Sex! Sin! Sensation!

That's El Nuevo Herald. All the news that's fit to print, as long as it's short, simple, and easy to read.

The weather. Sports. Not-so-subliminal political messages. More weather. Soap operas. More sports. Those topics were front-page news during the last two weeks of December, if you get your news from South Florida's premier Spanish-language newspaper. And they were not mere mentions tucked away in the corners somewhere. No, like all El Nuevo Herald stories, they were displayed BIG with BOLD headlines and HUGE graphics.

On December 17 the paper ran its second consecutive Colin Powell story (the first one filled half the front page). El Nuevo used wire copy to relay Powell's acceptance speech as Secretary of State, over which editors slapped a meaty headline: "Powell Will Be Inflexible with the Enemy." In the article the new secretary is quoted promising to take a hard line against despots. Cuba was never mentioned in the story, but there could be no mistaking for whom the headline was written: Fidel Castro. On December 21 the paper gave over the largest part of its front page to pictures and an article about how the day promised to be warmer. Readers who bought the paper on Christmas Day discovered half the front page dedicated to a Colombian soap opera. On December 31 an action shot of Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Smith towered across a quarter of the front page, sandwiched by more stories about the weather.

If indeed the region's bicultural demographic represents the destiny for much of the United States, by all rights El Nuevo should be a leading voice in that new future. But it's not. In fact there seems to be widespread agreement that El Nuevo has never lived up to its potential status as the region's -- possibly even the nation's -- leading, authoritative Spanish-language printed voice. Instead a booming circulation and a position as the newspaper at the door to Latin America is put in the service of ... a tabloid.

What El Nuevo has succeeded in becoming is a triumphant example of bottom-line journalism. When it began 24 years ago, the paper represented a rare experiment by Anglos tentatively courting a foreign market in their midst. Today it's viewed as a financial success with a rosy future. At the helm is the well-respected Carlos Castañeda, who has given it a new look and direction and proudly touts the paper's sensational style and abbreviated content as the way of the future. Backed by corporate parent Knight Ridder, El Nuevo has considerable resources from which to draw. In fact its rate of return is better than the paper that spawned it. Last March El Nuevo was ranked the fourth fastest growing newspaper in the nation. The average circulation on Sunday, when most people read newspapers, is about 100,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, though some critics charge the numbers are inflated by newspaper giveaways. Castañeda denies that giveaways are factored into circulation figures. (The Miami Herald's Sunday circulation is more than 450,000.)

But its critics are legion. They say El Nuevo serves up sensationalism without substance, is slanted, and delivers spotty coverage. The paper frequently produces stories that would never be acceptable for the Miami Herald. According to current and former employees at the paper, El Nuevo is a place where news often is a second-class citizen. Graphics and predetermined story lengths regularly trump coverage of critical events in its pages. "The picture is more important than the words," says one frustrated El Nuevo reporter.

And while Castañeda is proud of his tabloid success, others in the Hispanic community feel a little cheated. A group of Venezuelan investors saw room to exploit what they see as El Nuevo's vulnerability. Although the publication they launched last October, El Diario, appears to be on shaky ground, its publisher, Oswaldo Muñoz, hoped it would appeal to all of South Florida's Hispanic nationalities in a way El Nuevo does not. He argues El Nuevo's local political coverage doesn't extend much beyond Miami-Dade County or even the City of Miami, despite sizable Hispanic populations in municipalities ranging from Hialeah to Sweetwater. "There is a need for more information," insists Muñoz. "El Nuevo doesn't even cover the Cuban communities."

Muñoz also sees a tendency by his rival to kowtow to Cuban exile hard-liners. The left already accepts this as gospel. Radio host Francisco Aruca has made a sport of pointing out El Nuevo's partiality in the way the paper translates or spins stories from English to Spanish. He believes the paper deliberately hides the truth from its readers in an effort to keep them in line. "It's a bilingual scam to [report] something in English and not Spanish," argues Aruca.

Unlike El Nuevo's brass, Muñoz believes newspapers have social as well as business roles. He had hoped to incubate pan-Hispanic leaders in South Florida through the pages of El Diario. "We want to have our own commissioners: Nicaraguans, Colombians, Peruvians, Venezuelans," explains Muñoz. "We don't want to fight with the Cuban leadership; we just want space for our own leaders."

A world away, on the sixth floor of Knight Ridder's box-on-the-bay building, El Nuevo's director and editor, Carlos Castañeda, is unfazed by the critiques. "We are not a conventional newspaper," he says. Neatly composed in his trademark bow tie, Castañeda insists he too has lofty standards for El Nuevo and goals yet unmet. After only two years under his tutelage, the paper's transformation is still incomplete. It's not easy, he contends. There are no Spanish-language models to guide the paper he strives to create.

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