By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
You might say that the paper’s Latino problems are a legacy of its ghosts. Many have heard about the way the late Otis Chandler, publisher of the Timesfrom 1960 to 1980, dismissed the need to attract Latino and African-American readers with a single damning quote: “It’s not their kind of newspaper,” he said in a 1978 TV interview. “It’s too big, it’s too stuffy. If you will, it’s too complicated.”
A year later, Felix Gutierrez, a journalism professor at USC and an expert on ethnic media, questioned Chandler again on the subject. The prep-school-educated publisher, lauded for his ability to talk to regular folk (especially if they worked on the fast cars he loved to drive), told Gutierrez that as minorities in Los Angeles became assimilated and climbed the social ladder, they would become natural L.A. Times readers. The idea of reverse assimilation — the paper adapting to the minorities — never seemed to be a consideration.
“If they had done something in Spanish then, or bilingual then, in the late 1970s, they would have basically put something on the streets before La Opinión, Hoy, Spanish-language radio. They would have been a viable option,” Gutierrez says. “They’ve been playing catch-up marketing, catch-up journalism ever since.”
But as the del Olmo papers show, the Times’ inability to address a changing Latino readership hasn’t been for lack of trying on the part of others beyond Chandler.
Ruben Salazar, the trailblazing Mexican-American reporter, first chronicled the lives of L.A.’s Mexican-American community in the 1960s, before he was killed by Sheriff’s deputies in what was called a “canister projectile accident” during the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War in August 1970. Later, the paper went through a period when it hired English-dominant Mexican-Americans in earnest, including Frank del Olmo, Frank Sotomayor and George Ramos. That era culminated in a widely praised series on Latinos, co-edited by Sotomayor and Ramos, that won the L.A. Times its first public-service gold-medal Pulitzer Prize in 1984.
By the mid-’80s, Los Angeles was experiencing a massive wave of new Spanish-dominant immigrants from Mexico and war-ravaged Central America. The city — founded by a multiethnic band of Mexican settlers in northern New Spain while the Revolutionary War raged in the East — was re-Latinizing. Corporations and media companies, aware of new profit potentials, sought appropriate responses. The L.A. Times tried publishing a bilingual and, later, Spanish-only periodical called Nuestro Tiempo, or “Our Times,” before it was discontinued when the paper’s business side was unable to figure out a strategy to sell it to advertisers. After the 1992 riots, the L.A. Times tried a supplement publication called CityTimes, meant to serve the city’s neglected African-American, Latino and Korean inner core. After only a few years in operation, CityTimes was discontinued, along with several other zoned supplements and editions that had been in place for more than a decade. For a while, the Times even owned half of the local Spanish-language daily La Opinión, bundling and delivering it together with the English paper in certain areas of the city. This setup also eventually died.
The Latino Initiative was the final and most radical push by the paper’s newsroom to reflect the city’s changing makeup. It was also its most controversial, drawing intense resistance from staffers at all levels.
The project was born after former editor Michael Parks, shortly after ascending to the top job, took a weeklong vacation to assess the paper’s coverage. He recalls pretending he was “a Latino upper-middle-class male” and taking with him a list of that profile’s corresponding interests. “I said, I’m going to read the L.A. Times for a week and see if it matches those interests, and see what was missing,” Parks says during an interview in his office at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, where he is now director.
What did he find? “Well, lots.”
Parks says he found himself going to La Opinión for soccer and boxing coverage. He also turned to the Spanish daily for community news that was lacking in the L.A. Times. Parks decided to open a bureau — now deserted — in Huntington Park after he served on a jury there. (“It’s crazy that we have four people in Moscow and no one covering this part of Los Angeles,” he recalls thinking.) But more was needed. Parks came back from his weeklong break with the idea, spurred by del Olmo, of creating a team that would seek out stories that addressed “Latino issues” and “the communities,” with an emphasis on the idea of plural Latino identities. Parks also tried implementing a policy where all new staff hires in Metro would be required to speak Spanish or agree to take company-provided courses. “This was strongly resisted,” he says, “strongly resisted.”
“I was looking at [the Times] as a reader and saying, ‘This is not my paper.’ That’s the first conclusion. And the second conclusion is, ‘If I’m not in it, it means that the other readers don’t know about me.’ This is a far more profound conclusion. It means the L.A. Times is a separating force,” Parks says. “What Frank got me to see was that the Times had been approaching the Latino communities as ‘Them,’ as the ‘Other.’ We had to approach the coverage as, it’s about ‘Us.’ ”