L.A. needs two big newspapers

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AS A CHILD, I often sat with my grandmother in the living room for the afternoon ritual of reading the papers. Every day, two of them smacked the sidewalk outside the house in Silver Lake — La Opinion and the Herald Examiner. Through thick bifocals, mi abuela read each one, cover to cover, then handed them to me one section at a time.

If the newspaper in English spoke to her ambition as an immigrant, the one in Spanish reminded her of her first home in Mexico and how far she'd traveled from it. By literally handing me the representations of these distinct worlds, she sowed the idea that I had a birthright to both.

I took the reading project seriously from grade school onward. I bounced between the two languages and two points of view — from La Opinion to the Her Ex (and later to the Los Angeles Times). I'd turn the pages of one: Charlton Heston and Sam Yorty. And the other: Mario Moreno (a.k.a Cantinflas) and Luis Echeverria.

To the extent that one ever reflected the other in its pages, it did so as if covering a little-known tribe in a distant land. Plainly, La Opinion represented Mexican Los Angeles. And the Chandler family's Times represented … well, the Chandlers' Los Angeles.

I grew up with the intuition that Los Angeles lay somewhere in between. The optimist in me thought that integration — as much in the realm of journalism as in the political life of the city — would come sooner or later. The good liberals on all sides would start the conversation of a truly Greater Los Angeles.

And indeed, this city has publicly debated critical issues over the years: police abuse and immigration, poverty and segregation. There have been blue-ribbon panels and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper stories. Surely, I thought, demographics would take care of the rest. In my fantasy, the English speakers would want to know what the Spanish-language news media reported and vice versa.

It never happened. I still read the city with my grandmother's bifocals, as it were. But I'm among only a handful of people who do. According to Scarborough Research (used by both The Times and La Opinion) there is almost no overlap in readers, just 0.5% of the L.A. newspaper market. Which makes sense. Two cities — divided by language, by economy and by culture — and two papers.

But such a divide is increasingly a liability. Los Angeles is now a Latino-majority city, where a large immigrant population lives in close proximity to exorbitant wealth it helps to create but largely does not share. To read only one newspaper denies the city of the other.

To be sure, representing Los Angeles is no easy task. If it isn't yet the radical racial and linguistic amalgam of "Blade Runner," it certainly is no longer the city that I grew up in, the one so easily sliced into a brown Eastside, a white Westside and a black Southside — with Asian neighborhoods scattered throughout. Even as L.A.'s immigrant population reaches historic proportions (according to the Census Bureau, the foreign-born population stands at a little over 40%), the children of those immigrants are inexoring from their parents' Old World toward a place that no one can describe because it doesn't yet fully exist.

Will it be a "Chicano" space of Spanglish, a hybrid of classic Americana and Mexican remembrance? Or will that new generation assimilate everyone else into a new kind of globalized Latino-ness?

So far, The Times has barely begun to answer these questions. The typical Times Latino story is set in the immigrant city, but clearly written from outside. It's a story about foreigners for the "natives," about the working class for the middle class, about the Spanish speaker for the English speaker. There is an urge to "translate," rather than integrate perspectives. What is missing is the ordinary, the everyday.

Then there is the city of La Opinion, which describes itself as the "oldest Spanish-language daily" in the country. (It was founded in 1926, around the time that my grandparents arrived in L.A. as part of the massive Mexican wave that fled the revolution and its aftermath.) It just might be the real "alternative" paper in Los Angeles these days, especially as the L.A. Weekly (my alma mater) fumbles about looking for its voice in the wake of being sold to a decidedly "post-alternative" media conglomerate.

With a circulation of about 126,000 (and claiming a pass-around readership of almost half a million), La Opinion maintains an Old World decorum about it — not much different from the formal tone I was struck by as a kid. But it clearly crusades for its core audience of Spanish-speaking immigrants. In 1994, it helped mobilize tens of thousands to march against Gov. Pete Wilson and his immigrant-bashing Proposition 187.

Along with hugely popular Spanish-language radio personalities, La Opinion also played a key role in rallying support for the historic marches of a year ago. The day half a million people were to march through downtown, its front page screamed: "¡A LA CALLE!" — To the Street! On that same day, The Times' top headline read, "Iran's Nuclear Steps Quicken, Diplomats Say."

In the early 1990s, Times Mirror (then the owner of The Times) acknowledged the brewing demographic revolution and bought a majority stake in La Opinion from the founding Lozano family. But the marriage was rocky. There were stark political differences — such as the Times' endorsement of Pete Wilson — and vastly different editorial cultures.

It's as if, in Spanish terms, The Times addresses a reader as Usted — formally, assuming the voice of a "paper of record." La Opinion speaks to a reader intimately, as tú. La Opinion has, for instance, inserted voter registration cards in its paper, something The Times would never do. The Lozanos eventually bought back their stake, and and Usted went their separate ways.

Maybe the problem is in thinking that any one publication can ever be a "paper of record" here. According to the census, more than 60% of Los Angeles speaks a language other than English at home. New America Media, the San Francisco-based clearinghouse for the booming "ethnic" media across the country, counts 289 foreign-language publications in California — 49 in L.A.

Maybe we need the next generation of language translation software, so that all sides can read one another. How about a multilingual newspaper? Or a paper or website that runs more than one version of the same story, contrasting points of view in the same space? It's a new city — why not truly new media?

For now, I'm still sitting where my grandmother once did, reading my two papers, looking for the city between them.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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