Six reasons The New York Times could have problems publishing in Spanish

Editor’s Note: This post was produced as part of a graduate course on media writing and storytelling taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

Consumers of Spanish-speaking media woke up one recent Sunday to a surprise: A New York Times website in their own language. Based in Mexico City and headed by seven experienced Hispanic journalists, the NYT en Español translates a compilation of stories from the paper’s English-language edition along with new pieces from the Spanish-speaking world. So far, NYT en Español has offered an original perspective on everything from Pope Francis’ anticipated first visit to Cuba and Mexico to the madness of Super Tuesday. 

Examples abound of legacy news outlets trying to expand their brand internationally, and so do the failures. From missing the nuances of local politics to insufficient resources, the media has discovered the challenges of this strategy. Expanding its territory into the second-most-important language on Earth would seem like an opportunity for growth. But if other important efforts have failed, it gives reason to question whether the Times will, too. Here’s a look at some of the challenges. Bottom line: A smart strategy, carefully executed, could go a long way. But there are hazards. 


Journalism in Mexico, a deadly profession 

Reporting in dangerous regions could be among the greatest challenges. A recurring issue in much of Latin America is security. In Mexico’s case, for at least the past five years, national media has been unable to report on crucial areas along the US border where drug cartels have co-opted the media. Foreign reporters have proven more successful at uncovering important stories because they’re able to go places their local counterparts wouldn’t. Not only may this create opportunity for NYT en Español, but the team believes it can learn from what’s happened in the past. “[The Times has] protocols that have worked in so many troubled places. We can learn a lot about doing risk-free reporting in Mexico,” said NYT en Español growth editor Dulce Ramos, who once helped oversee a prominent research project about organized crime in Mexico called NarcoData. “I think we can soak up their best practices and see how we can do things better here in the region to protect journalists.”  

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The dwindling free press

The Latin American media market is seen as fertile ground for new ventures, and indeed it has come a long way since the 1980s and 1990s. The reality, however, is that only 15 out of the 35 countries in the region are considered by the independent watchdog organization Freedom House to be free, in terms of access to information and independence from the government. Especially in Mexico, there are numerous deterrents to the free exercise of speech in the media. In states like Veracruz and others like it, there are frequent threats from public officials aimed at controlling what the press writes.

 International media does not suffer from these restrictions, so it can generally operate freely. That, of course, is a plus for the Times venture. To take advantage of it, for launch, NYT en Español partnered with strong non-government sponsors in the energy, financial, and entertainment industry.

Nevertheless, the Times may still face obstacles when covering certain parts of the country. As Alfredo Corchado, Mexico correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, testified on July 29, 2015, before the House last year: “Today there are regions in Mexico where reporters have elected to censor themselves. In other words, see nothing, say nothing. These are known as regions of silence.”


Gotta love a good conspiracy theory

The Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who already owns 6.9 percent of The New York Times Company, made headlines in 2009 when he loaned the paper $250 million. In January of this year, the Times announced that after having repaid the debt in full in 2011, Slim was acquiring 15.9 million shares, making him the newspaper’s largest shareholder with a total of 16.8 percent of the company’s outstanding common stock.

“Carlos Slim doesn’t have preferential shares which would allow him to participate in the political and editorial decision making process,” said online editor of the political and cultural magazine Nexos, Esteban Illades. “Here in Mexico, however, the first conversation is about how will The New York Times shake that image of Carlos Slim because a lot of people seeing this newspaper arrive to Mexico are thinking ‘Well of course! It’s Carlos Slim’s outlet entering the telecommunications war and its texts are going to incur in a clear pro-Slim and pro-TV bias.’ ”

When NYT en Español launched, social networks lit up with discussions of whether Slim’s possible involvement could help him expand his range of influence in Mexico.

“In a country used to conspiracy theories, the first obstacle they face is that people realize it has nothing to do with politics or with what Carlos Slim is thinking,” Illades said.


Understanding the audience first, going from there

NYT en Español launched as a different kind of hybrid for which careful measures are in place to ensure success. It started with an experimental beta phase, reliability on a local team and office, as well as a thorough design research field project. It aims to reach a targeted audience of digital subscriptions in Latin America and in Spain. The publication says its research suggests that both markets are promising.

“We are very aware that we’re just starting a relationship with a new audience. We don’t intend to be arrogant, we still have a lot to learn about media in Latin America and Spain,” said NYT en Español’s editor Elías López. “There’s a lot of people doing the right things, especially digitally, and we come to be part of this information environment and to present our content, which I think is of interest for many.”


What Latin America wants

The new venture may seem redundant to the audience it’s intended to reach. The main English language version of the Times is read by many Spanish-speaking people who also read English. So in order to attract them to the Spanish-language version, some experts in the market say these readers need to get more than just a translation of what they’ve already read. Nexos editor Illades believes the Times could win over the Mexican audience by doing original investigative and longform journalism of the kind nobody else is doing in Mexico. 


The world’s fight against foreign media incursions

Prosperous English-language news outlets, hit by the industry’s declining profits, started to break new ground internationally in the late 2000s. Foreign digital editions became the means to create new audiences and new sources of ad revenue. The Guardian unveiled a new homepage for the United States, becoming so successful that it won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Yet going outside of the United States has proven an arduous task for the Times.

Three of the international experiments it set in motion–India Ink, a Chinese-language website, and a Portuguese-language edition–all faced different challenges. The Times in Brazil never launched due to financial concerns. Soon after launching, the government censored the Chinese and English versions of the Times in mainland China. Though the Chinese website remains operational, the Times redeveloped its news product, using the WeChat app as its main publishing means. India Ink was shut down as an independent blog due to a lack of resources. 

Its next fight is winnable, but it won’t come easily.

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Valeria Ramírez Siller is a student in a course on media writing and storytelling, taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: Javier Micora