What Went Wrong at NYT En Español

The New York Times en Español was an effort to reach Spanish-speaking readers, but the newspaper didn’t give it the support or autonomy it needed.

By Spenser Mestel 


Paulina Chavira, a former editor and style editor of The New York Times en Español, isn’t sure what, exactly, is happening at the publication she left three months ago. Chavira joined Español’s Mexico City-based team in January of 2016, a month before the site officially launched, and for the next three years, she and her eight coworkers grew the newspaper’s Hispanic readership. Español published roughly 10 articles a day; although there was some original reporting, the majority were translations from the Times’ English site. The team also sent out a daily newsletter plugging the day’s content. At its peak, the newsletter had 300,000 subscribers, but in September of this year, Chavira and her coworkers were told that Español would be shutting down. 

“It was a complete and total shock,” Chavira tells me in Spanish. “None of us were expecting it.” Though she had suspected that the management in New York didn’t have absolute faith in the project, they had recently sent two staffers to Mexico City to help Español transition from Wordpress to the Times’ own in-house CMS, which she took as an encouraging sign. But then, six weeks later, the site was discontinued, and in the last edition of the Español newsletter that Chavira worked on, the company explained that, although the site “did attract a new audience for our journalism... it did not prove financially successful.”

Publications shut down unprofitable verticals all the time, but what’s odd about this one is that the Times continued publishing articles in Spanish, and, two months after the announcement, the newsletter unexpectedly returned. According to Chavira, it’s not clear whether Español still exists, and just three of the nine original staffers are still employed by the Times. When asked about the state of the publication, a spokesperson for the Times declined to comment and directed Study Hall to the original announcement of Español's closure. It’s a confusing situation, and one that reflects the paradox for Spanish-language media in the US. 

***

Spanish-language media has a large audience: the country has a Hispanic population of roughly 60 million, accounting for a fifth of the total population and half of America’s population growth. Though there are many Spanish-native publications in the US, many of the most widely circulated are nested under English conglomerates, where they have struggled to become profitable. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post closed their offices in Mexico, and on December 13th, Hoy, the Spanish arm of the Chicago Tribune, will also close after 16 years in operation. 

The general decline of newspapers is part of the problem (circulation for weekly and semi-weekly Spanish newspapers has been stagnant since 2016), but a particular challenge facing Spanish-language publications is the diversity of the community they’re addressing. “You can’t be all things to all people when it comes to Hispanics and Latinos,” says Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “You need to first understand the dynamics in the diversity [of] language proficiency as well as country of origin and where you reside in the United States.” 

According to Chavira, this was the case at Español, which never precisely defined the audience it was trying to reach. At the beginning, the newspaper employed a “neutral Spanish” that avoided any country- or regional-specific words, of which there are many, some of which confused even Chavira. For example, one day a Colombian editor announced that they were going to translate an article about the benefits of la patilla. “For me, la patilla is this part,” Chavira says, pointing to her sideburns. “How are we going to write an article on the benefits of —” she breaks off laughing. Eventually, she realized that the author was talking about la sandía, or watermelon, and the misunderstanding was a difference in slang. 

Unsurprisingly, the Times’ insistence on neutral Spanish didn’t last long. Thanks to the internet, telenovelas, and voice-dubbing (¿dónde están los fanáticos de Radio Ambulante?), many Hispanics are already exposed to different dialects of Spanish, and Chavira believed that Español could help strengthen those bonds. For example, in an article about the movement to eliminate plastic straws, Español put the Mexican word for “straw” — popote — in the title, along with three other variations in parentheses and one more in the body (cañita, pitillo, sorbete, and pajilla). Then, interspersed throughout, they used them interchangeably to help familiarize readers with the alternate terms. 

But despite its successes — in July of this year, Columbia University awarded a prize for international journalism to one of the Español editors — former staffers say that the vertical never received the resources it needed to thrive. “The Times had no plan for monetization. There were no regional ad sale strategies or even a way to try to convert readers into subscribers,” tweeted Eli Lopez, the site’s founding editor (Lopez declined to be interviewed for this story). 

For the final two years, Español didn’t have its own product manager, a position that could have helped the section become more financially viable, and the office in Mexico City was distant from the Times’ headquarters in New York, both geographically and culturally. “I don’t know who in the US could read Español and say, ‘Yes, this is well done. It’s up to the standards of the Times, it’s fact-checked, it’s well-written, it’s well-structured,’” says Chavira; there were few who could provide substantive feedback.

Chavira believes that the fundamental problem with Español was the newspaper’s chosen target audience. “A majority of the time, an article would be quite general. Why? Perhaps because it’s meant to explain what’s happening to a reader in the United States” rather than a local audience, she says. She offers as an example the Times’ coverage when Mexican forces captured — and then released — the son of El Chapo, the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. “What could I expect to read in the Times? Well, obviously a more thorough explanation, and that did come out — three days later,” says Chavira. “And that’s the big problem. As a Mexican reader, what the Times is offering is something that I already read in the Mexican press for free.” 

***

According to Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, readers within the US can have different reasons for avoiding Spanish-language publications. He points to a recent report from the FBI showing that hate crimes against Latinxs are at their highest level since 2010. In his words, there’s pressure for people to integrate “as quickly as possible before they’re identified as being Latino to the degree that, one wrong move and they're going to be picked up.” 

That uneasiness is familiar for Balta, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists president, a second-generation Peruvian American married to a native Colombian with two teenage children. “We often converse in Spanish when we're out in public,” he says, “but after [the mass shooting in] El Paso, I remember my son asking us if we should now start to think about not speaking Spanish in public for fear of reprisal. I told my son and my daughter that, of course not. We’re not in any danger, but the truth of the matter is, as a parent, I lied to my children that day. I am afraid.”

Both Balta and Nogales are advocates of Hispanic-centric media, but neither believes that the only — or even the best — way to accomplish that is through projects like Español. In fact, Nogales says he doesn’t even read Spanish-language newspapers. Instead, he opts for programs like Univision and Telemundo, which he believes deliver the news in the way people already consume it. “I’d rather TV and radio survive than papers,” he says. “They’re not under the gun as newspapers are. Newspapers are going down and down every day.”

Balta also believes that, despite the closure of Español and Hoy, Hispanics are well-served by the 600-plus Spanish outlets still operating in the US, so much so that when the National Association of Hispanic Journalists recently launched a digital news platform, Palabra, it started with English content first. The majority of Hispanics already get their news in English, but Balta believes that the NAHJ can do better than “the one-dimensional narratives that we see in mainstream media and, in particular, English language media.”

For both Balta and Nogales, a healthy media landscape would include more Hispanic representation at all levels, especially in the boardroom. “It's been my observation that too often the decision-makers who are initiating and sometimes leading these initiatives are not members of the community,” Balta says, “and that’s when a lot of these strategies fail.” According to a 2015 analysis, Hispanic/ Latinxs own just three percent of commercial TV stations, three percent of FM radio stations, and five percent of AM stations.

***

However, the death of Spanish-language verticals at English publications isn’t a foregone conclusion. In August, the Washington Post launched an opinion section in Spanish, edited by Eli Lopez, the founding editor at Español. According to Chavira, opinion columns were one of Español’s most popular sections because the authors were experts on the subject matter and came from the country in question. She also says that, because health and science aren’t widely covered in Latin America, those articles tended to do well (¡¿¡Te interesa el CrossFit!?!), as did translations of the Times’ “Modern Love”column — all of which suggest that, with a clear sense of the publication’s target audience and the right authors, new Spanish-language publications can still flourish. 

It also helps if you retain your staff. After Chavira was fired from Español, she was sent the Spanish translation of a NYT profile on the Catalonian singer, Rosalía. According to Chavira, there was a spelling error in the title and two grammatical errors in the excerpt. 

I asked her how that made her feel. “Fatal!” she said. “During all these years, we were doing a professional job because obviously we felt like we were part of the Times. For us, it was important to protect the prestige of the paper, so imagine that this is published with those mistakes.” She laughs and sighs. “I die.” 


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Chavira was hired by the Times to review a translation of their profile of Rosalía. Chavira was sent the article by an acquaintance after it had been published.

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