Denver's newspaper wars are going bilingual.
Even the New York Times took note of the vicious fight-to-the-death between the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post in a May 31 story, duly reprinted in the local press. But while the Big Two continue to scratch each other's eyes out over circulation figures and deeply discounted subscriptions, a new kid on the block is hoping to fill another niche--actually, a gaping hole--in Denver's media market.
It plans to do so by out-newsing a 25-year-old Denver stalwart, La Voz, and a handful of other bilingual weeklies. The upstart HOLA Colorado hits the streets July 28, vying for the readership of Denver's 120,000 English- and Spanish-speaking Hispanics--a full 25 percent of the city's population.
And what a lively newspaper war it will be. The fight won't be limited to ad sales and readership numbers; it will touch on some highly sensitive cultural issues. A good community newspaper helps define that community--in this case, thousands of people who share a linguistic and ethnic background but not necessarily much else.
In their tidy five-room office that smells of fresh paint and new carpeting, HOLA Colorado's editor and publisher, Rachel Carrasco-Mendoza, and Joe Mendoza, her husband and the paper's chief operating officer, point to a Denver map dotted with push-pins that denote supermarkets, Sam's Clubs and Wal-Marts where 20,000 copies of HOLA Colorado will make their debut next Wednesday. The pins reach as far north as Fort Collins and as far south as Castle Rock. "Hispanics are everywhere," says Carrasco-Mendoza, who, like her husband, has a Mexican-born father but learned Spanish as an adult. "You're not going to distribute just on 32nd and Federal."
Formerly one of La Voz's key employees, the thirty-four-year-old Carrasco-Mendoza is now among its toughest critics. "I was there for two and a half years, and that was a record," says Carrasco-Mendoza, who began at La Voz as a college intern and rose to the post of managing editor. In April she left the paper--and took several writers, two photographers, a translator and the receptionist with her.
Bankrolled by her brother and his partner, the owners of Carrasco-Kube Cement Contractors and now silent partners in HOLA Colorado, Carrasco-Mendoza set up shop in an office building near Santa Fe Drive and Mississippi Avenue.
HOLA Colorado will be going head to head with two other established bilingual weeklies, the serious-minded El Semanario and the splashy La Voz, both with press runs of 15,000 copies. In the past, Denver's bilingual press has been far more mutually cordial than competitive. But that may soon change.
HOLA Colorado's owners blast La Voz for posing as a Hispanic-owned paper because it belongs to J. Ivanhoe Rosenberg and Clifford Bautsch of Barnum Publishing, La Voz's printer and next-door neighbor. Bautsch and Rosenberg (who also owns the Southwest Herald Dispatch), bailed out editor and publisher Wanda Padilla after La Voz went through two bankruptcies in the 1980s. "We're a bootstraps organization," says Padilla, who started the paper in 1974 with her former husband, Jose, in the basement of their home.
On each front page, La Voz advertises its membership in the National Association of Hispanic Publishers (NAHP), an affiliation that opens the door to deals with big national advertisers--and usually requires that a member paper is at least 51 percent Latino-owned. Padilla, who sits on the NAHP board, was born Schmitz; the Denver paper was "grandfathered in" for membership because of its longtime service to the Latino community, explains NAHP president Andres Tobar.
Some La Voz writers have downplayed their Anglo roots by adopting Latino pen names. "To me," says Mendoza, a mail carrier who recently earned a political science degree at Metro, "it's like Asians publishing a paper for Jewish people."
Located today in a white one-story house in southwest Denver, the offices of La Voz are cluttered and homey, down to the threadbare brown carpeting and a black-and-white photo of Mayor Wellington Webb at a La Voz event. Typesetters still assemble its copy and lay out the paper in pre-computer, cut-and-paste fashion.
But "there are going to be some changes in management and ownership structure pretty soon," says Padilla, who confides that her paper has been talking with potential buyers. La Voz, which advertises itself as "Colorado's No. 1 Hispanic Weekly," might start charging 25 cents per copy; Padilla wants to expand circulation by 5,000 copies a year until it hits 50,000. She also wants a "more professional office setting," with updated equipment and more writers. "Right now we're operating with a skeletal staff," she says.
La Voz carries local and national stories, Rockies and Rapids game coverage, a frequent column by Denver's manager of safety, Butch Montoya, movie and play reviews and an events calendar. "We present the basic day-to-day bread-and-butter coverage of what's happening in the Hispanic community in Denver," says Padilla. "Where you can have a good time."
In fact, the paper's page one is a bit like a trip to Casa Bonita: busy, bright and peppered with exclamation marks ("Fiesta fever rises again!"). HOLA Colorado's founders take offense at La Voz's frequent use of words like "spicy" and "caliente" (Spanish for "hot") in the headlines, as well as the amount of sombrero-and-maracas artwork sprinkled throughout the paper. Before and after Cinco de Mayo, a festive Mexican holiday, La Voz's front page depicts plenty of senoritas wearing smiles and brightly ruffled skirts. "I think that's one of the stereotypical things about Hispanics--they love color, they love red," says Carrasco-Mendoza. "We want to dispel those things--even though they're part of our culture."
La Voz is also famous for its annual celebrations with Denver's A-list. Its 25th anniversary bash, to be held August 20 in the Sewell Ballroom at the Denver Performing Arts Center, will feature a mariachi reception, dancing and a presentation of the paper's "Amigos of the Year" awards. The honors usually go to writers, community figures and key advertisers. "La Voz concentrates on society news and party-going," Mendoza says. "Every week someone has a 'fiesta.' They like a photo of whoever has a cocktail or a bowl of dip in their hand."
Chris Fresquez, publisher and editor of El Semanario, doesn't like to outwardly criticize his primary rival. But he insists his paper would rather run editorials on local politics and school policy than color photos of VIPs. "We feel it is important to use newsprint on the issues that are going to affect you, whether it's your family, the schools, or who's going to be the next governor of your state--news you can use," says Fresquez, "rather than 'The mayor had a party' or 'There was a fiesta down the street and it was really fun.'"
A civil engineer by training, Fresquez got into journalism while selling ads for La Voz for two months in 1989. Ten years ago this November, he and wife Toni Fresquez (now the paper's managing editor) founded The Weekly Issue. They later changed the name to El Semanario to highlight the paper's bilingual format.
Since 1992, El Semanario has been tucked inside newsstand copies of the Denver Post in select neighborhoods; the paper is also distributed in newspaper boxes on the street, in university courses and in 300 public school classrooms.
El Semanario runs some articles in English, others in Spanish; La Voz prints select stories in both languages side by side or on opposite pages. Although most Voz readers are third- and fourth-generation Hispanic Americans, "we're seeing more and more of our readers want a bilingual format," says Padilla. "It's about rediscovering roots."
Aside from AM radio, one FM station and a single 30-minute TV newscast, Spanish-only speakers in Denver have highly restricted access to the daily news. "I'd say we're pretty much ignored by the dailies," says Carrasco-Mendoza, one of fourteen children. "We're in there when Cinco de Mayo rolls around--or when somebody gets shot in a drive-by shooting."
Muckraking is not a priority for most community papers, many of whom offer low salaries, suffer high turnover and are happy simply to provide serviceable writing and legible photos. Mendoza insists that with its standard mix of news, sports and glowing profiles of community leaders, HOLA Colorado will not be "radical."
"We want to be a professional outlet for news," he says. "Our task is not to rally people; it's to inform them."
But Carrasco-Mendoza looks a little more wistful when the subject of investigative reporting comes up. At HOLA Colorado, she will do much of the writing along with three part-time and three freelance reporters. "At La Voz we never had the resources to follow up on tips we'd get," says Carrasco-Mendoza--who then spills an upcoming scoop about anti-Latino actions at a popular Denver-area summer event.
To maintain credibility among readers, says Jay Brodell, a journalism professor at Denver's Metropolitan State College, a community newspaper has to follow the basic tenets of journalism: objectivity, fairness and a willingness "to write about bad things even if your readers don't want to read about bad things.
"A newspaper's success depends on the brain of its publisher," says Brodell, who once ran his own weekly newspaper in Clifton and occasionally writes for La Voz. Carrasco-Mendoza is a former student of his, and he's "encouraged" her new publishing venture, he says.
"I think that Rachel is on to a good thing. I don't want to diminish what La Voz has achieved over the years; they've had a tough row to hoe. And they've improved tremendously in the past couple of years. But La Voz has never reached what I thought was the potential for a market. I think Rachel might be on to something, because she dismisses the idea that all Latinos are janitors and ditch-diggers. She recognizes the fact that the Latino population in Denver is as varied as Denver is."
Nationwide, the number of Hispanic weeklies has jumped from 152 in 1990 to 249 last year, according to NAHP figures. Circulation has more than tripled from 2.5 million at the start of the decade to 8.5 million. Last year, advertisers, 83 percent of them local, spent close to $156 million to reach Hispanic consumers.
Smaller newspapers such as El Hispano, El Heraldo de Colorado, El Reportero and El Sol also circulate in Denver--some of them only occasionally. "We've seen a lot of papers come and go," says Padilla. "I don't think we have any real competition in our niche. We show up because no one else does."
In fact, no other Hispanic paper has La Voz's long track record. Since La Voz added color, "our readership has gone up phenomenally. We're now in the black," says Padilla, and the paper has nearly doubled in size to between 28 and 32 pages a week. Thanks to a booming labor market and the sales skills of B.T. Galloway, La Voz's classifieds manager (and its Colorado Rockies reporter), the paper's classified-ad section has increased from two pages in 1995 to more than seven pages now.
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"We've been in the home for 25 years and we're a family community newspaper," says Galloway. "We have at least one generation of young people who've grown up with us."
"The economics involved in a newspaper are very stressful," adds Fresquez, who recalls how Las Noticias, published by the Rocky Mountain News in the early 1990s, fell flat after a few years. "But I wish all newspapers luck. HOLA Colorado will probably come out with another format so it'll educate people in another way."
The Mendozas actually tried to buy La Voz before deciding to set out on their own. Now HOLA Colorado, borrowing from its rival's name, has adopted the slogan Nuestra Voz Para el Siglo XXI--"Our Voice for the 21st Century." Its logo, designed in airy red-and-blue type highlighted by yellow rays of the sun, alludes to the state flag of Colorado--territory that HOLA eventually hopes to conquer.
"It sounds like we're bad-mouthing something that forged the way," says Mendoza. "But now it's our time. We have gone out and done the things we do to make a legitimate paper. If it doesn't go, there's no one to blame but ourselves.