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.