Nov 1 2012

One City, Two Languages

How the El Paso Times segregates the news

Faces and Places,” says a link on the website of the El Paso Times, a venerable daily newspaper on the U.S./Mexico border. Click and you’re transported to photos of the community’s apple-pie-and-motherhood social events. In one picture, a fair-skinned little girl straddles a horse as a Stetson-hatted man guides her on a trail ride. In another, a middle-aged woman holds a fluffy dog who’s poised to jump in a pool—it’s canine swim day at an El Paso recreation center.

These photos, and others just as wholesome, grace the paper’s English-language website. But over in another section, called “Fotogalerías,” the images look far racier. Instead of children and matrons, they often depict scantily clothed teen and 20-something females—with décolletage thrust out, bellies bared, tattoos winking, and derrieres overflowing bikini bottoms.

In one photo, a small package of marijuana rolling papers peeks from a young woman’s cleavage. In another, the subject spreads her hands and splays her fingers, forming the sign for a street gang. Many photos document night-time doings at raves and clubs around town.

Oddly, these risqué pictures never make the Times’ traditional, English-language section. Instead, they’re found in its new Spanish-language area on the Web.

News articles, too, are linguistically segregated. The ghettoization of some material in Spanish and some in English raises questions about whether newspapers in ethnically mixed communities should divide themselves in two—or if a “one-state solution” would be better, with a single publication printing all content bilingually.

The question is especially compelling in El Paso, a poor, largely Latino city of almost 800,000 residents literally a stone’s throw from Mexico. Running through El Paso’s downtown is the Rio Grande River, on whose south side lies Ciudad Juárez, a sprawling Mexican city of between 1.3 million to 1.7 million people.

In 1960, only 45 percent of El Paso’s population was Latino—the majority were non-Hispanic whites who spoke only English. Today, Latinos are 82 percent of the city, and most speak Spanish at home. Non-Hispanic whites have shrunk to 13 percent of the population, along with 3 percent African-Americans and 2 percent “others.” Very few of these latter groups speak more than rudimentary Spanish.

Yet the Times, which was founded in 1881, has traditionally been a monolingual, English-language publication. In recent years, it has won accolades for employing a higher percentage of Latinos in the newsroom than any other daily in the country. But the paper has suffered financially during the past generation, along with virtually all “legacy” media in the U.S. In the early 1990s, the Times had a Sunday circulation of 103,000 copies, down today to little more than 82,000.

Searching for innovations to boost its readership, the Times noticed that Spanish-language editions elsewhere were doing exceptionally well. Nationally, their circulation was stable, in some cases even increasing.

It took a while for the Times to act on this observation, and at first the paper was pre-empted by other local media. In 2003, El Diario, a daily on the south side of the Rio Grande, debuted an edition on the north side, written wholly in Spanish but dedicated to El Paso news. The move garnered glowing coverage in the New York Times (5/27/03).

After that, the El Paso Times came out with a weekly, Spanish-language giveaway full of editorial fluff and ad inserts. It still exists, as El Paso y Más, and is distributed gratis from boxes throughout the city.

On the Web, meanwhile, the Times has added a translator app for subscribers to its English-language, digital edition. This has not solved the dual-language problem, however. The translator quickly renders text to Spanish, but like all such machine programs, it makes screeching errors. I used it to convert a Times article about a citizen-group’s petition effort to recall a controversial city council member. The program changed “recall” to the Spanish “recordar”—which means not to oust a politician, but to remember her.

The Times’ latest and most ambitious foray into dual-lan-guage journalism is a digital product called Somos Frontera (“We Are the Border”). It launched 14 months ago, after staff discussed the need for a publication done in carefully written and translated Spanish—covering not just El Paso, but Juárez as well. The venture was inspired by extreme narco-violence in Juárez, which since 2008 has driven thousands of middle-class and rich residents across the border to El Paso. These educated, moneyed migrants would com-prise a large proportion of new El Paso Times readers, staff thinking went. “The Times saw [Somos Frontera] as a business opportunity,” said Lourdes Cárdenas, a native Mexican who is editor of the new edition. 

Somos Frontera has one bilingual reporter who covers El Paso, another in Juárez, and Cárdenas, who doubles as a Juárez reporter when she’s not editing. The staff writes in Spanish—and sometimes in English, too, so that the Times can run their material.

Superficially, the collaboration sounds felicitous. But on second glance it’s complicated, and possibly divisive to the community. That’s because of content segregation.

Somos Frontera does not publish all of the English-language Times news about El Paso and the rest of the United States. And the Times omits much Somos Frontera coverage of Juárez and other parts of Mexico. Or, if the Times does decide to use the Mexico material, it frequently postpones publication of these important stories. They often come out in English days after they’ve appeared in Spanish.

Somos Frontera editor Cárdenas sees these glitches as mainly logistical, caused by a serious lack of translation resources and a shortage of hard-copy space.

The first problem is especially frustrating, she said. The Times employs only one translator, who has time to translate only two or three stories a day from the English Times to the Spanish Somos. And before the translator starts work every day, Somos editor Cárdenas must choose a paltry two or three stories from among dozens in the English Times. Which articles will be most interesting to Spanish-language readers: wrongdoing by the El Paso school superintendent? Controversies at City Council? A man arrested for child porn?

Cárdenas does the triage, and there’s no data to help her pick and choose. No market-research has been done on Somos Frontera’s 4,000-to-5,000 daily readership, who mostly log on in El Paso.

So Cárdenas goes by her gut. She thinks Spanish readers particularly like crime stories, and she prints grisly reports from Juárez with headlines such as “Hombre Hallado Muerto Dentro de Maleta Habia Sido Secuestrado” (“Man Found Dead in Suitcase Was Kidnapped”). Cárdenas’ staff does not generate these articles. They come from NorteDigital, the online edition of a daily paper in Juárez. Somos Frontera has an agreement to run one NorteDigital article a day; contractually, it cannot be offered to the Times.

NorteDigital’s stories aren’t just police blotter—they often dig into pressing social issues. Homicide by narco-violence has dramatically decreased in the last year, one  article reveals, but reports of illegal violence by the Juárez police are rising, and include accounts of the robbery and murder of civilians. That article got reprinted in Somos Frontera on September 28. According to agreement, it cannot be run in the Times

For their part, Times editors ask for and choose articles about Juárez to run in English. Cárdenas tries to predict what they want before offering selections, so she doesn’t waste time translating material that will be rejected. “The stories we propose must reflect the impact the issue has on El Paso,” she says. For instance, a report about a person in Juárez “selling pumpkin seeds and not making enough money” wouldn’t interest the Times, Cárdenas said, since “it’s not tied to the El Paso economy.”

Or is it? Perhaps the ties which bind Juárez and El Paso simply need to be teased out more by reporters and editors, whether they work in Spanish or in English. But that doesn’t always happen. Somos Frontera ran a piece on September 13 about a Spanish-language radio show airing in the U.S., portraying the troubled history of Sunland Park. It’s a tiny New Mexico town that abuts both El Paso and Juárez, and whose citizens have spent years fighting garbage dumping and smelter pollution from local industries. The story did not make it into the El Paso Times, though it has much to do with El Paso.

Often a Somos Frontera–generated story does make it into the Times, but not simultaneously with the Spanish. For people who read both versions, the time difference can foment distrust.

This happened recently while El Paso’s City Council was politicking to build a publicly funded, minor-league baseball stadium. For locals, the proposal has proved extremely controversial; among their concerns is that not enough people will attend games to support the project’s cost. City officials and other stadium promoters, who are mostly non-Latinos, have argued that fans from Juárez will eagerly cross the border and supplement the El Paso fan base.

In the midst of the debate, on August 28 of this year, Somos Frontera ran a story revealing that Juárez itself was about to open a big, state-of-the-art baseball park, which would surely keep at least some Mexican fans at home. But the story did not appear in English until the following Saturday.

Delays like this are not politically motivated, insists Cárdenas. They occur because the Times exists online, where space is unlimited, but it also comes out in traditional—and finite—hard copy. Frequently, Cárdenas says, the print edition runs out of space for Somos Frontera material. “That’s what happened to the Juárez stadium story,” she said. “The Times had to hold it, I suppose because the editors decided it wasn’t urgent enough to come out when the Spanish version did.” 

Explanations aside, the publishing delay made some bilingual readers wonder if the Times was underhandedly pushing for the El Paso stadium by suppressing news about its Mexican competitor. Such suspicions were exacerbated by the fact that the paper has been negotiating to sell its building to the city so that El Paso’s City Hall, which will be torn down to build the stadium, can relocate many of its facilities there (El Paso Times, 8/12/12). The deal involves millions of dollars.

Then, of course, there’s that weird photo segregation between the Times and Somos Frontera. It’s ridiculous to think that young women who read the English-language Times never go to nightclubs in scanty attire. It’s equally silly to presume that middle-aged people who read the Spanish edition never take their kids to trail rides, or their dogs to the doggie swim. The separation of these images by language only makes the separation of news stand out in bold relief.

Even so, in a city projected to be 90 percent Latino in the next generation, “we’ve never talked about going bilingual,” Cárdenas said. In El Paso these days, there’s virtually no public discussion of language and media issues, and for the foreseeable future, the “two-state” newspaper, with all its problems, seems to be the model that will prevail.


Debbie Nathan is an El Paso– and New York City–based writer who often covers U.S./ Mexico border issues.