The editorial director of the Los Angeles Times en Español on the future of Spanish-language journalism
14 years after the first Spanish-language newspaper was sold in the United States, Spanish-language journalism finds itself at a crossroads.
BY WILLIAM SANTIAGO NEIRA
On an early fall morning in 1808, at a neighborhood newsstand in New Orleans, a Spanish exile claimed his place in American history. He purchased the first Spanish-language newspaper ever sold in United States territory, the inaugural edition of El Misisipí.
El Misisipí and other early Spanish-language periodicals published in the United States had a global reach. Often smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, they advocated for Cuba and Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain; they interpreted American liberalism and democracy, informing burgeoning Latin American democracies; and they documented the US’ annexation of vast tracts of land previously belonging to Mexico.
Today, Spanish-language media in America serves the nation’s second largest, and second most quickly growing racial or ethnic group. The 2020 US Census counted 62.1 million Hispanic Americans, 73% of whom speak Spanish at home. To better understand how the largest non-English linguistic group in the United States gets their news, I spoke to Alejandro Maciel, a Mexican American journalist with a long history of serving the United States’ Spanish-speaking community. He currently serves as Editorial Director of Los Angeles Times en Español.
Can you speak about the establishment of Los Angeles Times en Español?
Los Angeles Times en Español was born out of the great Latino population that exists here in Los Angeles. Many other publications across the country have been born out of a similar environment.
Often, Latino families that have lived in America for two or three generations still maintain their nexus, their ties, with their countries of origin. Many of those families seek out information in Spanish, even if they speak English well, because they prefer to read in Spanish. Others are recent immigrants from Latin American countries and cannot read the news in English. These communities seek out information not only concerning what is happening in their countries of origin, but also concerning what is happening here in the United States.
How do Spanish-speaking Americans get the news?
Without a doubt, social media is one of the community’s foremost sources of information, as it is for English-speaking Americans. Nevertheless, there is great danger in getting your news from social media, as the vast majority of information on these platforms is not verified. This type of unverified news is more likely to be disinformation than factual information.
I can give you an example of the dangers of social media-spread disinformation. The other weekend in Tijuana, Baja California, a great wave of violence created by drug cartels spread throughout the state. On social media, a supposed dispatch from the drug cartels began to circulate, calling for a curfew. It turned out to be fake. But it created terror throughout the entire state and paralyzed economic activity.
What do you think about the state of Spanish-language journalism in the United States?
I think it’s in a grave crisis. We had a great moment from the late 1990’s to 2020. In that time, we had two important pillars of Spanish-language journalism in the United States: El Diario La Prensa in New York, of which I was assistant manager, and La Opinion in Los Angeles. In that time, they were great publications with lots of resources. After a series of acquisitions and sales, though, they lost access to a lot of those resources.
Spanish-language journalism, as well as journalism in every other language, has also been greatly affected by readers’ shift to receiving their news digitally. Spanish-language media in particular, though, has suffered the consequences of a more and more digital readership.
Today, only the big newspapers in English that have Spanish-language sections can say they are doing relatively well. The number of newspapers associated with the National Association of Hispanic Publications has fallen remarkably in recent years because of small newspapers’ lack of resources, and the quality of journalism of those that remain is very limited. Currently, Spanish-language journalism is in crisis, and it will be until we can find a way to adequately finance these publications.
What about big news agencies’ reporting in Spanish?
We have a responsibility as journalists to connect with each segment of the population we serve. In that sense, it makes all the sense in the world that if you have a large community of Chinese people, for example, that you would create a publication in Chinese. It makes perfect sense that if you have a large Vietnamese community, you would have a Vietnamese post.
When fulfilling that journalistic responsibility, there is also an economic motivation. Because well, these segments are markets, to put it in economic terms. Here in Southern California, for example, not having a presence in Spanish would be suicidal for big publishers, because it’s the fastest growing community. So, serving them from Spanish to their transition to English makes all the sense in the world.
What do you see as the future of Spanish-language media in the United States?
I think we will find the formula to attract new and young audiences digitally. The key is in young journalists. Part of the crisis that newspapers in English, Spanish and in all languages are experiencing is that, for a long time, we have been serving only a certain segment of the population, the traditional readers, and we have failed to attract the next generation. That is the fundamental problem that most newsrooms have.
I say that as a journalist, not as director of the Los Angeles Times en Español. I think the key is going to be finding a way to translate our content into the digital language that young people are accustomed to. When we achieve that, there will be a spark of hope.
This interview has been translated and lightly edited for clarity.