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In urban media war, it's Canadians vs. Latinos

October 20, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

Two Canadian businessmen came to New York this summer to revive the nation's oldest Spanish-language newspaper and in no time managed to offend the city's independent-minded Latino community, which doesn't like its newspapers beholden to anyone.

Welcome to New York, Doug Knight and John Paton. In any language, you blew it.

Knight and Paton own a consulting group that, with other investors, acquired El Diario/La Prensa. They bought the paper in July, and the Canadians promptly moved to Manhattan to run it.

In the three short months since, the new owners have committed a number of newspaper no-nos. They killed a column the top editor had sought from Fidel Castro, which made them appear to have caved to an interest group. That caused the editor to resign, which infuriated many of the Latinos they had come to New York to charm.

But this is not a story about some Communist dinosaur from a distant island. This is about what gets lost in translation when two out-of-towners, who don't even speak Spanish, clumsily take sides in New York's multifarious Latino community.

Over the summer, the new owners were busy worrying about El Diario's weakening circulation and how to make it a "real" newspaper with a business section, regular TV listings and so on. The editor of the paper, meanwhile, was busy with his own mission: to make the paper more provocative.

To that end, Gerson Borrero, who was a fiery columnist before he became editor three years ago, launched a campaign to get presidents of Latin American countries to write columns for the paper's opinion page.

"Simon Bolivar had a dream of uniting all Spanish-speaking people, and New York City is the closest place where that dream comes true," Borrero said. "People come here from all over the Latin world, and I wanted them to know the views from back home."

Borrero says he first contacted the presidents of Venezuela and Cuba, and Fidel Castro immediately responded. It took nine months, but finally Castro produced a rather sophomoric piece about Cuba's education system's being the best in the world. It was to have run Sept. 29 in El Diario, a venerable New York institution, which began publishing in 1913. Hoping to stir interest, Borrero promoted the column in house ads.

There are about 70,000 Cuban Americans in Union City, N.J., but they represent only a fraction of the 3.8 million Latinos in this area. Puerto Ricans are New York's largest and most historic Latino group. But unlike L.A., where Mexicans make up two-thirds of the Latino community, New York is not dominated by Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans and Dominicans together represent only half of the Latino population here. The other half is a transnational phenomenon, coming from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries.

Frankly, in this great melting pot, Castro is not terribly important. Which makes the imbroglio at El Diario all the more curious. The paper's core readership is largely Puerto Rican, so what were the new owners thinking when they killed Castro's column after it had been promoted? Did they think no one would notice?

The weekend before the dictator's words were to run in El Diario, a few Cuban Americans who work at the paper and many more from Miami, who like their newspapers anything but independent-minded, complained via e-mail to John Paton about the column.

Paquito D'Rivera, a Grammy Award-winning Cuban musician, says he personally e-mailed Paton demanding "that gangster not be given open space for expression. I know this is a free country, but if a dictator is putting journalists in jail, how is it ethical to give him space in your paper?" D'Rivera said he wrote Paton, referring to Castro's jailing of 75 pro-democracy dissidents in the spring, which drew worldwide condemnation.

D'Rivera said Paton responded "politely," saying that newspaper editors often publish stories without the knowledge of a newspaper's owners. "He assured me," D'Rivera added, "that Castro was not going to get any space in his newspaper."

For weeks, Paton and Knight have refused to explain publicly why they spiked the Castro column and what happened between them and editor Borrero before he resigned.

In the meantime, the Cubans from Florida have declared victory and a broad range of Latinos from New York, including a congressman and a borough president, have accused El Diario of selling out. And El Diario's competition is making the most of the fumble.

El Diario's successful Spanish-language rival, Hoy, managed to get a copy of Castro's unprinted column and ran an abbreviated version, as did the New York Daily News. The New York Times weighed in with an editorial scolding the Canadians for this act of self-censorship, noting that they "blinked."

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