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Periodicos : 3 Newcomers in Head-to-Head Fight With Veteran El Sol for Readers and Advertisers

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Times Staff Writer

Luis Reyes’ job title is editor and it’s just as well. For the co-founder of the small Spanish-language newspaper El Dia wouldn’t have room on a business card to list all the other jobs he sometimes performs: writer, advertising salesman, circulation director and delivery driver.

Visitors to the newspaper’s modest, sparsely furnished office in San Fernando often can find Reyes answering phones, proofreading copies of the paper and sorting stacks for delivery at practically the same time.

“When it’s your business, it doesn’t matter about the hours,” said Reyes, who used his life savings to launch El Dia four months ago.

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Reyes is one of the latest journalist-entrepreneurs to stake a claim in the booming, lucrative market for Spanish-language newspapers in the northeast San Fernando Valley, where an increasing number of these publications are competing for Latino readers.

The field is led by the oldest paper, El Sol, which has been circulated by Independent Community Newspapers since 1985. Two others--Reyes’ El Dia and El Eco--were started in the past year. Finally, a fourth competitor, La Voz, debuted on May 5, timing its opening to coincide with Cinco de Mayo.

The four papers have much in common: All are printed weekly and distributed free at neighborhood businesses. They make their money from ads, whether purchased by national or local companies. They claim modest circulations--ranging from 15,000 to 32,600--and emphasize news that is important to the local Latino community.

Left El Sol

Moreover, the three newcomers--El Dia, El Eco and La Voz--all were started by editors who had once worked at El Sol and left to begin their own ventures, lured by opportunities as advertisers spent more money to reach Latinos whose purchasing power had steadily increased. The editor of the newest competitor, La Voz, in fact, had worked not only at El Sol but at El Dia as well, illustrating how incestuous the competition in the Valley has become.

“I didn’t realize the potential market in the Valley,” said Armando Guerra, who left El Dia to start La Voz because of differences with his former partner. “It was overlooked. What I have discovered is that there is a great market.”

The scramble for a share of Spanish-language advertising in the Valley parallels trends throughout the Los Angeles region, rated the No. 1 Latino market nationwide by the Santa Barbara-based Hispanic Business magazine. Advertising expenditures in Spanish-language television, radio and print media totaled $103 million in Los Angeles in 1987, $13.5 million of which was spent on print ads, the magazine said.

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Estimates of the Latino population in the northeast Valley are well over 250,000. However, even with predictions for continued growth in that area, it is unlikely all four competitors will thrive.

Yet each of the competitors in the Valley is armed with a strategy of sorts for survival.

El Sol is banking on reader familiarity to keep it in demand; El Eco has obtained financial backing from the larger, more widely circulated La Opinion; and the founders of El Dia and La Voz are hoping hard work and long hours will bring them success.

Long Hours

Twelve-hour work days are the norm for Guerra as he tries to get the fledgling La Voz off the ground. The 30-year veteran of Los Angeles Spanish-language journalism is realistic about the tough road that lies ahead.

“I’m aware that not all of them will survive,” he said. “It will be the public that will decide which one survives.”

To attract readers, the four papers tailor their coverage to their readers’ interests. Immigration issues are examined in depth, local government decisions that affect Latino communities are reported in detail, and school and church events are covered with regularity. The newspapers also carry some news about events in Mexico and South and Central America.

For the personal touch, readers are encouraged to send in letters, photos and announcements of births and weddings.

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In addition, the papers devote much of their space to entertainment and soccer news, reflecting what is popular among Latino audiences.

Readers seem to appreciate the specialized approach.

“Everything is related to the community,” said Rafael Herrera of San Fernando, who regularly picks up one or another of the papers. “There’s good reporting and I think they say the truth.”

Joe Lopez, manager of Roman’s Market in Pacoima, said the newspapers usually disappear quickly from his store on mornings they are delivered. “There are days that by 10 o’clock, they’re all gone.”

For three years El Sol, which claims a circulation of 32,600, has been the veteran in the Valley. It was started after its English-language counterpart, the 87-year-old San Fernando Sun, printed some stories in Spanish and its publisher discovered the demand for a separate paper.

Funds from the Sun kept El Sol from going under in its early days as it struggled with growing pains and learned to address the needs of Latino readers, said Thelma Barrios, publisher of both papers. Now it has grown from a flimsy four pages to 20 pages each edition, Barrios said.

Recently, El Sol’s biggest challenge has been slowing the revolving door that has sent two of its editors and one of its writers off to head rival publications within a year of their arrival.

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Joseph Arbona, now with El Eco, headed El Sol for five months; Reyes, of El Dia, worked as a reporter for El Sol; and Guerra, of La Voz, also had been editor of El Sol. All three men cited as their reasons for leaving difficulties with El Sol’s management and their beliefs that they could run better, more profitable papers on their own.

“There’s been an erosion of El Sol, and we’re trying to put it back together,” said El Sol’s new editor, Joseph Arciga, hired three months ago.

Regardless, El Sol has elected not to develop policies aimed at preventing workers from leaving for rival ventures. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” Barrios said. “It’s their own prerogative.”

Stiff Competition

The common ties have sharpened a sense of competition among the four rivals, escalating their efforts to woo readers and advertisers from each other, sometimes by undercutting ad rates.

The editors seem to agree there are plenty of opportunities in the northeast Valley.

“Competition is a very healthy thing and shows the growth that is out there,” Barrios said.

Arbona, the editor of El Eco, said he believes there is a “gold mine” for those who provide ways for advertisers to reach the Latino consumers of the Valley.

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His paper, however, had trouble tapping into the opportunities. Shortly after he started El Eco with $3,000 of his savings, Arbona went looking for financial backing and approached the owners of La Opinion, who agreed to buy the paper.

Jose Lozano, assistant publisher of La Opinion, said his Los Angeles-based organization already had been kicking around plans to start a weekly in the Valley.

The sale has ensured more resources and stability for El Eco, which is now operating out of new offices in North Hollywood, has a staff of 15 and is printing about 22,000 copies a week with an average of 32 pages.

“It was a little bit easier than we expected in terms of profitability,” Lozano said. “As far as it being an attractive market, there is no doubt about it.”

The founders of other two competing newspapers, El Dia and La Voz, are hoping to make their ventures succeed on their own.

El Dia, which claims a circulation of 25,000, was started three months ago by Reyes and Guerra and has a staff of five. It is averaging 24 pages an issue, but already has hit some rocky ground. About a month ago, Guerra quit El Dia and launched La Voz because the two partners didn’t see eye to eye.

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Now, the new offices of La Voz are located on San Fernando Road just 4 blocks from those of El Dia. The paper has two 24-page issues under its belt, and circulates an estimated 15,000 copies.

Advertisers clamoring to reach Latino consumers seem to welcome such newcomers as La Voz.

“With more papers we have more opportunity to see what’s going on,” said Motti Khoshbin, manager of Bargain Foods Warehouse on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. “Everybody knows there’s a market here and they’ll fight for it.”

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