Hernan Guaracao’s 30-year-old start-up is now the center of a foundation-backed media experiment.
At a Latino journalists’ gathering in South Philly this fall, I was struck that so many new arrivals worked for Al Día News Media, launched 30 years ago as a bold Philadelphia bilingual weekly by a Colombian émigré, Hernan Guaracao.
The name Al Día means up-to-date, as news must be, and any enterprise that hopes to stay in business.
“We’ve hired six more journalists in the past year,” boosting the enterprise’s full-time staff to 15, plus freelancers. “Our funding mostly comes from advertisement,” plus “minimal” foundation support, said Martin Alfaro, director of business development. That includes a renewable $150,000 grant last year from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and partnerships with Comcast and others. (The Lenfest Institute is also the nonprofit, noncontrolling owner of The Inquirer, which is operated as a public-benefit corporation.)
In their Center City newsroom recently, Alfaro and Alaitz Ruiz-Arteagoitia, senior business development executive, detailed how the group has responded to the shift toward digital media, which has convulsed the print and broadcast media, and the rising population of U.S.-born Latinos, who as national media consumers and producers aren’t as closely tied to the immigrant-neighborhood papers their parents read for news from the block or their birth countries.
Highlights, trimmed for clarity and length:
Alfaro: It’s a mix. We have three pillars we focus on: culture, politics, and business. Some local stories and national from Latin America and the world. Our focus has grown beyond Philadelphia, though I think Maria Quiñones Sánchez [former City Council member, now mayoral candidate] still has the record for the most Al Día covers ever.
We have print and online and email. Print is a glossy weekly, with a lot of advertising.
Our main bet is on digital as we continue to see our readership expand throughout the country, especially in areas with high Latino population. We see approximately 300,000 to 400,000 website visitors on a monthly basis. The print readership [with several readers per copy] is estimated around 100,000 weekly.
When I came here, Hernan gave me this book Al Día published: 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia. All those people, from Father Félix Varela, who pressed for Cuban independence from exile in Philadelphia, and Manuel Torres, the first Colombian ambassador to the U.S., who is buried here at St. Mary’s, to people we know today. We have a responsibility to document those stories. And we need to tell stories that inspire people today.
Who is going to be in the next book? [Recent covers feature the late musician, promoter, and organizer Jesse Bermudez, Comcast executive Jose Velez-Silva, medical-testing overseer Ana Pujols McKee, and college-funding leader Fidel Vargas.]
I was born [in Honduras] the same year Hernan started Al Día — 1992. I look at its development as a reflection of my development as a person. I don’t have all the answers, but we are growing, as we learn, each week.
The Latino population in the U.S. continues to grow, and not only in the big cities or along the borders. In Utah, where you might not expect it, the percentage of Latinos is increasing.
And inside Latino communities and families, the whole landscape is changing. Even among my siblings, there is a lot of difference depending on when they were born. I have cousins the same age as me whose lives are very different.
The nation is becoming multicultural, and that includes Latinos. It used to be Salvadorans married Salvadorans, Colombians went with Colombians, but now that’s less common.
Ruiz-Arteagoitia: It’s a really interesting question. Will this end with assimilation? I look at my own family. I see different national and cultural trajectories. My father is a second-generation Mexican American, who was forced to assimilate. My mother is a first-generation Spanish immigrant, who has very strong ties to her family. It is an ever-changing thing.
When I grew up in Washington, we had neighborhoods that people from outside would say were “Hispanic” — Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant — that were really diverse and have become more diverse. If you went there, you will see, maybe it was predominantly Salvadoran, now it’s more Honduran, also a lot of Guatemaltecos.
You are familiar with the show, La Guagua 47? That follows that bus route through all the neighborhoods and shows so many communities? [Created by Alba Martínez and a team of professionals, it was backed by SEPTA and Al Día and others they helped recruit.] You see this beautiful Mexican community that has sprung up in a part of Philadelphia, which had been classically stereotyped as Puerto Rican and Dominican. Now a group of Mexicans has added this stunning community garden that pulls in so many folks. I think we will see more of that kind of cultural marriage.
Alfaro: It was very interesting — we interviewed more than 80 candidates, from California to Puerto Rico to New York. And Temple students. Everyone talked about the challenge in moving from the first [immigrant] generation to the second generation [born here].
Are we defined by language? It’s really about the culture. One of our editors, Jensen Toussaint, his parents are from Haiti. He came here with not much Spanish [and learned fast]. One of our writers is Nigel Thompson. He’s from West Chester; he went to Temple. If he didn’t speak a lot of Spanish when he came here, he damn sure understands some now. One of our business developers came in with a very low level of Spanish. But his understanding of the people he works with is off the charts.
In the newsroom, we naturally code-switch between Spanish and English. We love that.
In our reporting, we try to be as impartial as possible.
Cultivating relationships is a huge part of what we’re doing to drive some impact. When we are trying to reach a client directly, a lot more productive conversations can happen. We can sell not just a product, but a voice, a platform. That’s where you see partnerships and events.
Alfaro: The people at Lenfest recognize the issues in our local news ecosystem. We have thought a lot about the future of our media. A lot of the publications that meant so much to communities around the country have been swallowed up by larger media companies. It is what happens when you don’t evolve.
Hernan taught us well. To continue being independent and growing, to innovate and improve every day, we cannot stay small.
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