Tensions flare at troubled El Diario

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El Diario. (El Diario La Prensa)
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Nicole Levy

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For years, it's called itself the "champion of the Hispanics," but lately, El Diario La Prensa, the nation's oldest Spanish-language daily newspaper and the largest in New York, hasn't been feeling all that mighty.

The unrest in its Brooklyn offices came to a head on Wednesday, when the Newspaper Guild of New York filed an unfair labor practice charge against ImpreMedia, the paper's parent company, for allegedly threatening to fire employees over their loyalty to the union.

At a meeting of El Diario's editorial staff six days earlier, ImpreMedia content director Juan Varela had made "disparaging comments about the Guild and its contract with the newspaper" and "said a majority of editorial staff members would not have jobs in six months," according to a union statement. Employees interpreted Varela's comments as "veiled threats" prompting, if not forcing them to leave, the statement continues.

Reached by phone yesterday afternoon, Varela denied that he had criticized organized labor and intimidated his staff.

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"I spoke about: we don't know right now [who] in the future is going in every position," he told Capital. In his fifth month with ImpreMedia, the content director has had conversations with the Guild about training its members to work in both print and digital media, he added, refuting rumors about imminent layoffs.

"The total [number of] people in the newsroom is growing," Varela said, and some of those new hires are union members.

"When you are trying to recover a company like this," one that owns Spanish-language papers around the U.S., "the best situation is to try to put the management, the people, and the union, and all the rest of the departments in the same direction," Varela said.

All sides agree that El Diario, now 101 years old, is a news outlet in sore need of recovery. The tabloid newspaper's circulation has been declining for years: from the first nine months of 2010 to the same period in 2013, its weekday circulation dropped from 47,517 to 35,421, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. While other Spanish-language news organizations in New York City still can't compete with the reach or history of El Diario, "the paper has lost prestige," Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Capital. "Influential folks in the Latino community just don't read it anymore."

When the Argentinian paper La Nación bought a majority stake in El Diario's parent company, ImpreMedia, in 2012, the local Latino community hoped for a providential pivot.

"The hope was that they'd come in, put some capital in there … reach out to the community … and really get the paper on course—that hasn't been happening, as far as we can tell," Falcón said.

Recently Gerson Borrero, a former editor of the paper who had been a columnist there and is a prominent on-air personality on NY1, was fired in a dispute over his publishing a column that El Diario had rejected in the New York Post; and executive editor Erica Gonzalez resigned, for unclear reasons. In general, the paper overlooks stories relevant to its community, said Falcon, whose nonprofit and nonpartisan policy center has been writing newsletters about the "crisis at El Diario La Prensa."

Varela estimated that as much as 80 percent of the daily's content is local and emphasized that ImpreMedia aims to "maintain El Diario as the best news media in Spanish for Latinos in New York." But the city's Hispanic population, he noted, has become increasingly diverse in the decades since some of El Diario's staff began working at the paper, as Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and Guatemalans join Puerto Ricans and Dominicans among New York’s Spanish speakers. (Varela is himself Spanish.) What all Latinos in the city share—despite their differences in nationality and socioeconomic class—is their identity as New Yorkers, Varela said.

It would seem in keeping with this philosophy that ImpreMedia hire local journalists, but Varela said the company has lured professionals from media groups in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Borrero told Capital that ImpreMedia has been employing recent Argentine and Spanish immigrants in greater numbers: "They're taking jobs from other Latinos who have been here a long time," he complained.

He also notes that El Diario's current multimedia editor, Claudio Remeseira, has given up on the stylebook that Borrero developed as editor-in-chief to reconcile the city's many Spanish dialects.

"You know what happens in New York City: you come from different parts, and then you got to learn to speak New York," Borrero said. "Well, the same thing happens in Spanish, because we come from all different countries, but we learn to accommodate."