On October 8, 2008, at 9 a.m., the eight remaining employees of Rumbo de San Antonio received an ominous company email announcing a “mandatory” meeting at 10 a.m.
A Spanish-language daily newspaper chain first published in San Antonio in July 2004, Rumbo at its apex had more than 100 employees in SA alone before the owners turned it into a three-times-a-week tabloid and then a weekly. After four major layoffs in four years, I was one of the few employees left.
While we waited for publisher Bill Vincent, I turned to local editor Jesús del Toro.
“What’s up, Chucho?” I asked him in Spanish. “Do you know anything?” He nodded.
“It’s bad,” he whispered. “It’s very bad.”
The meeting was short: Rumbo San Antonio and McAllen’s Rumbo del Valle were dead. Del Toro and Houston-based sports and entertainment reporter Gustavo Rangel would remain as the sole staff of Rumbo de Houston, the lone surviving edition (the owners had closed Rumbo de Austin in 2006).
Today, Rumbo de Houston continues to publish, but del Toro, Rangel, and the paper’s logo are the only remains of the most ambitious Spanish-language newspaper chain ever printed in the U.S. This is its story.
Unbeknownst to each other, former Wall Street Journal staffers and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Jonathan Friedland and Edward Schumacher-Matos had been toying with the idea of launching an American Spanish-language newspaper. Friedland, a former WSJ Los Angeles bureau chief and Mexico City and Buenos Aires correspondent, decided to go to New York to share his idea with his pal Schumacher, whose response surprised him.
“I’m way ahead of you,” Schumacher told him. While Friedland had been imagining a New York Post-style paper, Schumacher convinced him to produce a more family-oriented product, and they both agreed on four major points: It should be an all Spanish-language newspaper aimed at a first-generation Mexican immigrant population, it should serve as a guide to getting ahead in the U.S., it should hire the best journalists available and applying American-style reporting standards, and it should be an alternative to the dreadful Spanish-language publications already in existence.
“We chose Texas because it only had, at that point in time, small family-run newspapers serving the Hispanic community that were of extremely poor quality, journalistically speaking,” said Friedland. The plan called for four initial papers in Texas and a rapid expansion, with four more publications in California the following year. “We were planning to expand big, get up big, get scaled, and then sell it. That was the idea.”
The business plan Schumacher developed with head of advertising Jonathan Thompson, Colombian General Manager Giovanna Rueda, and Mexican Managing Editor Gabriel Sama convinced Friedland, and Meximerica Media was born in late 2003. Recoletos, a Madrid-based company owned by London-based Pearson P.L.C. — a media and education conglomerate which owns the Financial Times — agreed to invest $16.5 million to launch Rumbo.
The timing seemed perfect. Meximerica and the investors saw no warnings that the newspaper industry would implode soon after: In the previous year, six Spanish-language dailies and several weeklies had been launched in Los Angeles, Chicago, and new, growing Latino communities in Iowa, North Carolina, and South Dakota. The Tribune Company, which at that time owned the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, expanded its Hoy chain from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles. Belo, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, began Al Día in Dallas, and Knight Ridder, owner of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, turned the Forth Worth weekly La Estrella
“In 2004, newspapers were still on an upward slope, and right then it tipped over and went downhill like a motherfucker,” said Friedland. “Time proved that our timing was disastrous, but who could’ve known? On the other hand, I think we started the last newspaper chain that will ever be started in the United States of America. I’m absolutely sure. English or Spanish.” `Ed. note: We assume he means print newspaper chain. See, e.g., the American Independent News Network.`
Because finding available U.S.-based journalists was tougher than expected, Rumbo imported talent from Latin America. The paper was designed based on an original template by graphic-design guru Roger Black, former art director of Rolling Stone and co-founder of Danilo Black USA.
“We brought in the best people we could get, and we paid them decent salaries,” Friedland said, echoing Schumacher’s quote in the New York Times: “We don’t pay ghetto salaries.”
On July 19, 2004, Rumbo de San Antonio, a 25-cent, full-color, five-days-a-week newspaper was born. Rumbo de Houston followed in August, Rumbo del Valle (Rio Grande Valley) in October, and Rumbo de Austin in November. The total circuation was 245,000.
“We launched four newspapers within five months, which I don’t think anybody has ever done,” Friedland said. “What we were able to accomplish was outrageous.”
In Rumbo there was no question of scarcity. Good ideas were supported with full budget and corporate backing, and each person had a specific task to perform based on his or her specialization. For a long-time music writer used to fighting with Spanish editors who didn’t understand why I wouldn’t ask an artist what kind of underwear he/she wore, this was a dream job.
“I felt like one of the chosen ones,” said former Travel/Life & Style Editor Tracy Barnett, who would resign in 2005 in order to save the jobs of the two writers under her care. “Our mission was to do two of the things I most believed in: Practice cutting-edge, award-winning journalism, and help the growing immigrant population to thrive in their new country. That mission transcended nationality and rank, and we developed a camaraderie that was truly unusual in an industry as competitive as ours. We were creating the best Spanish-language newspaper in the country, and we were doing it together.”
Rumbo started accumulating awards for writing, design, and photography, often beating or almost beating publications that had been around much longer. In April 2006 Rumbo de Austin was chosen by the National Association of Hispanic Publications as the third best Spanish-language daily in the country, in a group that included L.A.’s La Opinión and NY’s El Diario/La Prensa.
“With such a short life, getting to that level?” says Friedland. “Personally I think our paper was way better than those two papers, but they had 100 years of history behind them.” Too bad the recognition came three weeks after Rumbo de Austin had folded.
Even in Rumbo’s agonizing days of 2008, the Texas AP Managing Editors Awards gave the chain first, second, and third place in opinion, features, and sports categories, respectively. Notable stories included the coverage of Katrina (a photo by Alicia Wagner-Calzada’s was chosen by Time as one of the best photos of 2005), an investigative series on irregularities at BexarMet, and a story about Salvadoran women forced to work at Houston nightclubs. In 2006, Designer Bruno García was chosen as Star Designer of the Year by Texas Associated Press Managing Editors*.
But as Rumbo gathered public accolades, in private it was struggling. In March 2005, Schumacher summoned the San Antonio team and broke the news: Recoletos had pulled the plug on Rumbo, which was now looking for new investors. It came as a total surprise to the staff; just a few weeks earlier, Schumacher and Giovanna Rueda had shared, with beaming faces, how great sales were going.
“Our revenue projections were wildly optimistic,” Friedland says. “The amount of money we thought we would bring from advertising was substantially larger than it actually was. `Schumacher and Rueda` were optimistic at first, and they weren’t lying about it. But salespeople have to be optimistic, and they were getting optimistic reports from their salespeople.”
Schumacher knew that Pearson and Recoletos were re-negotiating their deal, but, according to Schumacher, Pearson assured him in October 2004 that it was behind Rumbo.
“`Recoletos` had 90 days to close the deal `with Pearson`, so they came to see me over the Christmas holidays in 2004 and said everything was OK,” Schumacher said. “And then, about two months later, with two or three weeks to go, they said, ‘Look, we’re about to close the deal, but we’re taking on more debt than we originally planned, and our lending banks are demanding that we get rid of everything that is not cash-flow positive and is not core.”
In March 2005, Pearson executed a $1.2-billion management buyout of Recoletos, and Recoletos, after getting rid of other operations in Latin America and Europe, returned Meximerica’s shares to its founders.
“The last thing on `Recoletos’` mind was to have a startup in the U.S. bleeding a million bucks a month in cash,” Friedland said. “And good luck! So here we were, 100 percent of the shares back, but we had the burden of burning off over a million `dollars` a month, and revenues at that point of less than $200,000 a month.
“`Rumbo was` totally screwed.”
With Recoletos gone, Rumbo initiated the first of four layoffs, but three months after the announcement two new investors came to the rescue: Houston’s Pinto America Growth Funding and California’s Rustic Canyon Partners put in $18 million. Problems persisted, however.
“I don’t think that we ever got our act together on the sales side at all,” said Friedland, who along with the other main Meximerica shareholders put in their own money to pay salaries and publish the papers until help arrived.
In January 2006, the new investors decide to turn Rumbo into a free, thrice-weekly, and in March it closed down the Austin office, arguably the best of the four editions, editorially.
“`Gabriel` Sama and I were like, ‘Dude, don’t you think that if three times a week works, somebody else would’ve tried it in the last 300 years?’” Friedland said. “That’s what we were telling them, and Ed went, ‘No, it’s going to work.’ Ed’s a sales guy, and at the end of the day he had to be optimistic — it was his baby!”
“Nobody wanted `to publish three times a week`, but we were trying to find a formula that would work,” said Schumacher.
“Once we went to three days a week, I knew we were done, personally,” said Friedland. “And when we went to weekly, I decided to lay off the next big group of people, help them get jobs as much as I could, and then fire myself. And that’s what I did.”
With Friedland gone, the last remaining symbol of Rumbo’s original Quixotic editorial spirit was Managing Editor Sama. He left in June 2006, shortly after Houston Editor Carlos Puig took editorial control of the papers. Puig would leave shortly after ImpreMedia, the owner of the largest chain of Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S., bought Rumbo in December 2007. Less than a year later, only Rumbo de Houston would still be alive. (In November 2009 ImpreMedia announced it was outsourcing all of its page design, formatting, and production to Monterrey-based publisher Business News Group.)
Behind the rapid reduction of its staff and the sales deficit was the fact that Rumbo had to compete with new publications that appeared shortly after, or just before, Meximerica launched the chain. In every city Rumbo was published, the local newspaper started its own Spanish-language or bilingual paper to compete with the new publication: the Express-News launched the bilingual Conexión in San Antonio two months before Rumbo appeared, the Houston Chronicle put more money into El Día, McAllen’s The Monitor started La Frontera a month before, and the Austin American-Statesman began publishing Ahora sí! in August 2005.
“Quality wasn’t the issue,” says Friedland. “None of them gave a shit about quality, as you know. They just tried to set them up to fuck us. They didn’t want us to grab that piece of the market, and they started offering deals to advertisers: ‘Hey, if you come with us instead of Rumbo, we’ll give you a free ad in our Spanish newspaper.’ So basically they did everything possible to undermine us on the ad-sales front.”
“If anybody tells you Conexión was a response to Rumbo, they’re unequivocally wrong,” said Robert Rivard, editor of the Express-News and a personal friend of Schumacher’s. “It was in the market beforehand. But I do think that Rumbo coming into the market caused everybody to defensively invest, and as a result, Conexión got bigger. And as far as salespeople telling advertisers, ‘Rumbo is going out of business,’ every day in this market advertising salesmen from TV tell advertisers ‘newspapers are going out of business, don’t advertise `with them`.’ That’s the way salespeople are. But at the end of the day, advertisers are very shrewd and they know who is connecting them to their customers.”
“I don’t think the Express-News or anybody met at a table and said, ‘Let’s kill Rumbo,’” said Rueda, Meximerica’s general manager from 2004-07. “But people talk `about Rumbo’s problems`, and advertisers hear. Our salespeople would also bring up the fact that radios kept changing formats so that people would advertise with us.”
Out of all the competing publications, none seemed more interested in Rumbo’s downfall than La Prensa. Ironically, it was founded in 1913 by Ignacio Eugenio Lozano Sr., who also founded L.A.’s La Opinión in 1926. Granddaughter Mónica Lozano is ImpreMedia’s senior vice president of editorial, and publisher of La Opinión.
Early on, New York Times stories quoted Kirk Whisler, president of Latino Print Network, saying, “Nearly every Spanish-language newspaper venture started as a unit of a foreign-owned company has failed in past years,” and Express-News Editor Rivard warned Schumacher that San Antonio was the wrong city to start a Spanish newspaper. But Tino Durán, who took the reins of La Prensa in 1989, always went for the jugular.
“We were here yesterday, we’re here today, and we’ll be here tomorrow,” Durán said in a La Prensa TV commercial that aired after Rumbo launched. “No somos un periódico escandaloso,” he said in another, as if Rumbo were the National Enquirer. And, before Rumbo was even published, Durán was quoted by the Express-News saying, “The fact remains, if it’s not relative to the community, it doesn’t matter how much money is spent.”
On February 2, 2010, I made an unannounced visit to Durán at the La Prensa office on Medina street. I introduced myself and explained to him the reason for my visit.
“Rumbo? You’re writing about Rumbo?” he asked. “Rumbo is gone!” He pointed to some of the countless pictures on the wall, in which he appears with artists, prominent members of the community, and politicians like former Mayor Henry Cisneros, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Mexican presidential hopeful Luis Donaldo Colosio, who would be gunned down in 1994. “You see? You have to be culturally relevant or you die.”
He apologizes because some people are waiting for him, but agrees to meet with me the next day at 10 a.m. The next day, I’m told that due to unexpected circumstances, he wouldn’t be able to make it.
“`Durán` never hid his dislike of Rumbo,” said Indra Castro, a reporter who left La Prensa in July 2008 to work for Rumbo del Valle. “After somebody got laid-off from Rumbo and wanted to come back to La Prensa, he wouldn’t take him back, and tell us things like, ‘You see? He left for the money, and now he doesn’t have a job.’ ”
“Tino, for some reason, always had a hard-on for us,” Schumacher said. “It’s absurd, because we never saw them as competitors. They’re mostly an English newspaper serving the long-established Latino community, while we were an all-Spanish newspaper serving the new Spanish-speaking arrivals.”
“With all due respect to La Prensa,” Rivard said, “the quality of what Rumbo was doing — their graphic design, their use of photography and color, the talented people they hired, and how widely available they were in the beginning — was unprecedented for Texas. We’ve never had a Spanish-language newspaper like that.”
As Rumbo’s salespeople kept changing, the staff, page count, and office space kept shrinking. In order to save costs, in late 2007 Rumbo de San Antonio moved from a full floor at the Milam building to a half floor, and two months later to a quarter of it, where it stayed until that fateful October morning.
“One of the things that I’m really proud about Rumbo is that we really improved the Spanish-language `journalistic` gene pool in the USA,” Friedland said. “Those people are still here in various capacities, and some of them, if the world is a just place, will end up at a place of authority in news organizations of the U.S.”
Some already are, here and in Mexico. Entertainment Editor Ana Paula Ayanegui is an editor at People en español in New York; San Antonio reporter Manuel Martínez is the editor of Esquire México/Latinoamérica; Schumacher is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group; National and World News Editor Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava is online city editor for Univision Communications; and Friedland is vice president, corporate communications, for the Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles.
“I really miss Rumbo,” said Fabiola Galdeano, a Monterrey-born waitress at a downtown restaurant. “I always read it to find out what was going on.”
“I’m a futbol fan and I read it everyday backwards, starting with the sports section,” said Rivard. “I enjoyed it, but it had the wrong formula, because we just don’t have enough Spanish-speakers here. Maybe Chicago, or LA, or New York, but not here.”
Schumacher says readership was never the problem, “and, advertising-wise, we always grew, but not fast enough.” An independent media audit from winter 2006 ranked Rumbo San Antonio just behind Conexión, with 2.4 percent of the population, or close to 33,000 people, reporting that they read the last edition of the paper, compared to Conexión’s 2.9 percent.
“`Rumbo was` a newspaper start-up that at every stage of its development seemed to do exactly the right thing, often the seemingly brilliant thing — only to be forced to retrench again and again,” wrote Editor & Publisher’s Mark Fitzgerald in February 2007, before adding that “Rumbo showed again that the readership is out `there`, despite the continuing spin of the radio and TV marketers who propagate the myth that Hispanics don’t read.”
“What happened to Rumbo — the layoffs, the loss of advertising — happened everywhere else, from the Express-News to the Wall Street Journal,” said Rueda. “We just needed time, the same time those other long-running publications had, to firmly establish our growing readership.”
There were a lot of things that went wrong,” Friedland said. “A lot of it was our fault, a lot circumstance, but yeah, we were a little arrogant, and I think the guy at La Prensa was right in that regard: We arrogantly came into San Antonio and immediately turned people off by basically saying we were going to kick everyone’s ass. Not in so many words, but, you know, San Antonio is a very conservative place, and they protect their own. They don’t like outsiders coming in and telling them what to do.”
True, we might’ve been a little arrogant, but at least in those glorious, unforgettable first few months of 2004, we could back it up editorially, couldn’t we?
“Absolutely, but I don’t think anyone cared,” says Friedland. “That was the problem. I’m so proud of what we did editorially, and it’s kind of pathetic that good, solid reporting, isn’t necessarily appreciated to the extent of financial support. The English-language press has gotten the same lesson; we just learned it in a particularly brutal and fast way.” •*corrected from print version