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By Terrence McCoy
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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.
All things considered Castañeda professes to be pleased with El Nuevo. He is running a business, and the results adhere to the bottom line. "People can say whatever they want to say, but for me the thermometer is the circulation figures," says the smiling 68-year-old newspaperman.
And he fears no challenge from efforts to cover the diversity of South Florida's Hispanics. "It is trying to exploit the ghetto, and [they] don't buy newspapers," he notes disparagingly. "That's for those free papers you have around for the communities."
Francisco Aruca studies El Nuevo like the Chinese would scrutinize wall graffiti for insight into their leaders' decisions. To Aruca El Nuevo forms part of a vast right-wing conspiracy he calls "the evil industry." Its dominant ethos is to capitalize on anti-Castroism, both politically and economically. Under this theory El Nuevo's coverage is shaped by members of a powerful cabal whose membership includes local politicians; the publisher of the two Heralds, Alberto Ibargüen; and the Cuban American National Foundation among others. (Not to be outdone, Aruca's antagonists brand the loquacious radio host a communist because a travel company he owns benefits economically from relations with the Cuban government.)
Past and present employees of El Nuevo laugh at Aruca's conspiracy theory. The reality is much more complex, they argue. For example many of the reporters at El Nuevo, particularly those who write about Cuba, are exiles from the island. They write from their own obvious perspective, and they protect their own. "The bias is not institutionalized," insists one non-Cuban El Nuevo reporter. "It's their bias."
A certain slant might be good business sense. El Nuevo's most loyal readers are Cuban exiles. Maria Travierso, a Costa Rican former El Nuevo reporter who now directs El Diario's newsrooms, adds: "There isn't a diabolic plot. It's just about money."
Nonetheless Aruca has amassed a body of evidence that he reads over the air to support his theory. "They are making fun of you," he tells his listeners as he narrates. "They are treating you as second-rate citizens and readers." He relates a couple of recent examples.
This past June 12, the Miami Herald ran a page-one story titled, "Two Defectors Among Cuba's Doctor Envoys in Third World." The article attempted to give context to an event much discussed in Miami: the defection of two Cuban doctors working in Zimbabwe. (When the doctors finally made it to Miami, Mayor Joe Carollo held a free public banquet with full bar for them on the terrace of city hall.) The story, by Chris Gaither, was notable for its balance. In stark terms it discussed the desperate need Cuba helps fill for doctors in Africa. At the same time, the author showed that Cuba sends its doctors not solely out of altruism but because the island needs the hard currency they produce. Moreover special perks for the Cuban doctors have at times created tensions in the countries where they work.
A much shorter translated version of the story appeared in El Nuevo, also on page one. Aruca notes that if the article had been edited solely for length, staff simply could have cut from the bottom. Instead the editor deleted selective paragraphs that changed the balance of the story. In essence most of the quotations favorable to the Cuban doctors were axed. Among the quotations omitted were sentences such as, "Into the void stepped the Cubans, whose work Sanders calls valiant and indispensable...." Aruca is outraged. "What they leave out is precisely the thing that would make people think," he opines.
It is on topics such as the embargo or anti-Castro activities that Aruca believes the paper publishes the most bias. Such was the case on May 14, 2000, in a front-page story titled, "Cuba Embargo May Be Eased." The article by Ana Radelat reports on a trend that has many Cuban exiles fuming: alliances by U.S. politicians and business interests to lift the embargo.
Among the excised quotations that appeared in the Miami Herald but not in the El Nuevo translation was one from Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex), in which the well-known conservative says about the embargo: "We're hurting the Cuban people and American producers." Closer to home was a deleted paragraph that had stated in the English version: "Moreover the staunchest defenders of the long-standing U.S. Embargo against Cuba have been battered by their fight over Elian Gonzalez, which has elicited little support among both the general public and Capitol Hill lawmakers."
Aruca points out the bias he finds is not limited solely to translations. It also affects how stories are covered. Case in point is a recent study on Cuban exile views released by Florida International University.
El Nuevo began its significantly shorter story by noting that the poll indicated Cuban exiles would vote for George W. Bush for president and would approve an invasion of the island because they don't see change coming to Cuba anytime soon. The Miami Herald story was spun differently, its introduction focused solely on the news that Cuban exiles are giving up hope that change will come to the island anytime soon. The survey detected a loosening of exile views regarding the sale of medicine to Cuba. This point was missing in the El Nuevo story. The English version of the story included more details of the survey and greater analysis than the truncated Spanish-language article. The Herald also included a paragraph that would never appear in El Nuevo. Author Ana Acle wrote: "Local Cubans acknowledged the embargo was not working but, in an apparent contradiction, overwhelmingly favored tightening it anyway."
Aruca sees the different takes as a deliberate attempt to deceive El Nuevo's readership. In his eyes the FIU survey further underscores that the hard-line perspective is disappearing, and he thinks exile leaders strive to hide that fact. In addition he's left wondering why a survey detailing the opinions of El Nuevo's core readership is treated at greater length in the Miami Herald.
"Either you don't want to feed the audience with details they might not like, or you don't trust them to understand it," he concludes.
In late November, when an infamous anti-Castro fighter and several Miami-based exiles were arrested in Panama on charges of plotting to assassinate the Cuban dictator, it was almost guaranteed El Nuevo would not inform its readers as well as the Heraldwould. Although both papers had correspondents in Panama, the Miami connection, which would be of obvious interest to local readers, received scant coverage by El Nuevo. On Sunday, November 19, the day after the story broke, the Herald ran a long piece detailing the identities of the suspects, their Miami jobs, and their repeated run-ins with the law. None of that was available in El Nuevo, which instead chose to talk about speculation that Castro had announced the plot as a way to upstage the other Latin-American presidents gathered with him at the Ibero-American summit.
El Nuevo director Castañeda says he doesn't care about Aruca, and he refuses to talk about particular stories. He points out that he stays away from radio and television and doesn't make political points with anyone. "What I believe in are circulation figures," he declares.
Sitting in his office next to a window that overlooks a church steeple, the avuncular Castañeda does allow that his reporters are human beings with opinions. He recalls a quotation by Time magazine cofounder Henry Luce, who dismissed objectivity as a myth. "We cannot talk about objectivity," he recalls Luce saying. "We can talk about balanced information, because newspapers are made by people with opinion, passion, and bias. I think that's true."
Aruca contends that under Castañeda the bias has worsened. Long-time reporters at the paper say that if anything, the editor has helped in some small way to depoliticize the paper. He lived in Puerto Rico for decades and thus is not as steeped in Miami's intrigues and personalities. "El Nuevo is at its least Cuban right now," notes one non-Cuban El Nuevo reporter.
According to both present and former El Nuevo reporters, until Castañeda's arrival, it was standing practice that they could not write negatively about leaders in the exile community. Apparently those prohibitions have been eased. "There is more freedom to write what you want," another veteran who works at the paper concurs.
Carlos Castañeda has four newspapers spread across his desk: the London-based Financial Times, the New York Times, El Nuevo, and the Miami Herald. For Castañeda they offer lessons on what works and what doesn't in journalism. And he's happy to share his passion for the subject.
According to the seasoned newspaperman, nothing is more important than the front page. Publisher Alberto Ibargüen wanted the coins to leap from a reader's pocket into the El Nuevo vending machine. Castañeda has the skill to make his boss's dreams come true. He also benefited from inheriting a paper so bad, expectations were nonexistent. Still, one can't help but think no matter how profit-hungry Knight Ridder may be, it's doubtful the company would allow Ibargüen to do to the Miami Herald what Castañeda has done to El Nuevo.
The editor sneers at the English sister paper on his desk. Most of the stories on the Herald's front page continue inside the paper. These are called jumps in newspaper parlance. Castañeda doesn't like them. He says 70 percent of jumps aren't read. El Nuevo will never have more than one jump on the front page and then only for a quick and brief trip to page two. "Readers can't be bothered to open the paper and look for a story," he believes.
There is no room for longer stories either. He cites polls that indicate people simply don't read past fourteen inches (roughly ten paragraphs) unless the story has personal relevance.
Castañeda picks up the New York Times. He's been a reader of the paper since 1949, but he complains all the stories jump. Rarely does he follow them inside. When he does, they are hard to find in the bowels of the back pages. "If you have two papers and a place to buy it," he says, pointing to the front page of the Miami Herald next to El Nuevo, "you won't sell with [the Miami Herald]."
He lifts the well-regarded Financial Times. This is his model, he insists. It's true the FT doesn't have real jumps on the front page. Instead it offers capsulelike entries with referrals, almost de facto jumps, at the bottom. The FT also happens to be comprehensive and well written.
This is what Castañeda wants for El Nuevo. "Instead of having a long, long story, we have that story and we split it," he explains pointing at different parts of the page. "The facts here. The reactions here. The consequences here. Three different headlines, not just one. Have fun with the story."
But unlike the FT, El Nuevo is not particularly well written, comprehensive, or well regarded outside Miami. It's closer to USA Today, with a trashy touch of Rupert Murdoch. In Latin America it's not perceived as a real newspaper, according to Mario Diament, coordinator of the Spanish-language master's degree program in journalism at FIU. "They see it as a propaganda tool more than anything else," says the Argentine, who previously worked as an opinion-page editor at El Nuevo. "If you ask in Latin America, nobody has a good opinion of it."
In El Nuevo stories are given prominence based largely on the quality of pictures that come with them. For example the death of a child in a car accident in Texas received prominent play above the fold in the paper early last September. The short article tried without supporting evidence to pin the tragedy on the Firestone tire recall. It's evident the dramatic picture of a distraught parent next to an overturned car alongside his child's covered corpse is the true reason the piece ran. The grim Associated Press photograph dwarfed the small story underneath it.
Castañeda is far from ashamed at the huge pictures and splashy headlines. He brings up with evident pride an example of what he likes about his paper. On October 8 El Nuevo ran huge front-page stories about a Cuban woman who married the duke of Luxembourg. The entire front page was given to the Cuban duchess. Castañeda boasts about the circulation boost the story gave him. "I sold almost 2000 more papers on that Sunday," he proclaims.
It's interesting to note what major U.S. newspapers were reporting that day on their front pages. The swearing in of a new president of Yugoslavia after an unprecedented peaceful revolution appeared on many of them. Most also offered some form of analysis on the increasingly heated presidential race. El Nuevo had these stories as well -- just small and deep inside the paper.
Owing to Castañeda's imperative for sensationalism, there were periods in the past year when it seemed every day Ricky Martin graced the cover. The reason is simple. "We sold more papers with Ricky Martin," says Castañeda.
Royalty. Screaming headlines. Big gripping visuals. If it bleeds, it leads. Sound familiar? It all falls into place when one realizes Castañeda sees his true competition as television. His long career has included stints at Life magazine and work in television. The experiences convinced him that the great failure of the newspaper industry is to ignore television. "Words are important," he sums up his philosophy, "but images are very important."
Yet Castañeda's approach makes it difficult to produce quality journalism. "Adapting your story to the space instead of the space to the story is bad politics," opines Mario Diament from his perch at FIU. Diament notes Castañeda changed the look of the paper but did not devote equal time to improving its content.
Some El Nuevo reporters who care about their craft are not happy about it either. "There is no way we can do fair jobs," complains one reporter. "How can you do a balanced job in twelve inches?"
To his credit Castañeda has recruited accomplished reporters. For example he snapped up Alejandra Matus, a distinguished Chilean journalist forced to leave her country after exposing corruption in the supreme court. Unfortunately their talents are rarely seen. Quality investigative work like that of past El Nuevo reporter Rosa Townsend, who broke the Church & Tower paving scandal in which a company owned by the Mas Canosa family allegedly overcharged the county for road repair, would be next to impossible in Castañeda's paper. Rather than struggle for space, most of the crew at El Nuevo don't even bother to propose tough stories. He's not using his resources, protests one.
It doesn't help that Castañeda has little interest in reporting local news in his paper. In an effort to grow, he's making a play for new audiences. In particular he covets Colombians and Venezuelans who are fleeing their native lands. These new arrivals generally are educated, have money, and are used to reading newspapers. Castañeda believes these readers are not concerned with local news. They don't plan to stay in Miami and thus are more interested in what goes on in their own nations. One of his first moves as editor was to eliminate the community columns El Nuevo had been running. "[El Nuevo readers] would like to know what is happening here, but not all the little details with Penelas or Carollo and so on," Castañeda insists. "We are dealing with the Latin Americans who have interest in knowing what is happening in Lima ... or Bogotá or in Havana."
To this end Castañeda has been generous in sending his reporters to other nations to report big events. He also has hired a correspondent in Colombia to follow events there. This has left those who would like to report on what is happening in South Florida with nowhere to go.
"The joke around the office is, if we can find a link between this and Colombia, maybe we can get more space," laughs one El Nuevo reporter.
There is a major flaw in Castañeda's marketing plan. Many of these elites who are coming to Miami have access to the Internet. They can read about their own nations in as much depth as they want. "You don't need a newspaper to tell you about your home country, because you can access your hometown paper on your desktop," reasons Diament.
What is left in El Nuevo are short stories and big pictures.
It seems certain that the Miami Herald's readership would not stand for the news lite El Nuevo often dishes out. Still, Castañeda is unbowed. "That is why they are losing circulation," he says bluntly.
Castañeda delights in telling the story of his role in the birth of El Herald, later to become El Nuevo Herald. "The called me in 1975 and offered it to me on a silver plate," he recalls "I told them it was a mistake."
Executives from the Miami Herald persuaded him to take time from his successful job re-creating El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico to travel to Miami. Their goal was to convince him to midwife a Spanish-language supplement here. In his story the executives wine and dine Castañeda, who keeps insisting he doesn't need a job. When he tells them that a Hispanic newspaper could have a circulation of 60,000, their tepid reaction reveals the true nature of their plans. They aren't interested in eventually creating a true Spanish-language newspaper. What they really want is a supplement to boost circulation for the English paper.
Most of the Anglos he spoke with over two days of meetings couldn't see the demographic future before them, he explains. "According [to them], in nine years, everybody was going to be speaking English here," Castañeda recalls. "In those days the paper was fighting against bilingualism."
A perceived anti-immigrant bias from that time continues to bedevil the Herald, and by association El Nuevo, to this day. Thus the paper gets slammed by both the right and the left. The relationship between the daily, its supplement, and the community hit its lowest point when Jorge Mas Canosa declared a successful jihad against both papers in 1992. Many still criticize El Nuevo as a product of Anglos, noting its origins as a simple translation. But the assertion that El Nuevo is entirely an Anglo creation is false. Although Castañeda did not take the job, he eventually agreed to work as a consultant during its first three months, putting his imprint on the new venture.
Castañeda began his trade as a newsman in his native Cuba at age seventeen. His dream is to run a newspaper there in the post-Castro era. In Miami in the Seventies, he helped the Herald select the staff for its supplement, as well as lay out a format. Castañeda says he even came up with the name El Herald. "I went out to Calle Ocho and that was the way the people referred to the [Miami Herald] already," he remembers.
In 1987 Knight Ridder revamped the paper, changed its name to El Nuevo Herald, and added staff and local coverage in a tentative step toward independence. Still, it depended for much of its news on stories lifted from the Herald and remained an insert within the English-language paper. In 1994 Castañeda returned to the paper once again. He had worked actively at El Nuevo Día from 1970 to 1990, helping to take a paper of 16,000 circulation to 224,000. Reluctant to retire, he served as a consultant for papers throughout Latin America. Knight Ridder invited him in that capacity to look at El Nuevo. He found intrigue, politics, and lots of problems, concluding there was little he could do to help. "I said, “Listen, this paper is the Bulgarian Communist Party,'" he divulges.
He wrote his observations in a memo, which fell into the hands of Alberto Ibargüen shortly after Ibargüen assumed command of El Nuevo in 1995. Ibargüen, who came from the business side of newspapering, concurred with Castañeda's assessment. Ibargüen had inherited a newspaper in disarray and set out to give the paper focus. He launched a weekly business supplement similar to the Miami Herald's "Business Monday." Latin-American coverage intensified. Cuba news mostly moved off the front page and into a special section inside the paper. Blaring headlines began lending a tabloid tone to lead stories.
The Ibargüen era also brought with it dramatic turnover. Staff discontent grew and the new chief was widely seen as a distant leader. He would pace around his glass-enclosed office, talking on the phone, his door usually shut. El Nuevo cultivated an unwillingness to take on influential public and private figures in Miami-Dade County. Allegations surfaced that he demanded reporters write favorably about his business friends.
Still, this odd insert began to develop a voice of sorts.
Ibargüen's greatest achievement came on January 5, 1998, when El Nuevo hit the racks as a separate newspaper. Five months later he introduced home delivery. The changes came after years of debate that pitted Ibargüen against Herald publisher David Lawrence, who had argued that a separate paper would divide the community. Lawrence, whose tenure at the Herald attracted more than its share of critics, soon found himself replaced by Ibargüen, who took the helm of both papers. Ibargüen set out to woo Castañeda from his semiretirement for a full-time return to El Nuevo. He finally agreed, and on January 10, 1999, Castañeda accepted a two-year contract to pilot El Nuevo. "It was probably the mistake of an old man," he jokes today.
He says upon arrival he found "civil war" within the newsroom and a substandard staff. "It was incestuous," says Castañeda. "[There were] very poor habits of doing things." He brought in new reporters, kept the door to his office open, and actively began to dumb down the paper.
"There are a lot of people angry with El Nuevo; that doesn't mean there is a market for another newspaper in Spanish," says FIU's Mario Diament. The newspaperman turned academic's views seem to be bearing fruit when it comes to El Diario. Part of the budding newspaper's problem is distribution. Miami-Dade's Hispanics are spread out all over the county. Simply reaching them with the product is a difficult task. The new paper has had trouble keeping executives and paying its staff. It's unclear how much longer it can last.
On the other hand, this month Castañeda will celebrate two years as El Nuevo's guiding voice. Although he had planned to step down, at Ibargüen and the staff's urging he has agreed to one more year. Under the arrangement Castañeda, who already spends a lot of time out of the office, will work only nine months of the year. "It gives an opportunity for the staff to solve problems themselves," he says.
But the success of Castañeda's model could be bad news for those who admire the best of Latin-American journalism. Excellence can still be found in the bravery of Colombian reporters, the rich editorial pages of Mexico's La Reforma, the scrappy investigations of Argentina's Pagina/12, and the comprehensive coverage of Brazil's Jornal do Brasil.
None of those newspapers distinguished themselves by striving solely for the bottom line.