A New Front Page

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.

"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.")

The CMC founders believe that community tabloids can improve their advertising earnings by combining forces. Another CMC goal is to upgrade their affiliated papers technically and journalistically. The organization has compiled a list of independent small periodicals in Miami-Dade. Currently the list numbers about 150 (in eight languages), though the total is constantly fluctuating as new publications hit the street and others go under.

As for how many actually are affiliated with CMC, director of operations Bill Lara, Jr., estimates he works with about twenty on editorial content, advertising, production, or all three. But CMC is still inventing itself; affiliation with the organization means different things to different papers, though Lara says he's developing more formal terms of membership and plans to begin charging fees or dues later this year. But first CMC needs to get its own papers in order. Its registration as a nonprofit corporation with the Florida Secretary of State's office expired this past September because the required annual report wasn't filed. Now CMC will have to come up with $350 for reinstatement.

Bill Lara is a lone disheveled figure at the end of a long expanse of conference table at the CMC office on Madeira Avenue in Coral Gables. In front of him is a computer keyboard and a monitor. Directly at his back is a wide-screen television that takes up the top half of the entire wall. Lara, 43 years old, is pale and baby faced, his dark-brown hair struggling to stay neatly combed. His shirt is open halfway down his chest, revealing a gold-plated Sacred Heart of Jesus medallion his mother gave him. In between answering the phone and talking stream of consciousness to the beat of his tapping pen, Lara is working on a computer presentation he plans to make later in the week at a meeting with a representative from the Florida State Lottery. The CMC wants to convince the lottery to place ads in its affiliated papers. The only small tabloids in Miami-Dade that currently run Lotto advertising are the more politically connected Cuban-exile papers.

Lara has in mind a sort of syndicate in which CMC member publications will have access to the same ads (of all kinds, not just Lotto) as well as the same news articles. One reporter would cover, say, county commission meetings, and write stories all CMC papers could run. "We need a community media-outlet representative in Washington," Lara muses. "We're also trying to negotiate health insurance for our members." Earlier this month the U.S. Department of State asked CMC to host a roundtable discussion of the U.S. electoral process for twenty journalists visiting from Europe.

A shipment of donated computers arrived at the CMC office a few days earlier, and Lara has begun to deliver modems and monitors to some of the smaller periodiquitos. He hooks them up with Internet search engines and Websites. "Pretty soon we'll be able to put [a story] on the Internet, and we'll call to let them know where it is," Lara says. "That kind of education doesn't exist yet at the community [-newspaper] level."

CMC also recently secured a distribution deal that, according to Lara, will cut costs from $1.50 to $1.00 per distribution stop per publication.

That's just the beginning of what Lara and Gonzalez envision. Already, acting under the aegis of CMC, they have joined other groups to promote causes such as the One Nation immigrant citizenship project, and last year's anti-penny tax campaign. This past January CMC was among several organizations from all over the nation drumming up attendance at a "Send Elian Back" rally in Miami. Now Lara and Gonzalez want CMC to play a role in staging cultural events and are preparing to apply for county arts funds. They plan to set up cultural exchanges with Cuba and other Caribbean countries. "We believe one of the first things CMC needs to do is to open the lines of communication among different communities," asserts Lara. "One way is media outlets; the second most immediate way is cultural ties. We don't really have a big Haitian theater here, a Hispanic theater, or a lot of African music performances. We're trying to make those things feasible. Sure, it's idealistic, but I don't know how to think any other way."

Lara, whose father is a retired airline employee, was born in El Salvador but grew up in Panama and Venezuela. He attended Miami Military Academy as a teenager, and later St. Leo University, near Tampa. In 1981 he settled in Miami and enrolled in theater classes at Miami-Dade Community College's South Campus, where he discovered journalism. He worked for several years, on and off, at the well-regarded MDCC newspaper the Catalyst, also serving as the editor. For a while in the early Nineties he wrote for Community Newspapers, Inc., the weekly chain based in Coral Gables, and for two years he edited a now-defunct gambling-industry magazine, Player. About this time he and Gonzalez met.

The tall, gray-haired Gonzalez worked for two decades as a television and radio journalist in Cuba. He says he left the country in 1990 after a dispute with the government. Nevertheless Gonzalez has not repudiated the Castro regime. He travels regularly to the island in conjunction with a number of projects he's trying to launch, one of which is a tour operation. He also visits Cuba to interview people for the small newspaper he publishes from his home in Miami Springs. In turn Gonzalez transmits reports from Miami on events of interest to the Cuban media -- on a volunteer basis, he adds. To supplement the meager income from his paper, La Nación, he writes freelance articles.

Gonzalez, much like Lara, speaks as though he's trying to explain several things at once, nimbly jumping from one subject to another with no explanation. He will mix theories and factual statements, making it difficult sometimes to separate what he's done from what he wants to do, and what he predicts from what's really happening. But clarity probably wouldn't serve Gonzalez well: As the publisher of a newspaper supportive of the Cuban government and as a businessman who advocates ending the U.S. trade embargo, Gonzalez is not very popular with either the local exile establishment or prospective advertisers.

Gonzalez and Lara first collaborated some three years ago on a short-lived periodiquito called El Nuevo Americano. Then they produced a newspaper for a business group in Homestead, but signing reliable advertisers proved daunting, and the paper didn't last more than three issues. For months both men had been mulling the idea of a community newspaper cooperative, and in 1998 they formed CMC. At about the same time, to pay his bills, Lara began an Internet consulting business. CMC hasn't done well enough so far to support its founders, but it gets a lot of in-kind donations, such as free office space and equipment.

Lara has been waiting for a CMC board meeting to begin. It was scheduled for 10:00 this morning. The time is now 11:30 and not a single board member has appeared. This doesn't seem to surprise or annoy Lara. It's business in Miami, after all. Gonzalez arrives with the news that one member is running late "because his printer isn't working. But he's coming," Gonzalez insists.

"I'm sure [the others] just got to drinking rum and forgot," Lara jokes.

The meeting commences at noon. Four people, two of whom are not on the seven-man board, are present. Two more members show up about 45 minutes later, after a discussion of reconstituting the board with people who will actually participate.

"Getting everyone organized is an ordeal," Lara admits later. "For a lot of reasons."

One reason, a factor that has always complicated community-newspaper publishing, is intraethnic rivalry. Different factions within the same group, some of whom may have been enemies before emigrating, sometimes sponsor competing newspapers. The situation can erupt into open hostility. At the moment this is the case in Miami's Venezuelan community, with at least two thriving papers headed by men who, by most accounts, can't stand the sight of each other and take different editorial stances. A new periodiquito supportive of controversial Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez promises to roil relations even more.

But usually the rivalry is subtle, as it is within Miami's English-speaking West Indian enclave. Jamaicans are the most numerous of this group (which numbers, according to estimates, about 300,000 in South Florida), and other islanders say they often feel invisible, that Jamaicans assume they speak for all Caribbeans.

That's one of the reasons Jerry Nagee started Caribbean Contact, the only regular local news source about Trinidad and Tobago. Nagee, a full-time English teacher at Braddock Senior High, gets calls seeking help with everything from love to insurance rip-offs, prompting her to write an advice column each month. "I definitely saw the need for communitywide communication, particularly after [the 1992 Hurricane] Andrew," Nagee said on a recent Saturday afternoon as she hovered over her dining-room table. Flats of her latest monthly edition were spread for inspection before going to the printer. Salsa and reggae played at low volume from a portable radio on the kitchen counter; her eighteen-year-old son Yuri was asleep in a back bedroom of their airy white house on a cul-de-sac in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Nagee is 56 years old, a tall woman clearly accustomed to being an authority figure. Dressed in slacks and a dark-green polo shirt decorated with the Caribbean Contact logo, she pointed out typos and layout glitches in a rhythmic voice as smooth as a lullaby. As an ice cream truck rolled slowly past the open front windows, Nagee and a friend shook their heads and clicked their tongues over a recent statement by a local Jamaican community leader. They laughed about a bon mot making the rounds during the Gold Cup soccer matches, dubbing the game between Jamaica and Colombia as "weed versus cocaine."

Nagee grew up in San Fernando, the industrial center in the south of Trinidad. Her father, now 78 years old, was the San Fernando correspondent for the island's largest daily, the Port of Spain Guardian. Even today he faxes in beautifully written (though typo-riddled) articles he composes on an old electric typewriter.

In 1989 Nagee settled in Miami with Yuri, the youngest of her three children (the others live in other states). For nine months before beginning work at Braddock, she investigated child-abuse cases for the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now the Department of Children and Families). In September 1990 she organized a Trinidad-Tobago Thanksgiving mass ("We start with a church service and then we fèt -- party"). Held at nearby Christ the King Catholic Church, the mass became an annual, unifying event. "That allowed me to network with other Trinidadian and Caribbean people," Nagee recalled, "and kind of made me a resource person for the community." A newspaper, she began to think, could be a year-round resource.

She puts together her monthly editions at night and on weekends. Nagee writes most of the copy. When possible she covers county commission or school board meetings and other local events. She has converted a den into an office furnished with computer, copier, and large color printer. But the room was badly flooded during Hurricane Irene last year, and she hasn't been able to afford to replace the flooring, which now is bare concrete. In fact Nagee hasn't had the cash to put out Caribbean Contact for the past five years; each issue costs a minimum of $6000 to produce, and the only way she keeps going is by racking up more credit-card debt every month. "I've never been so penniless," she lamented. "I have to do a lot of trades, like an airline might pay for an ad in tickets, which I can then give to a vendor instead of cash."

Nagee was upbeat about an agreement she just entered into with CMC. They'll provide office space in Kendall for her two telemarketers. "No charge at all," Lara enthused. "All we ask is for her to put our logo on the front page and let us run an occasional PSA [public-service announcement]." Nagee also can benefit from any package advertising deals CMC might make.

Not infrequently Bill Lara shifts into white-knight mode. He'll ride into a struggling or nascent paper, name himself executive editor, and take charge of everything. He sees this as a temporary setup. "Our intent is more to get [paper personnel] together and figure out what they want to do," Lara explains. "As soon as they've got it working, my plan is to move out. Right now it's a little bit of a dictatorship, but it's the only way to do it fast. There is some money; I get to design some and collect some as a subcontractor, but it's not my personal idea to be an ad agency."

The way Pedro Gonzalez thinks of it: "We have to look at ourselves as parents."

One of their offspring is Qué Pasa Miami, a chatty Spanish-language tabloid specializing in exposes of corruption and Cuban exile politics. The Qué Pasa headquarters, which Lara also uses as a second CMC office, is two closet-size rooms on the fourth floor of a funky, Sixties-vintage office building in the heart of Little Havana. The backroom of the office is taken up with a wide wooden desk and bookcase. In the wood-paneled front room sit a computer and a printer on a desk; a metal filing cabinet is plastered with snapshots, all taken by publisher Raul Alfonso, of every local Latin politician of any note: Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, commissioners, state and federal legislators.

Alejandro Vigoreaux has been spending a lot of time at the Qué Pasa office, which also has become headquarters for his brand-new periodiquito, La Voz de Borinquen. Vigoreaux says he's been dreaming for years of publishing a paper, and now the first monthly edition is almost ready for the printer. There's been some difficulty with advertising, but Vigoreaux and Lara, the dictator, insist La Voz is all but on the street, and that once it does come out, it will be Miami-Dade's only Puerto Rican newspaper. La Voz contains mostly entertainment news, the subject Vigoreaux knows best. He's been a musician ever since he could hold a trumpet, and his father is still a prominent musician and educator in Santurce. The tall, smiling Vigoreaux played in orchestras in New York before moving to Miami in the Eighties. In recent years he has worked as an automobile salesman and hosted radio and television programs on the side.

"News copy we got for [Vigoreaux], design we got for him, he's paying a printer, he paid for the designer," Lara recounts. "He wants to do type-A format color on the inside and outside. It's just he doesn't have the setup himself. So he comes over to our [Coral Gables] office for that. He's been knocking on doors [of prospective advertisers] all over town. But we did just make a deal with the Puerto Rican government office here, and the Puerto Rican Professionals Association of South Florida will advertise in La Voz."

Rafael Morel, executive assistant at the Office of the Government of Puerto Rico in Miami, welcomes Vigoreaux's project. But Morel and his cohorts would be even happier to see someone launch a publication addressing more complex political and economic realities of Puerto Rican life. "The Cuban issue dominates the news, and that leaves very little space for our issues," Morel says. "Yet there are about 300,000 Puerto Ricans in Dade and Broward counties. I haven't been successful yet in putting together a group of people interested in publishing a paper and who would benefit from the resources of Bill and Pedro. But CMC has a lot of potential, and it is very visionary. They have ways to establish a paper and to improve a paper that already exists. At the same time, they're focusing on getting block advertising, so that really brings the leveraging of advertising money to a whole different level. I think they're at the forefront of something that could really help out community media, but unfortunately the funding issue is a big one and affects the quality of a paper."

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.

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."

"It's his hard-line," Bill Lara interjects. "We're trying to get him to soften it a little."

Gonzalez pushes on, inured to such suggestions. "We take the newspaper to businesses," he goes on, "and the minute we leave they throw it away. It's hard to believe, but it's a real situation."

He receives comfort, though, from Miami's changing demographics and the diminishing influence of the first wave of Cuban exiles, the hard-liners who are being replaced by newcomers from all over the globe.

"These [immigrant] communities are growing, and the first step here was to create their own press, which comes with economic power," Gonzalez muses. "What's going to happen in a few years, they're going to have a big fight for political power here, and they're going to start pushing the Cubans out. These old guys are desperate, because they know they're losing their grip. All the [Spanish language] radio stations are cutting back on the [right-wing Cuba-oriented] programming. Because it's always a question of money, and the young Cubans don't care about these guys. They're dinosaurs. We have our own Jurassic Park right here in Miami."


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