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

Oscar Leonardo Montalban's operation is definitely low budget, but no one could accuse him of writing boring headlines. One front-page offering in his always nettlesome Mil X Mil: "Aleman: 'Soy Corrupto -- Y Que?'" ("I'm corrupt -- so what?") Montalban doesn't think much of Nicaraguan President Arnaldo Aleman, but he has equally low opinions of the rest of his country's infighting, ineffectual public servants. ("Mil means the people," Montalban explains with emotion. He sometimes adds under his byline: "El hombre de la mil.")

Montalban, who is 69 years old, has lived in Miami for 11 years and has published Mil X Mil for the past seven. During a 40-year career in Nicaragua, he reported for Managua's top newspapers and radio stations; among the dozens of history-makers he has interviewed are Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. During the Eighties he served as assistant to Enrique Bermudez, leader of the U.S.-supported contras in their war against the ruling Sandinistas. When Montalban claims to have been thrown in jail fourteen times, his wife of 32 years, Rosa, nods emphatically and repeatedly as if to affirm she remembers every incarceration. A compact man whose classic Indian features have settled into a vaguely menacing scowl, Montalban fills his publication with scandal-packed political items, homages to Nicaragua's great boxers, and his own romantic poetry.

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

He taps out copy in his bedroom on an ancient computer keyboard that sits on a dresser he uses as a desk. He frowns at the wall as he writes, and a mix of sounds echoes throughout his squat stucco house in Southwest Miami-Dade, where he lives with Rosa and three of their six children. There's a telenovela playing in the living room; heavy-metal rock muffled by a bedroom door; zooming West Flagler Street traffic just beyond the sagging hurricane fence separating the sidewalk from wild encroaching vines and brush in the front yard.

Montalban's "office" will be modernized shortly; he's waiting to receive one of CMC's donated computers, and Bill Lara will hook him up to the Internet. Although Montalban says his advertising clients (mainly Nicaraguan restaurants and shops) are faithful, he believes other prospective clients reject him for political reasons. "My paper has a bigger circulation than either of the two other Nicaraguan papers [in Miami]," he contends. "But there's a lot of advertising we don't get, because they don't like our [editorial] line. That's one reason I'm going to do all I can to support Pro Prensa."

Local government advertising in community newspapers has traditionally been allotted on the basis of political friendships. Former Miami City Manager Cesar Odio for years lavished money on a small circle of exile publications -- until he was imprisoned for corruption and the city fell into financial ruin. Miami-Dade County, too, always has reserved advertising for a clique of exiles who frequented the commission offices. (Of course the bulk of county and municipal print advertising -- bidding notices, want ads, public-meeting announcements -- has always gone to the large daily newspapers such as the Herald, El Nuevo Herald, and Diario Las Americas.)

Earlier this year the county commission approved a new policy intended to spread advertising evenly among community periodicals. For the first time a portion of the county budget ($850,000) will be set aside just for announcements in small newspapers that meet the county's circulation and financial criteria. Currently about 40 publications are listed with the communications department. Among them are Mil X Mil and Caribbean Contact, though neither has yet been offered any county ads.

The Florida State Lottery claims to be rethinking its own policy on advertising in community periodicals. Spokesman Leo DiBenigno says the lottery has decided to begin allocating a small portion of its $36 million annual advertising budget to buy space in a broader cross section of community print media. Circulation and content guidelines have yet to be determined. "We'll look at advertising in many different publications so as to reach some of these niche groups," DiBenigno says. "The new policy will make things perhaps more organized and not as ad hoc as in the past. Certain outlets have complained that they're not receiving advertising whereas others with similar demographics are. Our ultimate goal is to be fair but always understanding we have to make sure we get the most out of our finite advertising budget."

The meeting with the lottery representative that Lara had been preparing for was abruptly canceled, though, and now he and Gonzalez are concerned about a Hispanic advertising group that may be gearing up to compete with CMC for lottery promos.

Pedro Gonzalez is fuming. He has enough trouble convincing private Cuban-run businesses to advertise in La Nación. "We do have almost all the charter flight companies," Gonzalez says, mentally ticking off his client list. "The twenty biggest travel agencies [booking flights to Cuba] are already making $200 to $300 million a year, but they don't want to advertise with us. I have to go every month and fight with them, and in a year three have agreed to advertise. It's not easy for them; they have to send their children to school here, and we are a left-of-center newspaper. Most of the mayoristas [people or companies that ship goods to Cuba] won't put in advertising. They don't want trouble."

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