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Media firms catching up to Hispanic market

A Media General tabloid will join its Spanish-language products in the Tampa Bay area, where a growing population has been served by small companies.

Published September 25, 2005

TAMPA - Experts sometimes call it the "sleeping giant," an offhand reference to the growing political and economic power of Hispanics in the United States.

But on the subject of large media companies bringing Spanish-language products to the Tampa Bay area, it's the corporations that may have been asleep, mostly ignoring a segment of the population whose numbers and buying power expand tremendously each year.

No more. Three years after Time Warner Cable (now known as Bright House Networks) established the Spanish-language digital news channel Bay News 9 en Espanol, a flurry of major media companies are poised to enter the market - mining the area's surging Hispanic population as others courted Hispanic consumers in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando years ago.

The largest recent effort has come from Media General, which has developed three Tampa Spanish-language products: the free weekly tabloid newspaper Centro Mi Diario, and news updates for radio and TV stations under the brand name Centro Capsulas.

Media General's 32-page tabloid, Centro, debuts Oct. 21 with a circulation of 65,000 - higher than the daily circulation of the Gainesville Sun or the Tallahassee Democrat - with 45,000 copies delivered to Tribune subscribers self-identified as Spanish-speaking households. It's designed by newspaper layout guru Mario Garcia of Tampa.

Readers got a preview of the newspaper's content last week with the debut of, a Web site developed in just three weeks.

"This community had at least eight different Hispanic newspapers, but none of them were significant enough to make a dent," said Orlando Nieves, a former executive with Procter & Gamble who serves as general manager of Hispanic Initiatives for Media General in Florida.

For decades, small companies had much of the Spanish-language media market to themselves in the Tampa Bay area, with consumers served by an array of newspapers, a handful of AM radio stations and three TV stations featuring the networks TeleFutura, Univision and Telemundo.

Now, armed with U.S. Census figures showing Hispanics are the largest minority in America and Florida, bigger companies are preparing to sink major resources into tapping that market locally.

"(Spanish-language) media grows in the double digits every year, and that's very hard for English language media to duplicate," said Lily Gonzales, general manager at Univision affiliate WVEA-Ch. 62 and TeleFutura station WFTT-Ch. 50 in Tampa. "These companies came here . . . right on time."

Such projects are hardly a new phenomenon in Florida. The Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, the News-Press in Fort Myers and the Orlando Sentinel have Spanish-language versions. They are part of a national trend.

"I think you're going to see more and more mainstream newspapers targeting this niche, because it is growing," said Diane Hockenberry, an expert on specialty publications for the Newspaper Association of America. "To capture the attention of young people or Hispanics, they're realizing the need to customize content. . . . It's really a logical next step."

* * *

Nieves said the inspiration for the Centro tabloid was simple: U.S. Census figures showing a 97 percent population growth for Hispanics from 1990 to 2000. Nearly 450,000 Hispanics live in the Tampa Bay area, about 11 percent of the market's population of 3.8-million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The numbers tell a potent story about the Tampa Bay area's Hispanic population: buying power of $7.2-billion and per capita annual income of $57,000 (Scarborough Research); and the 20th largest Hispanic media market in the United States, and third largest market in Florida (Nielsen and the U.S. Census).

With a growth rate three times the general population, area Hispanics are on average nearly half the age of non-Hispanics - a young, growing niche of consumers that media companies with shrinking customer bases can hardly ignore.

"Five years ago, Venezuelans, Colombians, Salvadorans were populating Tampa in big numbers," said Marcelo Vera, a former communications professor at the University of South Florida who has worked for area Spanish-language radio and newspapers. "After 9/11, Puerto Ricans moved here in large numbers from New York, New Jersey and even Orlando. They open their businesses, hire more Hispanics and the business boom grows . . . including media."

Advertising Age magazine estimated 10 percent growth in Hispanic advertising nationally for 2005, compared to 3.4 percent growth for the U.S. advertising market. The magazine noted ad spending for local Spanish-language newspapers grew 12 percent in 2004 from the year before, to $161-million.

Luis Albertini, general manager at WYUU-FM 92.5, La Nueva, explained the trend simply.

"Media follows the population," said Albertini, who debuted WYUU's Spanish-language format 10 days after Infinity approved the change, eliminating one of the area's four country music stations. "It's a reality . . . and (broadcasters) who don't face it, are going to be losing market share."

But if the numbers are so impressive, why did big media companies take so long to get involved?

Luis Baron, publisher and editor of the 25,000-circulation, Sarasota weekly Siete Dias (Seven Days), noted that projects such as Centro and La Nueva can cost corporations millions of dollars in seed money before becoming profitable. (Centro executives would not say how much Media General has spent.)

"It's a big risk," said Baron, who will continue an agreement by which the Tampa Tribune prints Siete Dias and circulates 10,000 copies to home subscribers despite direct competition from Centro. "The Hispanic community in Tampa is complex. . . . It's hard to address the Mexicans with the same language you use to reach Puerto Ricans. It's not easy."

Despite longstanding assumptions that Cubans are the biggest Hispanic group locally, the Mexican population is more than two times its size, at 32 percent of the Tampa Bay area's Hispanic population, according to the U.S. Census. Puerto Ricans are at 27 percent, while Cubans make up 13 percent.

Such issues have proved a challenge at the St. Petersburg Times, which continues to consider possibilities for its own Spanish-language product after years of fits and starts.

"We're still exploring how best to reach (Spanish-language readers') needs," said Marty Petty, publisher and executive vice president of the Times. "What that looks like . . . we haven't landed on specifics yet."

* * *

When the New York Times Co. brought a black-focused newspaper to Gainesville last month, black journalists worried that a white-owned media company would co-opt an important cultural voice.

But some of Centro's competitors view things differently.

"I see it as a long-overdue acknowledgement of the size of the market," said WVEA's Gonzales. "The most important thing . . . is whether the product is culturally relevant. (Without that), it's like watching an (English-dubbed) Japanese horror film."

WYUU's Albertini agreed. "You can't just have Johnny Gringo making policy if they don't have cultural competency," he said. "You hire top Hispanic executives, and let them make the media."

But Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the 83-year-old, trilingual La Gaceta newspaper, said a newspaper with Centro's resources could offer much more to the area's Hispanic communities.

"If the Tribune was providing a daily Spanish newspaper, I would think they are providing a service no one else is providing," Manteiga said. "The Tribune is operating a paper to sell advertising to help their business. (No) higher goals there. This community could use so much more."

Vera, who once consulted with the St. Petersburg Times in its effort to develop a Spanish-language product, liked the professional design of Centro's prototype - though he questioned the seemingly interchangeable use of "Hispanic" and "Latino" in copy. He said some people from Latin America object to being described as Hispanic.

"(There is) historic resentment some people have from Spaniards coming into Latin America and slaughtering the cultures," Vera said.

In a town with long-established Hispanic communities, it's an open question whether a newspaper led by newcomers can make an impact, said Andrew Finder, publisher of the 16,000-circulation bilingual weekly Las Americas Herald in Tampa.

Executives at smaller Spanish-language publications, concerned that big projects such as Centro may push many of them out of business, wondered why Media General didn't partner with an existing newspaper, he added.

"When you sell Spanish-language media to the Anglo market, 80 percent of your effort is educating advertisers," Finder said. "Now, after many years of education, these big companies are taking the gravy."

Well aware that the Miami Herald's successful, independent Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald initially drew scorn as mostly a translation of the English paper - "You're perceived as Anglo with a mask," said Centro editor Manuel Ballagas, who worked there for years - Centro executives stressed their separation from the Tribune in content and reporting.

And for those who question whether Centro will cover stories that may make Media General executives nervous, Nieves had a simple answer.

"They don't speak Spanish," he said, chuckling. "They won't know."

[Last modified September 23, 2005, 21:31:02]

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