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Spanish-language newspapers, competition expanding in US

LOS ANGELES -- Naomi Osorio is typical of the readers driving a boom in Spanish-language newspapers across the United States.

Osorio arrived in Southern California two decades ago from Nicaragua and easily glides between English and Spanish. But she prefers Spanish-language papers.

Her choice is not just about language. The 38-year-old cosmetics vendor said it's about reading news she can relate to, whether it's about immigration laws or Latin pop stars. "My family has always read La Opinion," Osorio said. "It's the newspaper of Latinos."

As many American newspapers struggle to hold on to readers, the industry's Spanish-language segment is expanding circulation and seeing competition increase. An influx of Hispanic immigrants and the growing buying power of those who have been in this country for years have motivated major media companies to revamp or launch Spanish-language dailies in about half a dozen major cities.

The competition was heightened in January when major dailies in Los Angeles and New York merged into a single company, Impremedia LLC. The company's goal is to build the country's first independent group of nationwide Spanish-language newspapers.

"There's this speed to market that everyone is ramping up for. Who's going to be first?" said Monica Lozano, a senior vice president of Impremedia and publisher of Los Angeles-based La Opinion, the nation's largest Spanish-language newspaper.

In recent years, dozens of Spanish-language papers have sprung up in cities and towns across the country, from Yakima, Wash., to Vidalia, Ga. An estimated 344 daily and weekly Spanish-language newspapers were published in the United States in 2003, compared with 166 in 1990, according to the Latino Print Network, the sales and research division for the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

"But it's really been the blip of the last year, seeing this as national corporate initiatives rather than local ones," said Felix Gutierrez, a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Southern California.

Overall, the US newspaper industry is fighting to hold on to readers and attract new ones. About 54 percent of Americans read a paper each week, down 11 percent from 1990, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Demographics are the main reason for the boom in Spanish-language papers. Hispanics are the nation's largest minority group, with 38.8 million people in 2002, or more than 13 percent of the US population. That figure is expected to reach 20 percent by 2035, according to the US Census.

"Historically, the newspaper industry has counted on assimilation. Eventually, by the second or third generation, everyone reads or speaks English. Nobody worried about it so much," said media industry analyst John Morton, of Baltimore-based Morton Research.

But it is the ties Hispanic immigrants have to their native countries that feeds growth in Spanish-language papers.

Newspaper groups including Knight Ridder, Belo Corp., and Tribune Co. have also entered the market or expanded existing papers. Belo, which publishes The Dallas Morning News, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, and The Providence Journal, rolled out Al Dia, a Spanish-language daily in Dallas last fall.

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