Photographer: William Camargo

Las Noticias en Español

The uncertain fate of Spanish-language news networks

November 13, 2018

 Ya’y que iiiirnos, güey,” Fumigator No. 1 pleads to his colleague. (“Let’s gooooo already, fucker.”) They’re in Orange, California, at a Mexican bakery, Spigas, where they stop most mornings; their truck stretches across three parking spaces outside. The place is packed—Spigas has only four booths—as painters, gardeners, and drywalleros wedge in to pour themselves coffee. A long glass bakery case holds Mexican and American pastries (pan dulce, empanadas, danishes the size of a face). On a small stove near the cash register, a woman makes breakfast burritos.

Fumigator No. 2 won’t leave. He stares at a television, mounted on a wall beside the Spigas menu. It’s airing Noticiero Telemundo 52, the 6:30 a.m. newscast for KVEA-TV in Los Angeles. A report from Santa Ana, just down the 5 Freeway, shows the wreckage of a twin-engine Cessna aircraft that, a day before, had fallen from the sky. 

“They said earlier that they were going to show the crash,” Fumigator No. 2 says in Spanish, loud enough for everyone to hear. Customers and Spigas staff turn their eyes to the screen. Then they see what they’ve been waiting for: a grainy cellphone video of a small plane nosediving into a Staples parking lot. “Chinga a su,” someone says. (“For fuck’s sake.”)

Most of the customers hang around for the rest of Telemundo’s morning combo: crime, immigration, sports, traffic updates. From behind the bakery counter, Omar López, who owns Spigas, looks on approvingly. Short and stocky, López, 40, has made Spigas part of a morning routine for people of like minds. “Telemundo tells you what’s real,” he says. “People want to see that.” Compared with most other news programs—including its chief rival, Univision (here, KMEX-TV Channel 34)—Telemundo is more fast-paced and scrappy, making an overt play for young, working-class viewers. 

That strategy looks good at Spigas. But this is a dependable crowd. In general, Americans have been spending less of their time watching live TV, Latinxs especially. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2006, 92 percent of Latinxs got their news from TV, while 37 percent did so from the internet; in 2016, 79 percent watched TV, and 74 percent went online. That shift in engagement, which is generational, is compounded within the Spanish-language news market by young audiences’ favoring English-language media. Latinx millennials, by Pew’s count, consume their news in English 91 percent of the time. Take Aimee Murillo, a 28-year-old from Santa Ana, who I recently found checking the news on Twitter. When asked how many of her fellow bilingual Latinx friends watch Telemundo or Univision for news, she says, “Zero.” A Spanish-language newscast is, to them, an old person’s thing. “We watched when we were kids,” she explains. “It’s something we remember existing in our periphery, but it doesn’t connect with us.” 

The need for their parents’ stations to make a case for themselves is dire—with declining viewership has come financial strain. Univision, the wealthier network, is valued at more than $12 billion but has reported some $8 billion in debt. In the past year, it has suffered steep revenue losses, scrapped plans for a stock market launch, and laid off of 35 percent of its digital news staff. In March, Univision announced that Randy Falco, the CEO, would be leaving (New York Business Journal reported that Falco had “lost favor” with some board members); in July, as the company made plans to cut $100 million in expenses, including the sale of Fusion Media Group (which includes Gizmodo, Jezebel, The Root, and other sites), Isaac Lee, the chief content officer, announced his departure. Univision’s net operating revenue, estimated by S&P Global Market Intelligence to be $949 million, still remains larger than Telemundo’s, at $844 million. In April, Telemundo opened a gleaming new headquarters in Miami—a sign of confidence, even though, a month earlier, the network had announced a restructuring that meant layoffs of more than 150 employees.

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If Univision and Telemundo fail, “it would be dramatic,” Lee, who is on CJR’s advisory board, says. What’s required, he believes, is envisioning a future beyond the Spigas crowd. “The Latino community would be without its principal information source that permits them to have a community in the US,” he says. “It’s hard to believe that Univision and Telemundo are so myopic that they would let that happen.”

The news divisions of Univision and Telemundo are both traceable to the first Spanish-language national newscast in the United States, Noticiero Nacional SIN (Spanish International Network). Its debut, in 1981, with more than 100 affiliates, featured a taped introduction in English by President Ronald Reagan, who praised “the growing influence of Hispanic citizens in our communities and throughout the nation.” During the eighties, as civil war and economic turmoil swept across Latin America, the Latinx population in the US grew dramatically, from 14.5 million to 20.1 million; English-language media declared it the “Decade of the Hispanic.” SIN covered stories that resonated with the new demographic—the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua, Fidel Castro in Cuba, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. 

But in 1986, Televisa—Mexico’s largest television network, which had an ownership stake in SIN—announced that it wanted to hand oversight of SIN’s news division to Jacobo Zabludovsky, its star anchor. Critics had long dismissed Zabludovsky as a mouthpiece of the Mexican government; in protest, 20 reporters, producers, and technicians—nearly half of the SIN news staff—resigned. Within months, those staffers created their own evening newscast, for Telemundo, founded earlier that year by Reliance Group Holdings, a multibillion-dollar insurance company. José Díaz-Balart, who had been the Central America bureau chief at SIN, became Telemundo’s weeknight anchor, a job he still holds. “We have a tag line—la cosas como son—‘telling it like it is,’” he says. The line refers to Telemundo’s sensibility, Díaz-Balart explains: hard news with palpable outrage. 

Noticiero Nacional SIN limped on. Zabludovsky returned to Mexico and continued on Televisa as if nothing had happened. Desperate for a new anchor, executives turned to Jorge Ramos (“The only on-air male still on the premises,” he joked to The New Yorker in 2015). In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Televisa’s stake in SIN violated a ban on foreign ownership of a US broadcaster; Hallmark bought the network and turned it into Univision. Ramos stayed on and was joined by María Elena Salinas. Both are of Mexican heritage; people of Mexican descent, who account for some two-thirds of the US Latinx population, composed most of their audience. (Univision did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

For three decades, Ramos and Salinas were the most important faces in Latinx news in America. When, in the early aughts, NBC acquired Telemundo, becoming the first major US network to have a Spanish-language channel, it was a hopeful investment. “Telemundo is actually a distant number two to Univision and really therein lies the opportunity,” a media analyst observed at the time. 

For years, however, Univision continued to rely on Televisa to produce many of its popular programs. In 2009, executives announced that they would open a studio of their own, based in Miami; Luis Fernández, a journalist who had a long career in film and radio, was hired to run it. He developed hits in reality and scripted series, including Mira Quién Baila (Look Who’s Dancing) and Sal y Pimienta, a talk show. “From the entertainment world,” Fernández says, “I got the part of telling stories—and how to make them attractive.”

Telemundo and Univision are making the same bet that so many other foreign-language news outlets in the US have, only to see their readers fall off and their children begin to favor English.

In 2016, Telemundo, vying to compete at Univision’s level, brought  on Fernández to oversee its newsroom. As executive vice president of network news, Fernández, a native of Spain, delivered a new array of viewers, casting Telemundo as a pugnacious defensor del pueblo, defender of all Hispanic people. “I wanted us fresher, newsier, and closer to our audience,” Fernández says. “Less bureaucratic. Less official-sounding.” 

Today, Univision is stately—Ramos, now 60 and often called “the Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” keeps on top of international reportage—while Telemundo, with its youthful news division, focuses almost exclusively on the Latinx immigrant experience in el Norte—family separations, fathers arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Mexican restaurant pamphleted with racist flyers—and its local stations keep up with community developments. Donald Trump, of course, has boosted the sense of purpose at both outlets. Yet neither has managed to beat other, better-financed English-language news organizations chasing the same stories. Nielsen figures show that, since 2011, when Comcast acquired NBCUniversal, Telemundo’s viewership has stayed roughly the same, while Univision’s has dropped by half.

Ambitious, irreverent digital natives have already lined up to replace the old guard. “There will always be interest in Spanish-language news in the United States, but it is no longer as mainstream as we think it to be,” Julio Ricardo Varela, a cohost of Futuro Media’s “In The Thick” podcast and a founder of Latino Rebels, a commentary site, says. Latino Rebels files pieces under categories such as “Humor,” “Injustice,” and “NoMames” (Spanish slang for “You’re kidding me!”); writing is produced in English as well as Spanish. Varela, who is 49, has aimed to help build a new Latinx news community “that has grown out of a response to the programming of these two networks.” He doesn’t watch Telemundo or Univision for news because, he says, they “seem stuck in 1996.”

One afternoon at Telemundo’s KVEA, the newsroom is preoccupied with chasing sirens. Wildfires are raging across Southern California and reporters are busy preparing for the next broadcast. “We’re doing a segment on horses and how they’re affected,” Rubén Keoseyan, the vice president of news, says. “Many of our viewers either have horses, had horses, or care about them.” Keoseyan, who is 58, is tall, round, and professorial. He’s been at KVEA since 2012. Walking past executives’ offices, he says, “They’re barely used—the fun is in the newsroom.” He’s overseen some investment in digital products, but he downplays their importance. “If you give people quality, they’ll watch,” he says. “I’ve become platform agnostic. You gotta deliver copy.”

KVEA shares its newsroom with sister station KNBC-TV Channel 4; they’re separated only by a scrolling LED news ticker that flashes AP stories in Spanish on the KVEA side and in English on the other. “We could easily cross over, but their union doesn’t allow us to come on unless there’s a catastrophe,” Keoseyan explains. Heading down to the studio, he gestures at the set—KVEA’s appears to be slightly bigger than KNBC’s.

Keoseyan meets up with Celia Chávez, the president and general manager of Noticiero Telemundo 52. “It’s cleaved in half—KNBC and KVEA,” she says. That applies to space and funding. “It’s not like ‘Little Telemundo, here’s 5 cents for you.’ We’re exactly the same to Comcast.”

That evening, they would be airing a segment as part of their “Immigration Thursdays” series—this one features an attorney who explains how naturalized immigrants could lose their citizenship. Last year, just before Hurricane Maria hit, Yara Lasanta, KVEA’s meteorologist, went to visit her mom in Puerto Rico; after making sure her family was okay, she filed two weeks of dispatches. The reports, produced from the network’s San Juan studios, were picked up by Telemundo stations across the US. (Univision closed its Puerto Rico bureau in 2014 but managed to send 25 reporters to cover Maria and create an online database for survivors seeking to connect with their relatives in the mainland.) 

This kind of reporting, always essential to viewers of Spanish-language programs, has been visibly crucial, lately, to covering the state of American democracy. “We don’t practice ethnic media, we do mainstream media,” Keoseyan says. “I just happen to do it in Spanish.” 

In doing so, however, both Telemundo and Univision are making the same bet that so many other foreign-language news outlets in the US have, only to see their readers fall off and their children begin to favor English. Recently, Telemundo created apps for each of its 20 local stations; in theory, this would help broadcasters stay in the sights of young Latinxs. But for now, the content of the apps will be only in Spanish. “The writing is on the wall—bilingual,” Lee says. “They need to see it. If we don’t create content for your kids, then we are going to lose them.” What has been lost already—as immigrant interests become American interests, and new identities emerge—is not merely a
matter of form or language, but of who, exactly, forms the Latinx media constituency. 

Back at Keoseyan’s office, reporters stream in with updates for the 6 p.m. broadcast. Their stories concern immigration, health care, crime. KVEA’s sense of its audience remains firm, out of deep
familiarity. “We’re always with our community because we are our community,” Keoseyan says. Looking around, there can be little doubt. “Allí está el pan,” he says. (“There’s the bread, that’s where the money is.”) “That’s how we win.”

Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times opinion section and the author of 2012's Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.