Fernando Zapari came to the U.S. in 1978. Originally from Mazatlán, Mexico, he met his wife while she was vacationing on the Mexican coast and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to be with her. For almost 25 years, he worked “like any immigrant does” — until he fell from a scaffold. Injured and suddenly unemployed, Zapari didn’t know what to do.
He ultimately found inspiration in a friend’s project, a small newspaper for the local African American community.
Could he do the same for Spanish speakers? It was 1994. He didn’t even know how to turn on a computer.
“We were few back then, here in Indiana, and the majority of us had Mexican or Mexican-American roots. We called it El Mexicano, and it stayed like that,” Zampari said.
Since then, Fort Wayne’s El Mexicano has seen many challenges that other Spanish-language local news outlets also experience. It went from 2,000 monthly copies to 10,000 and is currently down to 5,000. It went online, created social media accounts, launched a podcast in the pandemic. It has organized education fairs, job fairs, and annual events for its readers. It has seen other publications try to reach local Spanish-language communities and fail.
“We’ve always had the mission of educating new migrants who arrive in Northeast Indiana, teaching them about the available resources,” Zampari explained. “I think that’s the difference. Some saw this as a business. We’ve never seen it as a business.”
Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. have unique information needs. In a country where English is the dominant language, they are often impacted when news organizations withdraw their investments during crises. This past January, The Washington Post cut its podcast and opinion section in Spanish. In February, the Dallas Morning News said it was reassigning the team responsible for Al Día, its Spanish language newspaper. More recently, McClatchy laid off six staff members, affecting The Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sister El Nuevo Herald.
The search for viable business models has long been an issue for the media industry in the U.S., one that seems to be especially challenging for those who produce journalism in Spanish. A 2018 report from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University showed a link between community wealth and the success of local news organizations: It’s not easy to monetize publications that reach some of the most disadvantaged populations in the country. Despite this, some ethnic and linguistic community-centered outlets persist. They engage their readers and provide them with actionable, vital information on topics ranging from immigration and employment to housing and education.
Engaging Spanish-speaking communities takes time, energy and money — three elements that media outlets in the U.S. don’t have in abundance. And it takes a deep understanding of the particularities these audiences have.
Joanna Jacobo is a communities editor at La Voz in Arizona and knows firsthand that necessary support and assets go beyond having enough reporters to produce journalism. It also includes the methods to get the news out to the public.
“In ethnic media, we struggle a lot with resources,” she said in an interview with The Objective. “One thing is to have a website and another one to intentionally distribute the news. That requires funds.”
Going beyond entertainment to provide service
La Voz is a sister publication of The Arizona Republic and covers Phoenix, where more than 30% of the population identifies as Latino, according to the 2020 census. That doesn’t mean all of them speak Spanish. Many, especially young audiences, are bilingual or only speak English. That presents another challenge for La Voz.
Jacobo has tried to reach this community by embracing its bilingual nature. She’s spearheading the texting project “Con la Phoeniquera”, providing local news and information on housing, while also asking her audience to reach out with specific questions they need answers to.
“Executives will look at the numbers and tell you, ‘Latinos are into entertainment. They only care about entertainment and sports.’” Jacobo said. “Well, that’s not what I see in the messages I get.”
Through this service, she has received questions about schools in the Phoenix area, and helped dispel confusion, especially over local and official announcements communicated only in English. While the approach that La Voz takes is crucial, it’s also uncommon in the journalism industry, considering the time and resources it requires.
But the need for these news organizations structured around community needs are elsewhere, including in the Bay Area at El Tímpano.
“For most of 2021, so much of our work really revolved around helping community members navigate the COVID-19 vaccination process,” said Madeleine Bair, El Tímpano’s founder.
El Tímpano (Spanish for “eardrum”, a nod to its community-listening mission) received question after question from its audience: “Am I eligible to get vaccinated?” “My kid suffers asthma, is the vaccine safe for him?” “Where do I get vaccinated?”
As vaccine locations opened up in the country, Bair noticed that even when they opened in communities of color, there were mostly white people lining up. “They had better access to information,” she analyzed.
El Tímpano’s mission, Bair said, is to address gaps in news information and civic engagement that Latino and Mayan immigrants face. All of its strategies have been designed with that intention in mind.
“Many people didn’t have anywhere else to go to ask those questions,” she said. “And because they knew that El Tímpano was a source that they could go to, they could access, they could trust, they were able to get those questions answered.”
Columbia University’s Yamil R. Velez recently studied how community-centered ethnic media outlets (CCEMOs) help inform Latinos in Spanish. He focused on the audiences of El Tímpano, Enlace Latino in North Carolina, and Conecta Arizona. Velez found those who consumed content from CCEMOs became more knowledgeable about local politics — without missing out on what was happening at a national level.
“They became more informed about what was going on in the Bay Area or North Carolina,” he explained. “And it’s not like it took away the knowledge of what was going on nationally with the Supreme Court or with [President Joe] Biden’s immigration policy.”
In his work, Velez also asked people whether they’d be willing to pay for news or if they currently pay for news. He found it wasn’t a very common practice, adding to the set of challenges these outlets already face. As he put it, “[commercial] outlets have to balance news and entertainment to stay profitable.”
“For the nonprofit outlets, ultimately, the uphill battle they have to fight for is obtaining the trust of their audience,” he said.
Paola Jaramillo, founder of Enlace Latino, has seen this challenge first-hand.
“What English-language media outlets do, charging for accessing their content, that’s not going to work with the [Spanish-speaking] community, at least not here in North Carolina,” she said. “The community is not used to paying for news. They feel they can find a lot of information on the web, on the internet, on Facebook, even though it may not necessarily be the information they really need.”
When she and her team decided to found an outlet for Spanish-speakers in North Carolina, they took into account that they wanted to reach rural communities, and quickly identified issues with access to the internet.
“People often have access on their phones, a little bit, but they have it,” Jaramillo said. A mobile component, then, became key to help them reach these communities.
Spanish-language outlets run on a healthy mix of revenue streams
Enlace Latino provides Spanish-language news about politics, immigration, and community issues through its website and social media presence, but also via newsletters and on WhatsApp. It relies on grants, programmatic advertising, and donations, one of many possible revenue-generating combinations.
There is no single formula for Spanish-language media to find a successful business model. Many approaches that have proven to work for English-language publications don’t apply to these outlets. El Tímpano, for example, has adopted a model that Bair calls “civic partnerships,” where they receive funding either through grants or from organizations that want to share public-interest information with El Tímpano’s audience. It’s been their fastest-growing revenue stream for the past two years.
“It has meant that we are no longer as reliant as we otherwise would be on foundations,” Bair said.
“Once organizations have grants, I have noticed how important it is that they don’t exclusively rely on those to financially support the organization,” said Natalie Van Hoozer, U.S. ambassador of SembraMedia, a nonprofit organization focused on helping digital media organizations develop sustainable business models. “It is an important part of a lot of organizations’ funding models, but diversifying is important to be sustainable.”
According to a recent study at the National Trust for Local News funded by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, 53% of surveyed leaders of community media outlets said their organization would go out of business in less than five years if their current revenue trends continue.
Authors Lillian Ruiz and Caroline Porter studied a broad spectrum of outlets, but their results look very similar when considering only Spanish-language publishers.
“Critical to sustainability is a diversified revenue mix that leverages ad revenue, grant funding, and reader revenue—either subscriptions or membership,” their study found.
While there’s no unique combination that can guarantee success, outlets with an outlook beyond five years said they rely more heavily on digital advertising than print advertising. Revenue sources also included grants, membership, and other non-specified streams.
“Those that anticipate lasting less than five years rely more on print advertising (41%) than digital advertising (24%) and are slightly more reliant on grants (16%),” the report said.
In several interviews, Porter explained, publishers mentioned that they thought that pivoting to nonprofit status “might generate more revenue opportunities, seeing it as a path to sustainability.”
But this isn’t simple. As Ruiz put it, it’s easier for newer outlets to become a nonprofit organization from the start. In contrast, many local publications in Spanish across the U.S. are family-owned newspapers with decades of history.
“It’s up to nonprofits and foundations to figure out how we still serve them within our missions so that their legacy doesn’t just vanish just because they don’t have the right tax status, when they have the right heart and the right mission,” she said.
El Mexicano will turn 30 next May. Already thinking about his retirement, Zapari doesn’t really know what will happen to the newspaper after that. It’s another common concern among community outlets. In Porter and Ruiz’s study, publishers across the board responded they did not have a succession plan in place.
For Zapari, it all comes down to what others might do with the newspaper in his place. If he hands the responsibility over, he wants to make sure he passes the baton to the right people. Looking at what other outlets are doing, he has considered turning El Mexicano from a family-owned newspaper into a nonprofit.
“So [the potential new leadership] doesn’t do it just for the money,” he said.
He knows that, above everything else, being true to the mission and maintaining the community’s trust is what really matters in this business.
Update (July 9, 2023, 4:01 p.m. PDT): This story was updated to reflect that the referenced study on sustainability was conducted by the National Trust for Local News and funded by Lenfest. The study authors’ attribution was swapped to note Ruiz’s role as the lead author on the study.
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