Latinos lose an urban voice
It was meant to be a magazine for “your city” -- Tu Ciudad. But in the end, the glossy lifestyle publication aimed at affluent, assimilated Latinos failed to find a home in the region’s turbulent media landscape.
After more than three years serving as a guide for the city’s best mojitos, taco stands and cultural trendsetters, Tu Ciudad magazine abruptly shut down this week. The bimonthly leaves behind a stunned staff of eight, thousands of disappointed readers and millions in losses for Indianapolis-based parent company Emmis Communications, which also publishes Los Angeles magazine.
The demise marks the end of a bold experiment in targeting -- and capitalizing on -- an enormous but elusive demographic. The readers of Tu Ciudad are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who still feel connected to their cultural roots, no matter how thoroughly they blend into the urban mainstream. The dilemma in reaching them arises from the very thing that defines them as a group, their bicultural identity.
The question remains: Do they need a specialty magazine to appeal to their Latino side?
“Frankly, this experience has left me with the feeling that the jury is still out,” says editorial director Angelo Figueroa. “I’m not convinced that highly assimilated, U.S.-born, English-dominant Hispanics necessarily want to be separated and marketed to as a group. They don’t want a Latino L.A. Times; they just want to be included in the L.A. Times.”
That’s quite a postmortem from the man who helped develop the magazine’s editorial plan. Yet Figueroa, who was also founding editor of People en Espanol, wasn’t ready to throw in the toalla at Tu Ciudad. “We created a great magazine which never actually got close to its real potential,” he says. “I thought our best days were way into the future.”
That was one common regret I heard this week from Figueroa, editor in chief Oscar Garza and publisher Jaime Gamboa. They all wish they had had more time.
Launched in November 2004 with a $5-million commitment from Emmis, the magazine was expected to break even early in its fourth year, says Gamboa. It was still losing money -- an estimated $1.3 million this year -- and was lagging 10 months behind projections. But revenue was trending upward, he says, to a projected $3.1 million this year.
The consensus at Tu Ciudad is that the magazine was hit by “a double whammy,” as Figueroa put it: a harsh economy that cut overall ad budgets, plus a particularly tough climate for the parent company’s radio division that saw Emmis stock plummet from about $20 per share when the magazine opened to less than $3 today. Emmis issued a one-sentence statement saying Tu Ciudad folded because its financial performance failed to meet expectations. Period. Still, some caution not to interpret this setback as definitive. “New Latino media have always had an uphill battle in getting advertisers, whether it’s radio in the 1920s and ‘30s or SIN [Spanish International Network], the forerunner of Univision” in the ‘70s, says Felix Gutierrez, a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Now you see a new force in a new area, English-language print, fighting some of the same battles. But in the long term, I think that’s where the audience is going. People are becoming more and more bilingual and there has to be a way to reach them.”
Latino magazines have enjoyed some success at a national level, in both languages. In 2007, the top two Hispanic magazines with the highest reported ad revenues were People en Espanol ($49.7 million) and the English-language women’s magazine Latina ($36 million), published in New York by Latina Media Ventures. According to Media Economics Group, total ad revenue for Latino magazines rose last year by almost 8% to $263.8 million, led by automakers, hair care products and pharmaceuticals.
But that represents a puny share of the more than $5 billion U.S. companies spend trying to reach the Hispanic market, mostly through TV and radio in Spanish. I’ve had firsthand experience in this field, so I appreciate how hard it can be. As a student at UC Berkeley in the 1970s, I edited a Chicano monthly, La Voz del Pueblo, published by a student/community group known as Frente. In those days, content was driven by activism, and so was the staffing. We were too tiny (and too political) to attract corporate ads, but I was thrilled when the Tamale Parlor in Hayward bought a small display ad.
The Chicano movement, which fueled so much creativity, has long since faded. But the sense of identity it fostered among second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, not to mention their ambition for better jobs and education, helped shape the market that made Tu Ciudad possible.
It was easy to dismiss Tu Ciudad as frivolous, but for some reason I saved every copy. It filled a void, so it felt important, even historic.
“And that’s the shame of it, because there won’t be something that can easily take its place,” says Garza, a former Times Calendar editor. “Nobody had ever tried to do this for a city, and I think we proved there’s a population that really appreciated the acknowledgment of the way that bicultural Latinos live in Los Angeles.”
The challenge for the magazine was to strike a balance between two groups of Latinos, the politically conscious and the upwardly mobile. The former was more likely to be interested in Latino culture and the latter was more likely to afford what the advertisers were selling, the BMWs, Rolex watches and imported Grolsch beer.
“We didn’t want to be too earnest and hit you over the head with the whole Latino [identity] thing,” says Figueroa. “On the one hand, we’re trying to be as worldly as possible. But on the other hand, if we got too worldly there was no need for us. There were already other magazines covering all that stuff.”
Critics say the magazine was too slow to go online and appeared too infrequently in print (every other month). Its final issue, June-July 2008, featured a typical mix of celebrity profiles (Chilean actor Cristian de la Fuente), fashion layouts, consumer tidbits, oddball columns (“What Your ‘Stache Says About You”) and, on the serious side, UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta’s remembrance of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination.
The mix didn’t always work for Chimatli, an online blogger at www.laeastside.com. She’s the quintessential Tu Ciudad reader: female, 37, fourth-generation Angelena, proud resident of Lincoln Heights and owner of her own vegetarian catering business, selling soy tacos. Plus, she was one of the magazine’s rare paid subscribers, since almost three-fourths of its 117,000 circulation was delivered free to households.
Chimatli paid for her copy because “I thought I should support it.” But she came to see the product as out of touch with average Latinos. “In the magazine’s first year, I really enjoyed the articles and their L.A. based coverage,” Chimatli wrote. “Lately though, it seems like the writers and editors are all living in Brentwood or something because almost nothing in the magazine interests me.”
Gamboa says he’s trying to revive the magazine, possibly through another partnership. He still dreams of a chain of regional publications aimed at Latinos in big cities.
“I’m not giving up,” says Gamboa, 34, the youngest of eight children raised in El Monte by an immigrant gardener. “But I’m going to make sure next time it’s set up for the long haul, because I don’t want to have to live through this again.”