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Shades of Brown

Agustin Gurza, a Los Angeles Times staffwriter who covers Latino music and culture, was in the paper’s ground-floor cafeteria last July when he heard the young, mostly Mexican and Central American workers behind a lunch counter chatting away about an item in that day’s edition. Reventon Super Estrella, a multiband bill of several Mexican acts hosted by the Spanish-language radio station Super Estrella (107.1), had been written up as a Hot Ticket in the Calendar Weekend section. At first, Gurza saw it as a good sign that the editors had previewed a Latin music concert without his usual prodding. But his contentment was short-lived. The cafeteria kids were actually laughing about the paper misidentifying the item’s accompanying photo of singer Paulina Rubio as Thalia, another huge Latin pop star — and a Rubio rival. Not only that, Rubio wasn’t even appearing at the Super Estrella event. The workers told Gurza how the hosts of the Spanish-language TV program El Gordo y la Flaca were making fun of the paper for the error. Think of misidentifying Britney Spears as Christina Aguilera.

“That’s like the worst mistake you can make, right?” Gurza recalls. “It was a mini­scandal on Latino media . . . I think the problem was the wire photo — the wire service had misidentified the photo. But the point is, no one in the paper knew any different.”

Newspapers make mistakes all the time, but the message behind the kids’ mocking was that the L.A. Times still stumbles when it tries to cover Latino-specific stories in a city that gets browner and younger every day. Latinos in Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans in particular, are fast filling the upper ranks in politics, capital, entertainment and the law. Latin American immigrants routinely push Spanish-language programming in television and radio to the top of the ratings. Their children make up the largest demographic chunk in the city’s public-school system by far. But despite instances of excellent journalism on Latino issues in the Times — including first-rate coverage of Mexico from its foreign desk — there is the overwhelming sense that the country’s largest metropolitan daily has yet to effectively cover and address the Mexican-Americans and other Latinos in its own backyard.

“This goes back for 30 years,” says Antonia Hernandez, former general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), who has met periodically with several Times publishers and editors to discuss Latino coverage. “As our community has grown bigger and bigger and evolved into a more complex and sophisticated community, you still get the same stereotypes and images.”

Just last month, David Hiller, the latest Tribune Co. publisher dispatched from Chicago to run the newspaper, sparked a hubbub when he came to the conclusion, after arriving here in October, that to survive, the Los Angeles Times had to go “local” and “Hispanic.”

“There is widespread agreement we need a stronger overall Hispanic strategy,” Hiller wrote in the November 6 memo that was leaked to the blog LA Observed. “This will require that we resolve the future direction for Hoy [the Spanish-language Tribune paper introduced in 2004] . . . as well as better defining our strategy in the Times for reaching the English-speaking Hispanic audience.”

The dowdy naiveté and retrograde language of Hiller’s note drew disbelieving laughter and outrage from people across the city.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Okay, you’re just getting this now? You’re just starting to realize this now? Hello?’ ” says Rosa Maria Santana, West Coast director of the Parity Project at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which advocates for newsroom diversity. “It’s like, no, we were supposed to be beyond this now. It’s mind-boggling, and also very discouraging.”

Of course the Times isn’t just now getting around to thinking about its Latino readers. It’s tried Spanish-language inserts, special sections and, most recently, a controversial effort called the Latino Initiative. But these periodic attempts to address the issue have largely failed because Latinos by and large are still viewed in the Times’ overall narrative as a monolithic subgroup instead of separate communities of Salvadorans, Mexican-Americans, Afro-Cubans, Japanese-Peruvians and so on, each with their own accomplishments, issues and divisions. Which has led to a glaring irony: Corporate initiatives designed to reach Latinos have only alienated and marginalized them, both inside and outside the paper.

Consider the scene in the Times’ downtown newsroom on November 2, 1999. It was a routine Tuesday afternoon, just after 4 p.m. On such days, the place is abuzz with the quiet intensity of journalists tapping away on keyboards to meet the evening deadline. That Tuesday, a reporter, using the paper’s internal-messaging system, typed a quick note to her colleagues: “am i the only one being driven crazy by this paper’s tendency to use the words ‘latino’ ‘mexican’ and ‘spanish-speaking’ interchangeably?

Her words sparked a flurry of responses on a message loop labeled “Latino,” created so that editors and reporters working Latino-related beats could keep in constant communication. Many of the staffers were Mexican, Cuban and Guatemalan. They were part of the paper’s Latino Initiative, which was in full swing at the time.

 

I would definitely agree that I’m getting sick of seeing Latino in headlines over and over again . . . It shows a definite lack of creativity, I think, and adds to the impression that we’re pandering,” came a reporter’s response over the message system.

I also agree . . . that we don’t have to scream LATINO in every single story. It is starting to offend readers who are non-Latino,” shot another reply.

Recent story on need for county hospital is a good example,” wrote another reporter. “Headline: Latino Leaders demand larger hospital. But it was more than [Molina] and [Villaraigosa] who want the hospital. Yvonne [Brathwaite Burke] also weighed in. but we had to make it a latino thing.

The paper’s Latino Initiative was having an identity crisis.

i wish we could delete the phrase ‘latino community’ from the paper for good,” another reporter finally wrote. “It’s meaningless, since there is no single community, and too often used by self-appointed community leaders.

The impromptu exchange was uncovered recently by the L.A. Weekly in the mountains of clippings, proposals, letters, notes, memos and reports compiled by the late L.A. Times columnist and editor Frank del Olmo over the course of his three-decade career. Largely unsorted and piled in stacks of boxes at the special-collections archive at Cal State Northridge’s Oviatt Library, the del Olmo papers show there was hand-wringing over the Latino Initiative even before the project began. “Are we ghettoizing Latinos by suggesting their lifestyles . . . are inherently different than everybody else’s?” wrote a high-level editor in the margins of one 1998 planning memo. “Various groups have special health concerns. Is this a function of ethnicity or poverty? Again, it seems to me we don’t want to create a beat based on a false premise.”

A year before that, dozens of staffers attached their name to a memo addressed to then-publisher Mark Willes warning against creating a separate Latino section. “We believe many in the Latino communities will rightly be offended by this approach .?.?. Latinos are important enough that they should be incorporated into the main sections of this newspaper, not marginalized in a supplemental insert. This approach could produce a backlash among other groups. Asian-Americans have the fastest rate of population growth in the area, and have a higher per capita income than Latinos. Why not a supplemental insert for them? What about white readers? Or African-Americans?”

The del Olmo archives tell only part of the story. In more than 30 interviews with current and former staff members of various backgrounds, as well as many longtime community leaders and newsroom-diversity advocates, a portrait of the Los Angeles Times emerges as an institution that remains incapable of adapting to the city’s changing faces. Year after year, the paper still feels like it’s manufactured for the recently arrived Anglo Westsider. Who wishes he were in New York.

Meanwhile, as editors and staffers busy themselves with memos and position papers, crucial chapters in the running novela of the city at its doorstep are left out. Take, for instance, last spring’s immigrant-rights march and rally at City Hall. The March 25 event is now credited as the largest demonstration in Los Angeles history and the spark for a wave of marches and rallies that brought millions of people to the streets across the country for several months. It was the start of a movement that permanently shifted the debate on immigration reform. Yet the L.A. Times, situated in the most immigrant of immigrant cities, appeared unprepared to effectively cover the march or grasp its historical significance. The top of its next-day story read like any other standard demonstration summary and was padded with material from the Associated Press. There were no sidebar profiles of the organizers or next-day analysis — standard packaging elements when a daily covers major events. It took the paper three days to complete a profile on one of the main architects of the march, top-rated radio personality Eddie “El Piolín” Sotelo, and weeks before the tone of the coverage adjusted once the editors understood how big the movement was becoming.

At times, it seems the paper uses the terms “Latino” and “mostly Latino” as signifiers of goodness and automatic moral fortitude, signaling the reader to feel sympathy or pity for the subjects. When a small feudal war was erupting at the South Central Farm between factions of what the paper called “mostly Latino” farmers and their Chicano activist leaders, the Times insisted on simplistically viewing the farm story as a plucky-brown-immigrants-versus-evil-Westside-developer narrative. It was as if the idea that immigrants could be divided and plot against one another was somehow inconceivable.

 

When recording artist and Mexican-American heartthrob Adan “Chalino” Sanchez was killed in a 2004 car accident in Sinaloa at the age of 19, some editors at the paper were stunned to hear that thousands of sobbing, hysterical teenage girls were staging impromptu vigils all over L.A. upon learning of his death. At the time, I was a general-assignment reporter on the Times Metro desk. The night Chalino died, an editor called me in a panic, asking if I knew who Sanchez was, and if I could run down to cover a brewing mob scene. I couldn’t help chuckling. Chalino portraits, T-shirts and CDs were always hot items on Broadway in downtown L.A., a block away from the L.A. Times headquarters.

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 Times from 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.’ ”

The Latino Initiative was launched in late 1998. Ten reporters and one photographer were assigned beats across the newspaper, ranging from Latino culture to sports, health, media and labor. The reporters were Latino and non-Latino. Del Olmo served as the Latino Initiative’s chief watchdog. By sheer numbers, the initiative appeared to be working. According to del Olmo’s papers, in 1999 there were 400 “Latino” stories in the paper. By 2002, after Parks’ departure and the arrival of the Tribune Co., del Olmo recorded 553, more than half of them by non-Latino staffers.

But there were problems almost immediately. Some reporters on the team wrote to del Olmo about resistance among mid- and lower-level editors toward Latino Initiative assignments. Others complained that membership on the team was becoming a hindrance to their advancement in the newsroom. The overwhelming complaint was that the initiative was pandering. When I bring up this criticism to Parks during our interview, the former editor pauses, and then shrugs. “Yeah, you know. My starting point was, What is good journalism? And where are we failing?”

Despite the initiative’s admirable origins, the del Olmo papers and more recent interviews show how it led to an accommodating, almost condescending tone in so-called Latino coverage. Stories that seemed to have no discernible “Latino” angle were dubbed as such nonetheless. Nancy Cleeland, who worked on the initiative and later became the paper’s labor writer, says the project was well-meaning but often “silly.”

Once, she and another reporter went to Las Vegas to write about working-class Latinos migrating there from L.A. The reporters came across a moving truck with California plates, but saw that the family was black, not Latino. “We had to say, okay, well, they’re not going to fit, and that was just crazy, because really the story should have been why working-class people were leaving L.A. Everything got twisted a little.”

At the same time, one young reporter wrote a letter to del Olmo in 1999 expressing frustration over editors rejecting her story ideas. “It has been difficult understanding exactly what I am expected to do,” reads the letter as found in the CSUN archives. “There seems to be a waning enthusiasm for our initiative and for Latino-themed stories among my editors.”

Parks and del Olmo, upon launching the project, told the newsroom that the Latino Initiative would ideally “work its way out of existence.” This meant that the initiative would seep into all aspects of the paper and become second nature throughout the newsroom, with Latino coverage eventually becoming viewed as simply general coverage.

This never happened. Parks had an inglorious fall from power in 1999 when the Staples Center scandal erupted and the paper lost ethical credibility with the exposure of a profit-sharing agreement with Staples Center over a special issue. When Tribune took over, new editor John Carroll immediately placed an emphasis on strong national and international news, with multiple Pulitzer wins as the prize. On this front, Carroll and later Dean Baquet succeeded wildly.

“I have high regard for Carroll and Baquet, but they never made Latino coverage a top priority,” says Sotomayor, who left in 2005 in one of Tribune’s buyouts. “Both came from East Coast newspapers, and they brought in a Newsday editor to run local and state coverage. In a short time, the Latino Initiative withered and died, and key journalists left for other positions.”

Besides Sotomayor, the paper under Tribune lost several other prominent Mexican-American staffers — including Ramos, Oscar Garza, David Olmos, Barbara Serrano, Paul Gutierrez and Sergio Muñoz, among others — though venerable columnist Al Martinez remains, and Steve Lopez (who goes out of his way to say he’s Spanish, not Mexican) has had a huge impact on the city with his columns. Carroll told senior Mexican-American staffers that he intended to hire more Latinos. But solid candidates were often overlooked in favor of national-level star bylines. Carroll founded a high school journalism program, meant to build a potential pool of future local hires, but Baquet, who left Spring Street as a national martyr, valiantly standing up to his Tribune bosses over proposed newsroom cuts, killed the program under that same cost-cutting pressure.

 

“They were looking for projects and prizes,” one staffer says of Carroll and Baquet, “not L.A. coverage.”

Carroll did not respond to a request for an interview. Baquet says he’s spending time with his family and not taking work-related calls.

Community activist Hernandez says that the Times’ tendency to hire editors and reporters from other parts of the country results in a metropolitan paper led by people who seem to have no connection to the city. She also thinks the paper isn’t doing enough to understand and address the city’s most historically rooted subgroup, Mexican-Americans. Putting the word Latino in a headline won’t do it for her.

“I’m a Latina, but I happen to be a resident of L.A. I don’t care only about Latino issues; I care about all issues impacting my community. But they don’t see themselves as a local paper, whether it’s local Westside, local Eastside, local Southside. They don’t cover our community.”

Over time, Hernandez has observed Latino staffers at the paper caught in a contradiction if they tried to tackle Latino stories — or went out of their way to avoid them. “You try to be mainstream, but that’s not good enough because you’re supposed to be ‘the Latino reporter.’ But if you try to cover the community, then you’re marginalized,” she says. “It’s sort of been, darned if you do, darned if you don’t.”

I navigated this minefield firsthand in my three years as a reporter there. Older Latino staffers would warn me against doing too many “Latino stories” because I might be pigeonholed. And when I approached a Latino story with a critical eye, Latino readers criticized and scolded me. The whole time, I felt the paper was holding on to a worldview that was clearly no longer relevant to the city.

The numbers show how absurd this is. L.A. County is a “minority-majority” region, where nearly 47 percent of the population is Latino and in 56 percent of households English is not the primary spoken language. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times editorial staff is 6.4 percent Latino, and 18 percent minority overall. Which means the paper’s staff is more than 80 percent Anglo. When the Tribune Co. first took over in 2000, the minority figure was slightly higher, at about 20 percent. Some current and former staffers say it’s unconscionable that the big local paper in a city as brown as Los Angeles is so white, particularly at management levels, where decisions on coverage and budgeting are made.

One former L.A. Times staff member says that during the period when the newsroom was led by editors Carroll and Baquet (who was Carroll’s managing editor before taking Carroll’s place), Page One meetings regularly featured only one female or one non-Anglo (in addition to Baquet, who is African-American). “I don’t know if it was that they didn’t care, I just think they weren’t aware of how important it is,” says the former staffer. “If we [Latinos] don’t see people in those positions of management, there’s a message. The message is either ‘Yes, there’s a possibility for you to move up.’ Or ‘No, there’s not.’ ”

Frank del Olmo died of a heart attack in the middle of the Times newsroom in February 2004. He was 55.

With del Olmo’s death, the Times lost its only high-level internal voice advocating for a broader and more relevant set of priorities at the city’s paper of record. His funeral was attended by some of the biggest names in L.A. media and civic life. An L.A. elementary school was recently named in his honor. A collection of his columns was published. “Frank understood where we were and what could be the future of the L.A. Times in Los Angeles,” Muñoz says.

Though del Olmo was a trusted adviser to former top Times editors Parks, Carroll and Shelby Coffey, he seemed to be permanently relegated to the periphery of power on Spring Street. Del Olmo publicly rebuked his own editorial page when the L.A. Times endorsed the re-election of immigrant-bashing Governor Pete Wilson in 1994, penning a commentary that cemented his position as the paper’s resident Latino dissident. When the paper was sold to Tribune in 2000, he wrote a column basically bidding good riddance to the Chandler family, the clan that founded and oversaw the paper for more than a century. He noted bitterly that the Chandlers’ L.A. Times helped fuel hysteria and rioting against Mexican-American zoot-suiters in 1943.

 

“Like many other Chicanos who grew up here, I’ve never considered the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times, to be the paragons of civic leadership that some other Angelenos do,” del Olmo wrote. “I know all too well the sometimes ugly history of their newspaper.”

In his role as a passionate advocate for newsroom diversity, he helped found the California Chicano News Media Association and pushed for the introduction of Latinos of every stripe into the news business. This is where many feel the L.A. Times most betrays his legacy. Del Olmo was also the primary force behind the paper’s adoption of the label “Latino” over “Hispanic.” It was a word he championed in his columns until his death, even as his paper’s own reporters were increasingly exposing how inadequate “Latino” was for L.A. In his Times obit, del Olmo was said to have “decried the use of ‘Hispanics’ to describe U.S. residents of Latin American extraction. ‘Ugly and imprecise,’ he proclaimed, calling the word ‘bureaucratese.’ ‘In all my years of living and working in Latino communities,’ he wrote in 1981, ‘I have never heard a Latino refer to himself as a Hispanic.’ ”

Ultimately, del Olmo’s legacy should be seen primarily as a product of his historical moment. His work flourished at a time when a state of perpetual protest seemed to be the defining characteristic of the Mexican-American intelligentsia. At a place as rigid and Anglocentric as the L.A. Times, he provided a consistent voice of opposition.

Still, some former colleagues regarded him as ethnocentric, agenda-driven and consumed by identity politics.

“They came of age in the late 1960s. Alternative viewpoints were dismissed or disparaged, not publicly but privately,” says a former staffer who asked not to be named. “There were some Latinos who never quite got included in the ‘Brown Brotherhood,’ who chose for whatever reason to avoid identity politics in the newsroom.”

Another former Times reporter, Jesse Katz, who is now a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine, says there was “hostility” directed at him from del Olmo and other Latinos in the Times newsroom for the raw, street-level reporting he did on the cockfighting subculture among immigrants in South-Central.

Katz, who is from Oregon, says that after arriving in Los Angeles, he became convinced that the city was “the greatest story of our time.” He married a Nicaraguan immigrant and soon learned Spanish. “I remember driving around Western and Vermont and Pico and Olympic in ’86 and just being blown away,” Katz says. “That’s what I wanted to cover.”

But doing so was never easy in the politicized L.A. Times newsroom, Katz and others say. Some Latino staffers resented a “white guy” reporting on aspects of Latino life, although recent Latin American immigrant life would have been as foreign to third-generation Mexican-Americans as to a reporter from Oregon named Katz. “Some of the stories that I did,” he says, “dealt with harsher themes, darker themes, and perhaps shined a light in areas that weren’t the version of the Latino experience that the Latino Initiative wanted to present.”

Much of the Times’ most comprehensive coverage of immigrant and Latino affairs is currently produced by non-Latino reporters like Anna Gorman and Jennifer Delson. Is their work less legitimate because their bylines don’t have Spanish surnames? What about Latino journalists who don’t have Spanish surnames?

“The issue has to go beyond that certain kind of ethnocentric view of things, and you’ve got to get everybody onboard,” Katz says. “You could have Latinos on your staff who aren’t culturally or linguistically fluent. They count toward numbers in terms of hiring goals, but they may be really ill-equipped to tell the stories of Vicente Fernandez or underground cockfights in South-Central.”

Cleeland says another solution may be to move away from an ethnic focus on local coverage to a class focus, by recognizing that Los Angeles “is a working-class town” and writing stories that directly address working-class people and new immigrants. So-called “Latino coverage” would naturally spring from that.

“I look at La Opinión and I see stories every day in there that I think we should be writing. Our immigration coverage has a real outsider feel,” she says. “It’s sort of like written for people who don’t know anything about it, as opposed to people who are living it and want information that is going to affect their lives.”

The point gets to the heart of the matter. The paper feels as though it’s written about L.A. and not for it. Which is a shame. There are now countless Southern Californians who understand L.A. — whether by osmosis or by marriage — through the prism of its Latino texture. Everyone here interfaces daily with Latinos, speaks some form of Spanish, and knows Mexican culture and cuisine. In effect, everyone in L.A. is Latino. Does your morning paper feel like it’s at all cognizant of this?

 

Current and former staffers say that the Latino communities in Los Angeles want what everyone else in the city wants: quality local coverage of the issues, people and events that affect their lives. In a post-border, globalized info-economy world, this means accepting and addressing L.A.’s transnational future, says Metro reporter Sam Quiñones.

“I see [the paper] very, very willing to hire qualified Latino Spanish speakers, but more than anything, I think what the paper lacks is not people who speak Spanish but people who are intimately acquainted with the culture of the countries of where these immigrants come from — the three being Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador,” Quiñones says. “If you don’t understand the back-and-forth, the intense influence that this area has on little villages all across Mexico, and how what goes on in Mexico can have deep ramifications up here, then you’re kind of lost.”

“This is really the truth. If we do not figure out a way to get deeper into the Latino community, both in the staff and in our coverage, we’re not going to grow,” managing editor Leo Wolinsky tells me. “We have an obligation to do that.”

He says so, but there’s been virtually no activity on this issue inside Wolinsky’s newsroom recently. Sources inside the paper say that Latino coverage and hiring have not been a focus of the so-called Spring Street Project, a new committee charged with searching — quickly — for ways to expand the paper’s readership. In an open electronic file where staffers can submit new ideas on how to re-engage readers, there are few ideas on reaching more Latinos — in reportedly hundreds of messages sent in. Wolinsky himself admits that the Latino question did not come up in a brainstorming retreat earlier this year attended by top editors.

“I think they see [Latinos] as a base to be covered rather than the future of the city,” says USC’s Gutierrez. “They’ve got to decide if they want to be part of the future of Los Angeles or part of its history. And if they want to be part of its future, they have to make fundamental changes in how they do things.”

At least new publisher Hiller is talking about the problem, even as he addresses plummeting circulation and revenue figures, a revolving door of editors and publishers, and an overwhelming sense that the paper’s very survival is in doubt. Now if he and new editor James O’Shea can only do some research, starting, perhaps, with the del Olmo papers. He might begin with this message, from a seasoned reporter participating in the 1999 discussion over the word “Latino”: “well, at least we aren’t arguing about the use of the term ‘hispanic,’ ” the staffer wrote. “may it always be used elsewhere .?.?.


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