Making the Most of Diversity

Yes, enrich your content but remember to market it


For Mark Willes, the mission was clear. As CEO of the Times Mirror Co., he wanted to boost the circulation of his flagship newspaper, The Los Angeles Times. And a key to attaining that goal was expanded coverage of a neglected community: Latino readers. In Southern California, Latinos make up 40 percent of the region’s population and represent its fastest growing segment but account for only 19 percent [CHECK FACT] of Times readers. What to do?

The Times launched its “Latino Initiative,” an ambitious program that beefed up coverage of Latino issues and interests, and integrated the stories in the mainstream newspaper. Under associate editor Frank del Olmo, a dozen staff members work in various departments to improve Latino coverage–from politics and labor to religion and the arts. For this reform, and for general excellence in covering its diverse region and state, The Times was a workshop honoree.

But as Willes stressed at a dinner session of the workshop hosted by  the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center, improved coverage of Latinos will not in itself suffice. To increase circulation, he said, the newspaper must sell its strengthened product to a new constituency. “If we don’t find a way to reach this segment of the marketplace, we will become marginalized in our own city,” said Willes, who recently relinquished the title of publisher of the Times but retained his job as chief executive of Times Mirror.

Newsday in New York, another Times Mirror newspaper, has started a Spanish-language publication, called Hoy, to supplement coverage. But The Times’ initiative has drawn prime attention. Indeed, Willes once proposed publishing a separate section of Latino news in The Times, but was dissuaded by vociferous staffers who signed petitions and marched on his office in protest. In-house critics feared that the section would dilute and “ghettoize” coverage, Willes said, a view shared by Latino readers who also “wanted to see themselves throughout the paper.”

During its first year, the initiative has won praise in many quarters but, so far, has not substantially boosted circulation, an outcome that concerns Willes. The problem, he said, is that many Latinos are still unaware of the broadened coverage and additional information in the paper. “Diversity by itself is nice, but it hangs out there without marketing,” he warned.

According to Willes, The Times competes in Los Angeles against four national newspapers, 26 local papers, 20 television stations, 50 cable networks, 75 radio stations and more than 18,000 consumer and business publications. Thus, he said, The Times must market itself aggressively as a mass circulation daily that can still offer services in a “niche” media world. “If you want to be a mass newspaper in a niche world, you have to find a way within the newspaper to be sufficiently compelling to each of those segments so they decide to come to you rather than to go to somebody else,” Willes saidHe called it “breaking through the clutter.”

To accomplish that, Willes said that newspapers must have staffers “who understand the culture and the language” of the Latino community and other communities of color.

Sharing the evening program as a special guest, Gary Wordlaw, president and general manager of WTVH-TV in Syracuse, said he was a “black gatekeeper, and damned proud of it.” He echoed the importance of reaching a multicultural audience and creating diverse newsrooms, noting the need to lessen the “harsh climate” that young minority journalists sometimes face.

But he also said that diversity should be about voices rather than sheer numbers. “Diversity to me is not getting more black people or more Latinos or more Asians into the newsroom,” Wardlow said. “It’s about giving everybody with a voice a chance to be heard.”