2019 will be remembered as a turbulent year for Spanish-language news in the U.S. The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, the Huffington Post, and the Chicago Tribune all shut down their Spanish-language websites in a large blow to parts of the 59 million Spanish language speakers in the U.S.
However, as the old decade folded into the new year, national news outlets confirmed that they weren’t giving up on Spanish-language news. In the past two months, The Washington Post launched its first Spanish-language news podcast, El Washington Post, and USA Today started Hecho en USA, its series on Latino communities. As the new decade begins, the future of Spanish-language news in the U.S. remains a puzzle, difficult to piece together.
The reason for the failures of 2019 largely boil down to money. The Times, for instance, initially launched NYT en Español in early 2016 as a way to grow its international audience. This was part of an optimistic goal to generate $800 million in digital revenue by 2020. At the time, Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric was in full force. So, putting the Times’ journalism stamp on important issues south of the border was meant to be a significant step towards the outlet’s lofty aims.
The plan was to support NYT en Español with advertising revenue, along with the hope of turning readers into subscribers. But a little more than three years later, NYT en Español closed its Mexico City bureau. Despite a potential audience of 80 million people, the advertising dollars weren’t coming in, a Times spokesperson said when the website shut down in September. Nor were these readers subscribing. But according to NYT en Español’s founding editorial director Eli Lopez, the Times lacked a credible plan to monetize his team’s content.
In the wake of these ill-fated efforts, Spanish-speaking communities pay the price. More than 8,000 English-speaking news organizations currently serve approximately 250 million English speakers in the U.S. However, for the almost 59 million Spanish speakers – 10 million of whom don’t speak English well – only approximately 624 news outlets serve them.
When Tribune Publishing shut down Hoy Media, their Spanish-language newspaper in Chicago, in November, reporter Laura Rodríguez lamented the news that would no longer be reported for Chicago’s Latino and Hispanic communities.
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“I’m seriously so angry and frustrated at the fact that the company decided to get rid of such an important platform for the Spanish-speaking community in Chicago,” Rodríguez tweeted. “I wrote so many stories no one else did — we had our space! Our Latino, Spanish-speaking community counted on us to tell their stories. Those that are often not told.”
While some of the nation’s largest outlets can afford to experiment, the same can’t be said for smaller organizations across the country. Statewide and citywide newsrooms have already faced crushing layoffs and decimated revenues in one of the hardest decades ever for journalism. And Spanish-speaking communities are among those that will suffer the most.
In New Mexico, where slightly more than one million Spanish speakers represent 49% of the state’s population, the Hispanic population is the most underserved. Despite having a long history with the Spanish language that dates back to before the Constitution, the state only has three Spanish-speaking news outlets. And they are all TV stations and all based in Albuquerque. Compare that to neighboring Arizona, home to a Hispanic population around double the size of New Mexico at more than two million. It is home to 17 Spanish-language outlets, more than five times the amount in New Mexico.
At a time when local news has already suffered greatly and positive signs are few and far between (it’s estimated that more than 13,000 communities in the U.S. don’t have any local news coverage) is it too much to expect smaller and medium-sized outlets to launch Spanish-language offerings? Given that national outlets such as the New York Times can’t turn a profit from such investments, the answer for many local newsrooms with fewer resources may just be yes. Right now, it is too much.
Scott Brodbeck is just one local news editor who is familiar with the obstacles of running a local news website. Brodbeck is the founder and CEO of Local News Now, a network of hyperlocal news websites he launched in 2010 that serve markets in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. With the shrinking advertising market for most media companies due to Google and Facebook’s dominance, financial uncertainty is just one reason why local news companies such as Brodbeck’s aren’t able to implement new products specifically for non-English speaking audiences.
“The biggest challenges are recruiting, training and retaining talented people; producing consistently excellent local journalism that attracts a large local audience; and growing sales to keep growing our organization,” Brodbeck said. “Given the challenges of just putting out our current news product, it would be unrealistic to try to do what we’re doing in a second language.”
America is undergoing a rapid change in demographic identity. According to Census projections, the Hispanic and Latino population represented just more than 17% of the U.S. population. By 2060, that population is predicted to be roughly 120 million people, or 28 percent. That’s why Brodbeck said that the best solution for local newsrooms in the future could be for them to focus on hiring reporters from diverse backgrounds. That would allow them to serve as many communities as possible.
“Having separate Spanish language brands may make sense for some of the largest news publishers. Smaller newsrooms would be better off putting their energies into developing robust hiring, training, and employee support practices, to cultivate a diverse workforce that can better serve all readers
News outlets continue to wrestle with how to serve diverse audiences. Thus, it might be down to schools and universities to take a proactive approach by preparing the next generation of journalists for the ever-changing media landscape.
One journalism school that’s already doing so is the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The school’s Spanish-language journalism program aims to train bilingual journalists to better cover issues important to Latino communities. This program could be a footprint for other journalism schools across the country to follow. It could also provide news outlets with a new generation of journalists to serve an increasingly diverse population.
Like many other aspects of an industry grappling with profitability and even survival, the future of Spanish-language news remains uncertain. And just as the industry experiments with reader engagement and revenue models, news organizations and universities are now exploring different methods of delivering Spanish-speaking news, such as podcasts and special series. With so many moving pieces, only one projection is relatively certain: the growing population of Spanish speakers in the U.S.