War of the Words

In mid-October, the big story in the Phoenix Latino community was Ernie Fernandez.

Fernandez, 25, had been arrested in 1997 on one count of first-degree murder and one count of child abuse, both in connection with the death of his girlfriend's two-year-old son, Ricky Robles.

From the start, Fernandez insisted that the toddler had died by accidentally falling off a kitchen table, but the Maricopa County Board of Medical Examiners ruled Robles' death a homicide. After three years behind bars, during which time he says he reluctantly took his lawyer's advice to accept a plea agreement, Fernandez -- with the help of a new attorney -- withdrew his plea, went to trial and was acquitted. On October 19, he was set free.

Fernandez's release did not generate a single word of coverage in either the Arizona Republic or the East Valley Tribune. But during the week of October 25, both of Phoenix's dominant Spanish-language newspapers -- Prensa Hispana and La Voz -- showcased lengthy front-page stories on his ordeal.

Prensa, the decade-old tabloid weekly, ran a modest article with no byline, matter-of-factly detailing Fernandez's legal struggles and how he was sustained by his unceasing faith in God and the prudence of the justice system.

La Voz, the latest, slickest and best-funded entry in the Spanish-language newspaper wars, told a similar tale, but its presentation was radically different. With a big, splashy layout and a gigantic photo of a distraught Fernandez clutching a framed photo of the dead boy, this piece screamed for attention. The headline, punctuated by an exclamation point, emphatically stated that Fernandez had been forced to admit to a crime he didn't commit. Above the headline, La Voz asked the pointed question: "Sería por su origen hispano?" "Was it because he's a Hispanic?"The reporting of the Fernandez saga demonstrated the importance of local Hispanic media -- a story that was considered a major event in the Latino community was ignored by the mainstream press. But it also highlighted the differences between the two major Spanish-language competitors in the market. As the Fernandez story showed, although La Voz and Prensa Hispana consistently cover the same issues -- immigration, bilingual education, the Catholic Church, and mobile vendors, for example -- their tone is rarely similar.

The founders of La Voz aim to bring high-impact, tough-minded journalism to a Spanish-language market they believe has been overrun by second-rate, amateurishly written tabloid rags.

They like to provoke. They enthusiastically engaged in a war of words with the Mesa Police Department early this year, and unhesitatingly took on the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

Prensa Hispana, on the other hand, views itself as the reliable, community-conscious information source for local Latinos -- the plodding tortoise to La Voz's brash hare. Consider a recent front-page headline that earnestly advised readers: "Tenga cuidado con sus cheques." "Be careful with your checks." At times like this, Prensa comes off more like a doting mother, reminding her children to wear their raincoats, than a high-powered metropolitan newspaper in one of the biggest Hispanic markets in the nation.

But that's the nature of these papers' distinct agendas: La Voz covets a sophistication that will appeal to upwardly mobile young Hispanic professionals, while Prensa harbors no illusions that it is anything but a blue-collar community newspaper.

La Voz and Prensa Hispana are only two of at least 10 Spanish-language publications that seem to float in and out of the local scene at any given time. Others currently include Monitor Hispano, a seven-year-old Prensa look-alike started by former Tucson talk-radio host Juan Valera; El Empresario, a business journal that has carved out a modest niche with Hispanic entrepreneurs; and TV y Más, a lucrative programming guide that reaches 85,000 people around the state.

But La Voz and Prensa are at the center of the action, not only because they're the biggest, but also because their ongoing battle raises the question of what the Hispanic community really wants from a newspaper. Hard-nosed reporting that stirs up controversy, or a community bulletin board?

By any mainstream newspaper standard, La Voz is a superior paper to Prensa Hispana. It's better written, more visually appealing and covers a wider range of subjects. And it seems to maintain a more solid commitment to the notion that editorial content must be kept separate from advertising concerns.

But over the last decade, Prensa Hispana has built a grassroots fan base that has little to do with the paper's journalistic merits. As a result, La Voz is running into a surprising degree of resistance.

"There's no other paper but Prensa for me," says Alberto Esparza, a community activist and founder of the youth-oriented Sí Se Puede program.

Esparza says most local Hispanic activists will only speak to Prensa because they admire and trust the paper's founder, Manny Garcia.

"They're not just reporting, they're physically out there," Esparza says. "At political rallies, they're providing food and water for people. When a family's gone through a disaster, they're organizing relief efforts. They're more than a newspaper."

When Manny Garcia founded Prensa Hispana in October 1990, he was the owner of a string of thriving South Phoenix businesses, including an auto body shop, a Mexican restaurant and a video store. He knew nothing about journalism, and his writing experience amounted to little more than purchase orders and grocery lists.

His wife, Lety Miranda-Garcia, recalls: "People would say, 'He needs to go back to the shop. He doesn't know what he's doing.'"

But Garcia was nothing if not persistent. He siphoned money from his shop, Extra Care Auto, into the paper and became a determined one-man staff: writing stories, taking photos with his beat-up old camera and desperately trying to sell ads to a skeptical business community. He converted a small room in the corner of Extra Care Auto into a makeshift newspaper office.

From the start, Prensa was a bottomless money pit. Garcia not only had to sell his house to maintain the paper, but often had to open the shop on Sundays just to scrape up enough money for food.

As Manny sank more time and income into the fledgling paper, Lety became increasingly irate. With her husband never home, and most of the family's money disappearing into the ether, she became convinced he was having an affair.

"A lot of money was going out," says the 48-year-old Garcia, a stocky, mustachioed man whose jowly visage suggests a Hispanic incarnation of Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas. "My wife was upset. We were fighting every day. I said, 'Look, I'm not seeing anybody else. I'm trying to make a business.'"

Despite his lack of journalistic expertise, Prensa Hispana gradually grew from an eight-page, biweekly publication with a printing run of 3,000 copies into the most powerful Spanish newspaper in the Valley, with an estimated weekly circulation of 65,000. In 1993, Lety Miranda-Garcia even set aside her long-standing objections and volunteered to help her husband run the paper.

All along, Garcia insisted that Prensa wasn't conceived as a money-making operation, but as a tool for getting information to a community that was often alienated by its inability to speak English. Often that information has consisted of such basic, practical items as where children can receive immunizations, or what federal programs are available to struggling families.

Garcia is described by his supporters as someone who doesn't hesitate to organize charity events for people who are down on their luck, who will take money out of his own pocket to help the needy, and who will publicly scold someone if he thinks the individual is discriminating against minorities.

But, for all the goodwill he's earned over the years, questions about Garcia's journalistic credentials have never completely disappeared. Detractors privately snipe -- with some justification -- that Prensa Hispana is poorly written, that it's rife with errors, and that the paper seems to reward favored advertisers with editorial coverage.

Sensing that Garcia's paper might be vulnerable, and anticipating that forthcoming census figures will show an impressive growth in the local Latino population, Ricardo Torres, longtime general manager at Spanish-language radio station KVVA-FM 107.1, and David Kaye, the feisty publisher of TV y Más, joined forces a year ago to create La Voz. Although Kaye has purposely stayed out of the spotlight, his investment in the paper has led some to brand La Voz "an Anglo publication," created purely for mercenary reasons.

Whatever the motivations behind it, La Voz did not emerge in a vacuum. In recent years, the Valley has seen an unprecedented explosion in Latino broadcast media. In the last 15 years, Phoenix radio has expanded from one Spanish-language radio station to 10. Four new Spanish stations have come into the market in the last two years alone. One of them, KHOT-FM 105.9, also known as La Nueva, has rated as high as third among all local stations in some listener surveys. Sixty-second radio ads, which sold for $10 on Spanish-language stations a decade ago, now go for more than $200.

Television is also witnessing a newly prominent Latino presence. Only a month ago, Channel 3 -- in a joint venture with Cox Communications -- launched Más! Arizona, a 24-hour Spanish-language cable station that's the first of its kind in the Southwest.

But the competition for ratings points has been a fairly detached and civil one, for two reasons. First, the Phoenix Hispanic audience has been so underserved on radio and television that the market seems able to absorb even a rapid influx of new Spanish programming. Spanish-language programmers argue convincingly that the local market could support even a couple more Latino-targeted radio stations. Second, most of the radio and TV stations involved are owned by corporate behemoths based in other parts of the country, so the competitors seem faceless and nonthreatening.

The newspaper war, though, is another matter. It's personal. It's a smash-mouth grudge match between locals who've sunk their own money and reputations into their newspapers, and simply refuse to lose. And, for most spectators, the lingering question is whether La Voz can establish the common touch that has made so many readers forgive Prensa Hispana's flaws.

"The community feels that La Voz still has to prove themselves before they can be trusted," Esparza says.

Juan Valera, founder of Monitor Hispano, agrees, saying: "Prensa Hispana has so many critics, but they're more in touch with the people. Even though people with more education don't like them. People complain that the details aren't right, the photos aren't right. But many people in our community don't like it if you get too fancy."

While it's a stretch to brand La Voz's traditional newspaper format "too fancy," it's safe to say that there is no precedent for it in the local Spanish-language market. Historically, local Spanish publications -- like Monitor Hispano and Prensa Hispana -- have begun as shoestring operations published out of somebody's bedroom or garage. They've struggled for years to gain visibility in the community and credibility with advertisers.

Never before has a local Spanish newspaper come out of the womb full-grown, with a look, an aesthetic, a staff, an office and an instant circulation of 50,000, as La Voz did when it opened its doors in January. No other Spanish paper could have imagined setting up a statewide home-delivery system within months of hitting the streets, as La Voz did in September. After 10 years of publishing, Prensa Hispana only began to do home deliveries two months ago.

"Prensa Hispana started small and slowly built itself up," Valera says. "La Voz is the only paper that's come in big. They're like a radio station with full power right away."

They've also come in with a full measure of attitude. Torres and Kaye think local Latinos have been subjected to embarrassingly shoddy journalism for too long. They speak of La Voz as the first local newspaper that Latinos can look to with pride.

"In the 32 years I've been in the United States, it's always been the case that everything that's in Spanish is not as good as English," Torres says. "Everything that is in Spanish is actually second-class. The pictures have always been a little blurry, the words are often misspelled. For Mexican-Americans, there's almost a sense of embarrassment over accepting something that's not done well."

Torres adds: "On the other hand, the recent immigrant has been exposed to a quality Spanish-language newspaper in Mexico or whatever Latin American country they come from. So La Voz had to look the way it does, because it had a pretty tough act to follow. It had to present to the Mexican-American a product that they saw, and thought, 'Wow, that's just as good as any English-language paper I've seen here, and this one is mine.' And the recent immigrant had to look at it and say, 'This is as good as what we have back home.'"

While such statements undoubtedly irk staffers at Prensa Hispana, statistics support Torres' assertion that the Hispanic market was not satisfied with its Spanish newspaper options. A Spring 2000 study by the Behavior Research Center, a local market-research firm, revealed that 45 percent of local Hispanics regularly read English-language newspapers. Even among Spanish-dominant Hispanics, a surprisingly large 21 percent read English papers with some frequency. Both numbers are considered unusually high, according to Luis Ortiz, Hispanic studies director for the Behavior Research Center.

"It can be a risky decision to start a newspaper, but with respect to La Voz, it makes a lot of sense for them to come into the market," Ortiz says. "I think it's a win-win situation, not only for the consumer, but also for the company and advertisers."

La Voz's strategy to follow the template of Mexican daily newspapers has been buoyed by the success of La Nueva, the most popular Spanish-language radio station in the Valley. Before the Texas-based Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation bought the station in 1999, the company heavily researched the local Latino market and found that approximately 94 percent of that market was composed of Mexican immigrants, predominantly from the northern states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua. So the station developed a format that zeroed in on regional Mexican music from those three states.

As a result, La Nueva has left its competitors choking on its exhaust fumes. Intuitively, Torres and Kaye have tried to attract that same Mexican immigrant audience.

"La Voz is more of a regular Mexican newspaper, from Mexico, while Prensa Hispana uses the tabloid format that is used by other Spanish papers in the Valley," says Joseph Romero, owner of Grupo Romero Inc., an advertising agency, and president of the Arizona Association of Hispanic Merchants. "La Voz is skewed more towards an upper-scale Hispanic, versus the others."

It's no coincidence that one of Ricardo Torres' proudest moments at the paper came a few months ago when Phoenix Magazine ran a story on the local Latino community and included a photo of a young Hispanic professional with a copy of La Voz tucked under his arm. Torres wants La Voz to be the newspaper of choice for such upwardly mobile Hispanics.

"Their Spanish is very good, and their stories are good," Romero says of La Voz. "And they have sections, like a daily newspaper, while the others have a mishmash of information. For us, as professionals, La Voz has much more appeal."

Diana Diaz, a news anchorwoman at Univision, who also writes a weekly column for La Voz, says the paper provides a badly needed alternative for a market that had grown accustomed to having few media choices.

"I think it's really superior, especially comparing it to other papers that have been around for years, like Prensa Hispana," Diaz says. "People need to have options, and they only had one major paper for so long, and I think people felt there was a void."

On the surface, Ricardo Torres has much in common with Manny Garcia.

Torres, like Garcia, was raised in northern Mexico in a working-class environment.

Torres, like Garcia, started a number of labor-intensive businesses, honing his entrepreneurial instincts at a surprisingly tender age. As an adolescent, Torres sold paletas (frozen fruit bars) along the border, while a teenage Garcia drove grain-delivery trucks until he made enough money to buy his own truck and, eventually, his own auto body shop.

Torres, like Garcia, grew up in an unconventional family. Torres was raised by a single mom, while Garcia lost both of his parents to a car accident when he was only eight months old, and was raised by an aunt.

Torres, like Garcia, considers himself self-educated -- although Torres did take a few college classes in the late '70s. Both men have learned most of what they know from hands-on experience in the business world.

But beneath these similarities, Torres and Garcia are sharply different personalities.

As he kicks back in his second-floor downtown office, Torres, 42, exudes a giddy urbanity, a sense that he's smoothly assimilated into American culture, and can dance with aplomb in both the Anglo and Latino worlds. Unfailingly dapper and gracious, he's equally articulate in both English and Spanish. He thinks in terms of bold strokes, talking like a budding media mogul about his long-term ambitions for La Voz: to grow from five reporters to eventually having 20 to 25 writers working the streets; to go from weekly publication to a daily; and to possibly expand into other cities.

An enthusiastic football fan, Torres keeps a piece of the frozen tundra from Green Bay's Lambeau Field -- a gift from a friend -- contained in a small glass case on his desk. Hanging from the wall to the right of his desk is a framed cartoon drawing of Torres proudly holding up a copy of his newspaper and proclaiming, "Ahora sí nuestra gente tiene una voz." "Now our people do have a voice."

Garcia dresses in workman's clothes, struggles with his English and seems content just to keep Prensa Hispana afloat. Where Torres is infectiously brash, Garcia is pure humility. He speaks in a soft voice and has the somber demeanor of someone who's never had the luxury of idle amusement.

Like Garcia, Torres took a circuitous path to the world of newspaper publishing.

Torres spent the first 10 years of his life in Juárez, Mexico, before his family settled in Nogales. After high school, he landed in Texas, briefly taking classes at San Angelo State College.

In the late '70s and early '80s, he started a series of businesses, from a construction company to a roofing company to a vinyl-repair business (which he gave up when he realized he was colorblind and couldn't match colors to save his life).

In 1986, Torres drifted into the radio business, selling commercials at a small station in San Angelo. Three years later, he moved to Phoenix, and quickly got a job at KVVA-FM 107.1, then the only Spanish-language FM station in the market. He eventually became the general manager at both KVVA and KLNZ-FM 103.5, which was purchased by KVVA owner Z Spanish Media in October 1998.

Over the years, Torres developed a mutual admiration society with TV y Más publisher David Kaye. He and Kaye often talked about teaming up to start a newspaper. In early 1999, Torres told Kaye he felt the market was ready.

"We said in the year 2000, there's going to be a census," he says. "And when the census comes out, if you've got something and it's established, you will be in a good position to truly take flight with this growing Hispanic market."

Torres chose an old friend from his radio days, Luis Manuel Ortiz (no relation to Luis Ortiz at the Behavior Research Center), to give the paper an editorial direction. Ortiz, 54, a native of Sonora, Mexico, had moved to Phoenix in 1983 and established himself in both the broadcast and print media. In the '80s, he founded two free bilingual magazines: Unidos and Cambio!. Ortiz also served as news director at KPHX-AM 1480, and delivered a daily commentary on that station called La Voz y la Pluma.

After divorcing his wife -- and publishing partner -- in 1997, Ortiz shut down Cambio! and moved back to Mexico. He was doing printing work, and had given up any lingering journalistic aspirations, when Torres called in September 1999. He said Ortiz was the only person qualified for the editing job at La Voz. Ortiz agreed.

With the exception of Tucson newspaper veteran Cecilia Toscano, who joined the staff as co-editor, Ortiz assembled a crew of reporters who were young and college-educated, but short on journalism experience. "It was my idea to bring in new, young people and train them," he says. "That way they wouldn't come in with concepts that were different than what we wanted. They would be open-minded and fresh."

Partner David Kaye prefers to remain behind the scenes.

The 38-year-old Kaye is hardly bashful. He's a smart, intensely competitive man with a penchant for the glib wisecrack. But he's also savvy enough to know that being a Jewish kid from Chicago who's selling periodicals to Arizona Latinos is enough of a cultural juggling act without putting your face in the cross hairs of the media.

Kaye was born in New York, grew up in Chicago, and moved to Tempe at 18 to enroll at Arizona State University. He never graduated from ASU, but he built an eclectic résumé of work experience. Kaye bought and sold cars, managed a restaurant, and ended up finding success in real estate. From there, he stumbled into publishing.

"I was managing an apartment complex over on Seventh Avenue and Indian School, and I started advertising with a lot of publications," Kaye says. "I was having a very difficult time. The market was terrible.

"So I didn't find a lot of advertising that worked, and I was very disappointed with the results I got. So I looked around and saw a void."

On November 23, 1991, Kaye started TV Weekly, a 28-page television programming guide. He worked out of his house, sold advertising door-to-door, and began with a circulation of 10,000. TV Weekly was English-only, but Kaye found that he was reaching a surprising number of Hispanics.

At the time, Southwest Supermarkets had only one location, at 35th Avenue and McDowell, and Kaye says he moved 500 to 600 copies a week of TV Weekly out of that store. He and Southwest owner, the late Mike Peterson, became fast friends.

"Mike said, 'You know, Dave, 80 percent of my customers are Hispanic, yet you're moving an awful lot of papers. Why?'"

Kaye suggested that the Arizona Republic had low penetration into the Hispanic market and that Hispanics simply found a free TV guide appealing. Peterson responded by offering his financial backing for a Spanish-language TV guide.

In February 1993, Kaye launched TV y Más. Its circulation has grown from 10,000 to 85,000, making it the largest Spanish-language publication in Arizona. But Kaye's play-to-win style -- and his close connection to Southwest Supermarkets -- hasn't endeared him to all his competitors.

"TV y Más is an Anglo business, so he comes from a business perspective, he doesn't see this as a community," says Juan Valera, of Monitor Hispano. "He's got a lot of control with Southwest, and he wanted us and Prensa Hispana taken out of there. He's wanted to force us out of business."

While Southwest Supermarkets has certainly been good for Kaye, he denies that he ever tried to use the supermarket chain to destroy his competitors. He says that he simply tried to clean up a chaotic, eyesore of a magazine section at Southwest Supermarkets by offering to build distribution racks and take over the Free Publication Display Program at the stores.

In return for his $50,000 expense on the racks, Kaye suggested charging newspaper owners between $6 (for the bottom pocket on the rack) and $9 (for the top pocket) a month to have their papers displayed. Kaye insists that his prices were more than reasonable, and that he had no intention of excluding any of his competitors. But local Hispanic publishers -- particularly Valera and Garcia -- balked at the idea of paying Kaye for what they'd long had for free, so he withdrew his idea, saying that he lost $50,000 on the fiasco.

"They were all sitting together, singing 'Kumbaya' and saying 'Kill Whitey,'" he recalls, with more than a hint of bitterness. Mindful of what a lightning rod he'd become in Spanish publishing, Kaye was determined to stay in the background with La Voz and let Torres represent the paper publicly.

The Southwest Supermarkets controversy also made allies of Valera and Garcia, who'd been fiercely competitive since Valera began Monitor Hispano in 1993.

"The last two years, we've changed, and decided not to fight each other," Valera says. "We've realized we're in the same boat, so we better get along. I've proven to Manny that I'm going to stay here. We've sat down and had menudo, and decided to work together on certain issues."

Valera says he used to be friendly with Torres, but that they've only spoken once since the advent of La Voz.

"One time we had a problem with distribution, and he called and said some of our newspapers were in their racks," Valera says. "And I said that I don't want an Anglo publication throwing away our Hispanic newspapers. Ricardo said, 'This is not an Anglo publication!'

"He says, 'No, no, no, I'm the owner and the president.' And I said, 'You can say what you want, but you're a salesman from the radio station. I know where you're coming from.'"

Torres and Kaye wanted to shake up the market quickly with La Voz, and within three months of its January debut, the newspaper was at the center of a huge controversy. It began on March 16, when Mesa Police called the Immigration and Naturalization Service to a home where 140 illegal aliens were being detained. The action drew fire from activists who thought the police had overstepped their bounds.

In a March 22 interview with La Voz, former City Council member Rosendo Gutierrez called for a Mesa boycott of the forthcoming census, in protest of the police department's action. In the same issue, a La Voz editorial echoed the sentiment, demanding "whatever action, just and reasonable, including a boycott of the census," until the Mesa Police Department creates a coherent, consistent and fair policy with regard to undocumented immigrants.

On March 23, Secretary of State Betsy Bayless responded by holding a press conference to emphasize the importance of participation in the census. On the same day, the Mesa Police Department released a statement that called La Voz irresponsible for "exhorting" people to boycott the census. The newspaper fired back with a defensive March 29 editorial that dubiously argued that the paper had never advocated a boycott, but merely reported what Gutierrez had to say.

The March 29 editorial also questioned why other news organizations that reported Gutierrez's statement were not similarly blasted. Taking a provocative tack it would use again seven months later with the Ernie Fernandez piece, La Voz asked, "Were they [the Mesa Police] uncomfortable with La Voz because it is a Hispanic newspaper?" An editorial cartoon on the same page depicted a Mesa cop holding up a copy of La Voz and saying, "It's always been easier to put the blame on others."

The following week, the Mesa Police Department announced that it was revising its policy regarding illegals. In the future, the department announced, the INS would only be called in cases in which undocumented immigrants had committed a criminal act. In the offices of La Voz, the announcement was greeted like a surrender note from a vanquished opponent.

"La Voz seems to be omnipotent a little bit more, and covers more in-depth stuff," Gutierrez says. "They have picked up with me immediately on new issues that came up, even if it wasn't popular with a lot of people."

Not surprisingly, both Torres and Ortiz consider the verbal wrestling match with Mesa Police to be La Voz's finest hour. This is what they envisioned for their newspaper -- to be in the center of the ring, stirring up political debate.

This same take-no-prisoners approach extended to La Voz's coverage of the recent unrest at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Phoenix's oldest Latino-based parish, over the controversial behavior of the church's pastor, the Reverend Saúl Madrid. The issue was especially thorny for local Spanish-language papers because of the powerful influence that the Catholic Church wields in the Hispanic community, and because Madrid is one of the relatively few high-profile public figures in the local Latino community.

Both papers faced potential conflicts of interest over the story. Garcia has long been close to local church officials, and prominently displays a picture of himself, arm-in-arm with Bishop Thomas O'Brien, at Prensa Hispana's office. La Voz's editorial board includes Marge Injasoulian, communications director for the diocese.

Although both papers dutifully covered parishioner protests against Madrid, La Voz was alone in challenging the priest on its editorial page. After weeks of insisting that Madrid had much to answer for, in September, the paper widened its scope and took on diocesan officials. When O'Brien issued a September 7 statement in support of Madrid, La Voz retorted, "Surely these words of the Bishop are considered law for most, but not for all."

The editorial questioned both Madrid and O'Brien about the appropriation of funds for the restoration of Immaculate Heart, which had been severely damaged by an April fire.

"This statement [by O'Brien] contains a lack of consideration to the Catholics by not making a fundamental declaration with figures, accompanied by a clear examination of how the donations are managed. . . . We believe he does not give a public answer that is open and ample."

Prensa ran an August front-page interview with Chandler activist Juanita Encinas, who called on both Madrid and the bishop to resign. But it did not challenge Madrid on its editorial page, which might explain why, at the height of anti-Madrid fervor, in mid-August, the priest spoke to Prensa, but ignored La Voz's calls for an interview.

By comparison to La Voz, Prensa Hispana's editorial content generally seems tame. The majority of its stories do not include bylines, and tend to read like glorified press releases. The paper is also riddled with an unusually large number of blatant errors, from basic spelling mistakes to a recent oversight that found the paper running the exact same preview of the sheriff's election in two separate parts of the same issue.

One particularly embarrassing blunder at Prensa occurred on September 3, 1998, when the paper ran an article extravagantly describing the fabulous time two local contest winners had on their all-expense-paid, three-day, two-night trip to Denver. The only problem was the winners had not made the trip, and all the details were invented by the reporter.

The paper has also raised eyebrows with its habit of superimposing people into photographs in which they don't belong. Two months ago, the newspaper ran a photo of attorney Steve Montoya, activist Salvador Reza and councilman Doug Lingner standing in front of a mobile vendor van, although the three men had been photographed separately and imposed on the mobile-vendor backdrop.

Montoya says he was not bothered by this example of photo doctoring. "I was not surprised that they did that, and I didn't think that it was inappropriate," he says. "That's what they had to do. Because of my schedule, I couldn't be photographed at all that week."

Montoya adds, "That paper does a great job. I consider Manny Garcia to be a community activist. I've always felt that he had the community's best interests at heart. So I have nothing but praise for the guy."

A more egregious case of photo manipulation occurred on May 27, 1999, when Prensa Hispana ran a front-page article and photo about the newspaper's first-annual "Leadership Awards" ceremony at Burton Barr library. The photo featured a smiling Governor Jane Hull standing next to her policy adviser, Margie Emmerman, and Emmerman's husband, Carlos. Standing immediately to Hull's left, holding up a "Leadership Award" plaque, is Dr. Julio Cesar Castro Marín, looking slightly out of place in his white doctor's overcoat. The photo creates the impression that Hull presented the award to Marín herself.

The only problem is that the picture is a fake. Marín was never photographed with Hull, but had his picture taken after the ceremony and superimposed into the photo with the governor. Lety Miranda-Garcia concedes that the photo was altered, explaining that Marín had to leave the ceremony early to deliver a baby, "and we thought it was important that he be in the picture."

Margie Emmerman recalls that Hull also left the ceremony before the awards presentation and could not have been photographed with a plaque-clutching Marín. She says of the published picture, "I would never want to have a situation where something doesn't depict a complete truth."

What's particularly bothersome about the photo is the fact that Marín's connection to Prensa Hispana goes much deeper than his "Leadership Award." For the last five years, he has been Prensa Hispana's landlord. In 1995, aware that Manny Garcia had been publishing the paper out of his auto body shop, Marín offered to provide Prensa with free office space at his downtown clinic, Policlínica San Xavier. In return, Garcia occasionally gives Marín free advertising space. In light of this symbiotic relationship, the "Leadership Awards" issue created the uncomfortable appearance that Marín was being reimbursed by getting pictured with the governor.

To the founders of La Voz, a big part of the problem with Prensa is that Manny Garcia keeps his hand in both the editorial and business sides of his newspaper.

Ricardo Torres is quick to emphasize that at La Voz, "there is a firewall between that which is editorial and that which is commercial. My sales people don't know what's coming up, nor are they given a heads-up."

In recent months, the war between the two papers has degenerated into behind-the-scenes accusations about the legitimacy of their circulation numbers, and who's been stealing whose newspaper racks.

Torres is adamant about the veracity of La Voz's auditing numbers, and proudly touts the credentials of his paper's auditing company, Verified Audit Circulation (VAC). He implies that Prensa Hispana's circulation figure of 65,000 is questionable, because the auditing firm it has used, Community Papers Verification Service (CPVS), is a smaller company with a reputation for less-than-accurate auditing reports.

CPVS was purchased in March 1999 by the St. Louis-based Circulation Verification Council (CVC), and CVC president Tim Bingaman, in a July 7 letter to a VAC executive, acknowledged the problems he inherited from CPVS, saying, "As we all know, CPVS audits were substandard and allowed for significant reporting error. CPVS representing itself as an auditing firm hurt our industry."

In an interview with New Times, Bingaman downplayed any suggestion of incompetence at CPVS, saying his company bought CPVS not to clean up a badly run company, but simply because it was a good business opportunity. Although his company has yet to perform its first audit on Prensa, Bingaman says he's already gotten a taste of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering between La Voz and Prensa Hispana. He says Lety Miranda-Garcia called him three months ago, complaining about problems she was having with La Voz.

"You've got a real war going on there," Bingaman says with a laugh. "It's unfortunate. Just as an industry auditor, it seems to be a young upstart-type publication that is concentrating less on making their publication better than they are trying to attack their competitor. Because from what we can tell, Lety has a fine publication."

The circulation numbers are so contentious because they represent crucial advertising dollars at a time when Torres is struggling to convince local businesses to gamble on La Voz.

Joseph Romero says La Voz is facing an uphill battle.

"With advertisers, they haven't been able to get to the point where they should be," he says. "They're the new kid on the block, and our community is very conservative. All the merchants are very conservative. Prensa Hispana brings results, even if it's not structured like a Mexican newspaper."

Lety Miranda-Garcia says attacks over her paper's circulation figures have simply been part of the baggage that comes with being the dominant Spanish-language paper in Phoenix for nearly a decade.

"We'd set up racks and they'd destroy them, they throw my paper away," she says of her paper's enemies. "They misinform our advertisers. But I don't want to point any fingers at anybody. They haven't hurt us. We're loyal and we're honest. By the time they try to reach our level, we've moved on to the next level."

She adds: "It's funny because when other publications come around, they always say, 'We're going to knock Prensa Hispana down, they don't know how to do business, they don't have good reporters.' And yet they turn around and try to take my people. Well, who do they think did the work? So they contradict themselves."

To Juan Valera, Kaye is the real driving force behind La Voz, and he sees it -- like TV y Más -- as the product of an Anglo opportunist whose only interest in Latinos is how he can separate them from their money.

"They [La Voz] saw that there was a market here," Valera says. "They're spending a lot of money, huge sums of money. But they're working on another level, a more corporate level. And I think it's going to be very hard for them, spending all the money they're doing. They want to be the Arizona Republic, and they don't represent the Hispanic community."

Valera adds: "The majority of the people here couldn't make it in their own country, Mexico. They're not coming because they're well known there or because they're doctors or something. The country couldn't provide them with enough of a living to feed their families. They don't have the level of education that we wish to have. So we have to understand that the majority of the people are working families. And if you become too sophisticated, you get too far away from the culture."

Valera started Monitor Hispano on a mere $400, and normally works seven days a week just to keep his paper operating. So, from his perspective, La Voz looks like a big-money indulgence -- entrepreneurs playing Monopoly with real money. He views Monitor Hispano as "the only Spanish newspaper that's really supported by the community and people." He adds, "I don't have a body shop, I don't have other companies or other investors. I don't have any other money coming in."

He says Kaye "comes from Chicago, where people fight in the street, and so he thinks this is a softer market for him. To your face, he smiles and says, 'Happy to see you,' but you don't know what he's doing behind your back."

Kaye insists that Torres, not he, makes the big decisions at La Voz. He says they converse several times a day on the phone, but that he places absolute trust in Torres' ability to run the paper. Perhaps because of his sensitivity to charges that La Voz is not Hispanic-owned, his name is absent from the paper's masthead, and he defers to Torres on any questions related to the paper.

Ultimately, the issue of La Voz being funded by Anglo dollars seems less relevant than whether this weekly can sell the concept of a real newspaper to a local community that has no tradition of serious journalism. It's a question that has yet to be answered.

Although few would argue that La Voz's emergence has opened new wounds in the Hispanic community, Torres says that his paper is uniquely positioned to bring unity to Latinos, because it's the only newspaper ambitious and bold enough to cut across petty divisions. At times like this, his evangelical zeal could convince even the doubters that his newspaper is about more than profit margins, that it really wants to create a cultural impact.

"La Voz has to be a force to reach across the divide between Mexican-Americans and recent immigrants and find a way to reach both groups, and show that we've got more things in common than not," Torres says.

"La Voz is the one paper that can do that, because it's the one source of pride for the Mexican-American that's never seen anything of quality, and it provides that sense of seeming like back home for the recent immigrant. So La Voz can be that bridge."

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia