifteen men and a few women attended. No one seemed to be chairing the meeting; it was more like a desultory discussion, alternating between Spanish and English.

"By the end of the year, with the help of the ACLU, one of our goals is to compile a book on the control of and attacks on the press locally," declared Pedro Gonzalez Munne, executive director of the CMC and the prime organizer of the meeting. Later in the evening, seven men volunteered to join Gonzalez in putting together the book and other press freedom projects. They named their committee Pro Prensa.

Gonzalez's motivation had less to do with the content of local news stories than with the prevailing political climate in Miami, specifically regarding anything related to Cuba. He and others in the room who share his left-leaning politics are affected by this restrictive atmosphere, cultivated by Miami's vocal hard-line exilio. It's the force behind everything from the county government's extreme anti-Cuba business policy to violent protests at concerts given by musicians with ties to the island. Those at the meeting likewise voiced an opinion shared by many Miamians, that coverage in the Herald and El Nuevo Herald is constrained by the city's intense anti-Castro ambiance.

Sometimes Bill Lara has to be a dictator to whip a paper into shape
Bill Cooke
Sometimes Bill Lara has to be a dictator to whip a paper into shape

"Miami has a problem with freedom of expression," asserted Carlos Rivero Collado, a businessman, writer, and self-described revolutionary who was named chairman of Pro Prensa. Rivero Collado has contributed editorial essays to El Nuevo Herald and lately to Gonzalez's year-old newspaper, La Nación.

"If you do not think like the Cuban exiles," Rivero Collado went on, "they call you a communist and you have big problems. But by now the majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants here do not follow the extreme right. I would say 70 percent of Cubans don't agree, but they aren't the ones who own newspapers and radio stations. We have 100,000 Colombians, 250,000 Nicaraguans. We have large populations of Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Dominicans. Why deny the majority the right to think differently?"

Pro Prensa hasn't met since that first session and has made little progress toward compiling the planned book of press violations. But even if it never gets off the ground, the committee's mere existence reflects a transformation of Miami's unique small-time newspaper industry. From the Sixties until the early Nineties, that industry, such as it was, consisted mainly of the production of periodiquitos, little newspapers created in the living rooms or converted garages of Cuban exiles. The exile publishers' motivation was not to make money or succeed in journalism. They were creating a forum to express their views on Cuba, Castro, and what they believed would be a short exile. (Miami's Haitian community, which really began in the early Eighties, has not been without its own papers, written in French, and like the Cuban publications concentrated on the homeland instead of the local community.)

South Florida's power base is still Cuban American, and plenty of Cuban periodiquitos are still around, still predicting Castro's imminent downfall. But being in a position of power means Cubans have more access to the mainstream and identify less and less with a separate national tradition. In the meantime dozens of other immigrant communities in South Florida have grown in number and variety, and all but a few eventually have spawned their own newspapers.

It's this newer wave of community publications that prompted the creation of the Community Media Council, with its ambitious plans to unite these enterprises for greater economic and political clout. Pro Prensa is just one arm of CMC's challenge to the old, monolithic Cuban establishment in Miami-Dade. Nothing exactly like CMC has existed before in South Florida, and no other urban center can boast one, two, or three newspapers for just about every one of its immigrant groups.

The little tabloids often are the only voice for communities that barely register on television or radio. Periodiquitos go where la gente are: cafeterías, bodegas, hair salons, car repair shops. The papers cost virtually nothing to write and only slightly more to typeset, print, and distribute. Anyone can start one, and many turn a profit, though more often there's trouble securing enough advertising to continue very long without going into debt. Even in the age of cyber culture, not many of these operations have access to the Internet, although that's almost irrelevant, since they are usually highly personal and deal with a self-contained world. Few are paragons of journalistic integrity. ("They can't really report on local news, because you need reporters to do that," observes a local journalism professor. "They're not very professional.")

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