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An Upstart Surpasses A Spanish-Language Daily


February 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


Press Rivals.
(PHOTO: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)


It looked like a big gamble when Louis Sito persuaded executives at Newsday and its parent, the Times Mirror Company, to start a Spanish-language daily newspaper three years ago. Many internal critics balked at the notion, saying that others had tried and failed to dislodge El Diario/La Prensa, New York City's older Spanish-language daily.

So the startup of the rival newspaper, Hoy (Today in Spanish), was risky for Mr. Sito, now 56, a senior vice president in charge of circulation, advertising and distribution for Newsday.

But the bet more than paid off.

In three years, Hoy has surpassed El Diario/La Prensa in circulation and has become the nation's fastest-growing Spanish- language newspaper, according to figures by a trade group that monitors circulation. Mr. Sito said the success proves his point: the doubters failed to understand changes in the rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population, in which Puerto Ricans lost ground as more Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadoreans and others arrived.

"Because there was once a time when more than half of New York's Spanish-speaking immigrants were Puerto Rican, El Diario became the Puerto Rican newspaper," Mr. Sito said. "It is not that I am really smart. I just took the time to took at the numbers and realized that we could build a newspaper on going after a large group of Hispanics who were not being covered by El Diario."

Newspaper disputes are often hard fought, and this one has its own bitterness. There is, for starters, a price war: Hoy's newsstand price is 25 cents, compared with El Diario/La Prensa's 50 cents. Gerson Borrero, the editor in chief of El Diario/La Prensa, said he does not believe Hoy's circulation numbers mean much and dismisses Hoy as "an advertising vehicle enhancement for Newsday" that is "an illegitimate paper subsidized by a outsider parent company."

"They are lying about their circulation, and they know it," Mr. Borrero said. "They can fool other people, but they can't fool me."

Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show Hoy is clearly in the lead, however.

Regardless of circulation questions, it is clear that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the city's population, having recently overtaken blacks as its largest minority. More than 2.1 million Hispanic New Yorkers were counted in the 2000 census, an increase of 377,043 from estimates 10 years earlier.

In addition, the number of Puerto Ricans in the city dropped 12 percent over the past 10 years, while the number of Dominicans jumped 22 percent, the Ecuadorean population rose 28 percent and the Mexican population doubled, according to census figures. In 1990, Puerto Ricans made up half of all Hispanic New Yorkers. By 2000, the number had fallen to 36 percent.

Arturo Ignacio Sanchez, a professor of urban planning at the Pratt Institute, said the 2000 census has made clear that "being Hispanic in New York means something different than it did a few years ago. No longer does Hispanic just mean Puerto Rican."

Mr. Sito, a Cuban immigrant who started his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, said he started to understand the change in 1998 when he was reviewing Newsday's circulation numbers by ZIP code, and noticed that in many areas where the newspaper had written about growth in the Hispanic population, sales were sharply dropping.

After combining census projections with his circulation data, Mr. Sito said, trends became even clearer: in 10 years, the percentage of residents who read Newsday in ZIP codes where Hispanics were on the verge of becoming the majority had dropped to 20 percent of the total population, from 65 percent.

"I realized that we had these large swaths of the community where Newsday had absolutely nothing to offer them," Mr. Sito said.

Soon after becoming senior vice president at Newsday, Mr. Sito pitched skeptical Times-Mirror and Newsday executives the idea of creating Hoy.

"Some people at Newsday were against it," said Donald H. Forst, The Village Voice editor and former editor in chief of New York Newsday. "But Hoy is his baby, and he realized what others before did not."

The notion of going after the Spanish-language market was neither original nor untested. In 1995, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, principal owner of The Daily News, started a short- lived Spanish-language newspaper.

At first, Newsday explored buying El Diario/La Prensa. Instead of a purchase, though, Mr. Sito laid out a strategy for publishing a brand-new paper, using Newsday's printing and distribution networks to keep costs down, and undercutting El Diario/La Prensa's newsstand price.

In addition, Mr. Sito sought Spanish-speaking readers dissatisfied with El Diario/La Prensa's journalism. Part of his approach was to go after top-tier bilingual journalists.

In October 1998, Newsday began publishing Hoy in a joint venture with AI Holding Corporation, a Spanish-language publisher based in New Jersey. The slick color tabloid had sections covering health, food and sports, as well as pages of news devoted to Colombian, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and other Hispanic New Yorkers.

By March 2000, Hoy had nearly reached El Diario/La Prensa's circulation and secured its place as the nation's fastest-growing Spanish-language newspaper. In September 2001, Hoy reported a paid weekday circulation of 65,768, compared to El Diario/La Prensa's paid weekday circulation of 56,938, according to the latest statements from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which audits the circulation of most American newspapers.

Mr. Borrero, the El Diario/La Prensa editor, said he believed knowledge of New York is more important than devoting pages of news to separate foreign countries. And he noted El Diario/La Prensa has been named the nation's "outstanding Spanish-language daily" for five consecutive years by the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

"I am not a transplanted publisher from Chicago, a transplanted person from another city or state," he said. "I am a New York-bred Puerto Rican who is from this city and educated in this city, and that is the knowledge we give our readers every day."

Undaunted, Mr. Sito said he wants to create a national Spanish-language newspaper based on a similar vision: tapping into the untapped slices of the Hispanic market.

"The Hispanic community is big and getting bigger," Mr. Sito. "And within that big umbrella, we cannot forget that while the thing that keeps us together is that we speak the same language, there is a wide range of historical and cultural diversity to the entire mosaic."

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