Extended Interview: Gerardo Lopez
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TERENCE SMITH: La Opinion is celebrating a birthday?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Today we are celebrating the 76th anniversary. It was founded on Sept. 16, 1926. So it’s been 76 years of continuous publication in Los Angeles.
TERENCE SMITH: And a circulation today of …
GERARDO LOPEZ: Our circulation is around 130,000. Our readership is a lot higher. It’s a great deal of pass-along in our community. One study places us around 500,000 daily readers.
Another study places our readership closer to 700,000. Either way we’re probably the 2nd most-read newspaper in the city Los Angeles after The Los Angeles Times.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And ahead of several other English language papers.
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes, in the area. Yes, in terms of readership.
TERENCE SMITH: And where in the nation does this newspaper rank?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Out of the 1,400 or so daily newspapers in English and in Spanish and other languages for that matter in this country we rank around 84th or 85th.
TERENCE SMITH: It raises a question on whether ethnic media is the right description.
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, when people call us ethnic media, I just have to explain myself a little bit and say well ethnic media and journalist in this country they usually have a connotation that we are a 2nd class journalism publication. Or that we are somehow biased. Or that we package our newspaper just so we can advocate for something. We are a mainstream newspaper in this country.
The fact that we place around 84th or 85th in terms of circulation in this country just give us …. we can make that claim.
TERENCE SMITH: You happen to publish in another language.
GERARDO LOPEZ: We happen…yes. That is the difference. We are a U.S. institution, a U.S. corporation. And it so happens that we publish in a foreign language. In Spanish. And that in the journalism world places us in a strange situation because very few newspapers face the challenge that a publication such as ours faces. The first one is the fact that all the staff has to be totally bilingual. We go out and gather news in English and come back to the office and write it in Spanish so people out there who can speak Spanish can understand it.
The second challenge is our readership. Our readership is …comes mostly immigrants. They come from all over the continent, particularly Mexico, Central America and South America.
And the challenge is that even though they been in this country for 14 to 16 years, they still live in a society that is not very homogeneous to them in terms of language, in terms of culture, in terms of economic and political and judicial ways.
We find ourselves doing very specific journalism. Our journalism is on one end is the traditional type. We just present the news like everyone else. Just the way it is. Whatever is controversy we present both sides of the story. We try to present a neutral observer so we can present the news in the way that it is traditionally done in this country — very objectively and very much to the fact. We do analysis and in-depth reports. We do whatever other big news organizations this country do when they cover news.
We do also do a great deal of public service journalism because of the fact that we are readers need some explanations of certain things. For instance, in terms of immigration.
If there is a law out there that has been approved it has been the case that people start calling us and asking us, “Do I qualify for this particular law” and, “Can you tell me what I need to prove it to the government?,” and, “The law says I have to prove this, this, and that. What kind of documentation…what kind of things do I have to show to qualify.”
So we have developed — or we found the space — in special supplements or special pages where we try to digest that information into very useful and practical things. We tell them the A,B,C of that specific law.
We go out there and gather phone numbers and places where people can go to get help and list of all kinds of documents that people can gather in order to prove whatever they have to prove.
TERENCE SMITH: So it sounds as though in addition to covering the news you’re serving as some sort of bridge for this community to learn about and to work its way into the U.S. community.
GERARDO LOPEZ: That’s correct. We journalists are bridges. We help people transition into democracy. We give them information so that they make wise decision. So we just present that information in the straight, the traditional way. The useful practical way so people can really understand the system and use that information and put it to work for them.
GERARDO LOPEZ: We have [provided] that type of information for instance whenever … people want to become citizens of this country. What are the requirements to become a citizen of this country. People want to register to vote; what are the requirements to register vote? What are the forms that you have to fill … where can you register? And when you go to vote what is the procedure — how do you do it? Things of that nature.
And I feel over the years we have become very instrumental in helping a lot of people make that transition. Feel empowered. Grow. Integrate more into the political system; the economic system of this country.
We participate in parades in East Los Angeles and we salute people and we have seen people just stand up and say thank you, La Opinion — because I’ve educated myself through your pages.
TERENCE SMITH: Do your readers get news as well from English language newspapers and broadcasting?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes, they do get information from English newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers in this area. They also also watch newscasts either in Spanish or in English.
But they come to us because of our special blend of journalism. Because of our extension coverage of other things not just the information … the fact that we cover Latinos and Latinos’ issues from the perspective of Latinos — what they care about. But [we] also cover like sports like no other newspaper does in terms of the information needs of Latinos.
For instance, we cover soccer like no one in this country. We cover soccer every single day of the year. We cover boxing like hardly any other newspapers. One top editor of a major publication in the country just saluted our sports writers and said, “Hey, you guys follow the little guys, and the top guys. You’re there every day with them whenever they’re up, whenever they’re down, whenever they’re training, whenever they’re in their glory, whenever — their defeat, you’re there. Every day of the year. I don’t know how you do it.”
TERENCE SMITH: When you approach the news on a given day, what’s the balance between news of the countries of origin of your readers and news of this country? GERARDO LOPEZ: Our approach is now that our readers live in this town, in this city, in this state, in this country — whatever affects them and is of interest to them and of relevance to them — in that order — from the locality, from the state and from the country.
And then from there, we jump into any of the Latin American countries that they come from.
In many instances, we define international news as anything that happened outside this continent. The rest of the editors — or most of the editors in this country — would define international news as anything outside the United States. Not us. Because of our relationship with our readers, international news is anything outside this continent. Latin America becomes a very local story for us because of the interest to our readers.
Something happens in Mexico, it is of great importance to our readership. If something happens in Argentina — for instance, the situation in Argentina that became a crisis in December of last year — we were on top of that story three or four months prior to that, while the main newspapers of this country came into the story just a few days prior to when the crisis erupted.
We could say the same thing about Colombia. We could say about the same thing that happened in Venezuela, the coup d’etat, and other situations.
Latin America is very important to us and to our readers. If I were to give you percentages, we’ll say at least 60 percent of our stories we deal with local [issues], meaning local is here and we could extend it all the way to the nation.
We could say that at least 15 to 20 percent of our stories are from Latin America, and then the rest from the rest of the world.
TERENCE SMITH: So, take a look at today’s paper, for example. The lead story in most U.S. papers today is about President Bush and Iraq and the decisions that have to be taken about Iraq.
Your lead story is datelined Mexico City. Why is that?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, the thinking is we cover the main topics of the day. And the situation with Iraq has been the top topic of the day in the last few weeks.
And it is the main story of our newspaper today, even though our way of designing this particular page may throw some people off. But in terms of importance, we measure by the number of columns that we give and the size of the headlines. For our own purposes, this is our, this is our main news.
And then we did have a very interesting report … about the situation with the Indians in Mexico, the situation in Chiapas. The government in Mexico recently established a law for the Indians — and it wasn’t very pleasant for the Indians, and the Supreme Court just gave it the green light. So now the Indians are protesting, and this explores the particular issue, but explores it from the point of view of the Indians. TERENCE SMITH: So this story in this case — in the first column — is a story from Mexico because you believe the readers are going to care about that very much?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes. It is a story from Mexico. It is a very important story from the fact that the Indian population in Mexico is feeling uneasy, and the government established a new law. The Indians wanted revisions of that particular law and had asked for the law to be [ruled] invalid. So they presented a case in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court just threw the claims of the Indians out.
So now our correspondent in Mexico City takes that particular situation from the point of view of the Indians and tries to give that perspective.
TERENCE SMITH: And this one you put up because it’s going to be of interest?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes. It’s of great interest to our readership.
TERENCE SMITH: Who do you consider to be your competition?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Our competition is television, radio. They do compete with us for advertising.
TERENCE SMITH: Spanish-language television and radio?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Spanish, or English…either one. Mainly Spanish-language, and other media, too.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean, do you consider yourself in competition with The Los Angeles Times?
GERARDO LOPEZ: No. No.
TERENCE SMITH: No. Because it’s too different of an approach?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Different approach..definitely [different] audiences. And no, there’s no way we can compete with The Los Angeles Times there.
TERENCE SMITH: So your competition would be Univision?
GERARDO LOPEZ: It would be Channel 34, Univision, Telemundo.
It would [also] be all the myriad of Spanish radio stations in this market that do take away advertising for us. We live out of the advertising in order to improve our journalistic offering to our readers and, and we have just got to get more advertising.
TERENCE SMITH: Your circulation is growing. What’s the growth this year expected to be?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Our circulation this year is around 9 percent–
TERENCE SMITH: Growth.
GERARDO LOPEZ: Nine percent growth, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: But the paper is growing in double-digit terms, is it not, year after year?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yeah, in the last three years it’s been growing roughly about 9 percent a year.
TERENCE SMITH: So nearly 30 percent over three years?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes. But the newspaper industry has been in an advertising slump, so we have felt it.
So, you want to grow in circulation — but then again there is not enough advertising to support all the growth.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, do advertisers appreciate ethnic media or do they tend to ignore it? Big advertisers, national advertisers.
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, I wouldn’t have a solid opinion on that, given the fact that I totally concentrate on news.
But big advertisers are — my understanding is that they do rely on us and appreciate our work because of the great deal of credibility and the great deal of trust that we have in our community. And when they choose us to deliver the messages to the community, they find that we’re a very credible messenger for them.
TERENCE SMITH: But are the ads following your success? You’re growing, you know, close to 10 percent a year. Are your ads growing?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, as I said, they’re not there yet.
Right now is a very unusual situation because of the fact of what all the industry in this country is going through. And, it puts us in a very difficult situation, the same difficult situation that a lot of other media in this country are under just because of the advertising slump.
TERENCE SMITH: You were talking about some of the service journalism that you do to explain this society, in some respects, to your readers and provide them a road map to work their way through it.
I know that you produce some special supplements in conjunction with The Los Angeles Times?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes, a few years back, in 1986, there was an immigration law that it was implemented and we did write a few supplements, special supplements to explain to readers the different components of the law and the different requirements, and tried to explain it in very easy terms, the law itself.
So, someone at The Los Angeles Times became aware of the type of things that we were doing because we kept producing a series of supplements in this area.
And they told us that we were doing something very useful for the community but there were a lot of other people in Los Angeles that didn’t speak Spanish and were in need of that type of information in the way we were producing it. So they invited us to produce a supplement together.
So we gathered our information, took it over to The Times. We edited whatever we had, translated it. They produced a few features of their own, and we put together, the two editorial rooms, a bilingual supplement. It was about 32-pages or something, I can’t recall precisely the number.
And they decided to print two million copies out of it. They inserted it in the regular edition and also in La Opinion regular edition, and it was distributed through different organizations — the leftover copies.
It was a very successful situation. It was a very successful venture, that they invited us a month later to produce another supplement. We did it the same way, and printed two million copies. The following year, we did a third one, and they also decided to print two million copies.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, the Tribune Company, which bought The Los Angeles Times, is a 50 percent owner of this paper as well?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes. They have an investment of 50 percent in this company. The Lozano family is the owner of the other 50 percent, but they retain the operational and the editorial control of the newspaper.
TERENCE SMITH: And did they acquire that separately, or by buying Times-Mirror?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Just by buying Times-Mirror. We went into the package, so to speak.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about political coverage here. When you have a race for governor, among others, this year, how do you cover it?
How is your coverage any different than any other English-language media organization?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Our approach to political coverage is we start down at the roots.
Instead of doing our planning right there in the editorial room and [brainstorming] the kind of issues that our people have, we go out there into the community and ask people basic questions.
Right now we’re going to have elections in November for governor and we’re talking to Latinos all over the state. We are talking to a group of people in the border area. We’re talking to people in Los Angeles, talking to people in the Valley, in Fresno, in San Jose, and in Sacramento.
We were thinking that people, just because of the place that they live, they have different issues, different concerns, even though all of us are Latinos.
So we’re literally going out there and touching the pulse of the Latino voter and asking two basic questions: If you had the opportunity to talk to a candidate for governor, what would you ask him? With the premise that once you ask a question, you’re actually expressing a concern.
And then the second question is what are three or four issues that affect you and the ones that you love right now, that affect you the most? And out of that, we’re coming to identify five of the main issues that most Latinos care about. And from there we go and we report on those gatherings.
It is our intention to have a select group of these people ask the questions during a gubernatorial debate if the main candidates agree to give us that particular debate.
TERENCE SMITH: And you have invited them?
GERARDO LOPEZ: We have invited them. We have joined with Channel 4, NBC and Telemundo, in requesting this particular debate to Mr. [Gray] Davis and to Mr. [Bill] Simon.
TERENCE SMITH: And this debate would be held in Spanish? GERARDO LOPEZ: It would be a debate — yes, that the questions would be posed by people, by Latino voters. It would be in Spanish and their questions would be translated into English for the candidates. The candidates would respond in English and we would probably have translators for the audience that would be watching the debate on Telemundo…
TERENCE SMITH: You did this before?
GERARDO LOPEZ: We did this during the primary of about four years ago, and we organized it together with Univision. Univision broadcasted this particular debate throughout the state. And we followed more or less the same format.
We went around, talked to people, gathered and identified the issues, did the journalistic work, and then we selected a group, took them to the place of debate and we had them ask the questions to the candidates.
TERENCE SMITH: To what degree, in your opinion, do the [gubernatorial] candidates appreciate and take into consideration the importance of the ethnic vote in this state?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, in the case of the Latinos in California, I think they appreciate that. Good politicians know how to count — and the Latino vote is a very important vote in California. So, they appreciate that fact.
For instance, when it comes to election time, usually gubernatorial candidates, and even some of the presidential candidates — some of the first editorial boards that they pursue or they request is with us.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you use the paper to pursue [concerns] on behalf of the Spanish-speaking community?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, we probably do that in the editorial pages, just like any other good organization.
Our founder said it very well, that his newspapers — because [before] this, he had another newspaper in Texas named La Prensa that he founded in 1913 — would be to inform readers and also to defend the noble causes of readers. And the noble causes are justice, fairness, equality — very universal truths, very universal causes.
TERENCE SMITH: So, you see yourself as something of a defender of the Latino community?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, the defender of the noble causes, not necessarily the Latino community. The Latino community on a particular issue could be wrong — but we advocate for the noble causes. And, we take and express our opinions on that particular truth.
TERENCE SMITH: This is a difficult question, but does that lead to greater assimilation of this community into American society, or the opposite?
GERARDO LOPEZ: I think that we can — it increases the participation of people into the society.
TERENCE SMITH: Assimilation?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes, with assimilation. And just because of the same situation that you said it at the beginning — that we journalists are a bridge.
And yes, we’re a bridge in that we help people transition into democracy, help them to get all the information that they possibly can. And you preach and advocate for the causes that you feel that are important to the essence of that democracy. And as much as you do that and do it honestly and do it fairly and do it with good conviction, I think that you help people.
You help people integrate and participate, and you help literally empower them. And I think that our circulation growth — our amazing circulation growth — is a big testament to that. It is testament to the fact that our readers do trust us a great deal and that they have a lot of confidence in us — in the way we present the news, in the way we offer the information, in the way we approach our journalistic work. That in and of itself is a great testament.
I covered the presidential — the  Democratic National Convention in New York — the Madison Square Garden. We were covering for La Opinion. And La Opinion, when we went to the Democratic Party for credentials, [they asked,] what is it? Well, it’s a daily newspaper out of Los Angeles.
Well, they gave us the press credentials, yes, but I was right there in the bleachers with the fly-by-night publications, the college publications, and having a very tough time [covering] the Latino vote.
I had to get in line just to get down to the floor and talk to the delegates. And it took me hours … in a tunnel, waiting in line just to get down there and talk to people that are now great political figures in the Latino community.
For instance, I was trying to interview a young lady — a delegate from California named Gloria Molina. Gloria Molina’s one of the powerful politicians here in Los Angeles. Another individual was Richard Polanco. He was also a delegate from California — [East Los Angeles] of all places — and now a main political figure in this state.
TERENCE SMITH: And how did the Democratic Party and Committee treat you when you went to get credentials in the 2000?
GERARDO LOPEZ: Well, in 2000 — we’re right there, first row.
TERENCE SMITH: That says it all.
GERARDO LOPEZ: Yes, it says the evolution and the change — and the growth of the Latino community, the evolution and the growth of the political understanding of Latinos of the political arena and the understanding on the other side, too.
And I said in the 1980s you could count with one hand the number of Latino elected officials in Congress. Now, you need a couple of hands and a little bit more at the federal level. Now, you need more than two hands to count the Latino elected officials in California.
TERENCE SMITH: But as a measure of the paper’s standing, you went from the bleachers to the first row at a national political convention in 20 years.
GERARDO LOPEZ: In twenty years. It’s not bad. Not bad at all. And, at the same time, our credibility all over the place — with politicians, with readers, with anyone, fair-minded individuals in this community and in this country — our influence, our prestige, our credibility is pretty high and can get more mainstream than that.