Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lost Cause

The Orlando Sentinel is holding a town hall meeting with the Hispanic community Sept. 23 -- that is, if they can find any Hispanics to attend.

According to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which is part of the town hall, only 9 people have completed a brief and answered an anonymous 15-question online survey regarding the Orlando Sentinel’s coverage of Hispanics. In addition, about 16 people have RSVP’d for the town hall. Earlier in the week, only 10 people had RSVP'd to the town hall and 5 people had taken the online poll.

The low numbers are not surprising. The Sentinel has had a testy relationship with the Hispanic community for some time, dating to coverage in 1996 about drugs and the witness protection program that essentially maligned Hispanics in the Orlando area.

It's one thing to write about the Hispanic community, including the bad news, and another thing to generalize about its members in a way that stereotypes the community. In addition, the tone of the earlier stories also was sorely lacking.

The Hispanic community, to its credit, would have none of it. They marched in downtown Orlando against drugs and crime. However, the march originally was aimed against the Orlando Sentinel, until organizers switched gears. They shouldn't have.

The relationship between the newspaper and the Hispanic community never fully recovered. And the Sentinel has been tring to mop up the mess. But based on my reading and interaction with the Hispanic community, I've concluded that the community has moved on. They have found other media and news outlets, both in print and online, that they prefer. Consider that in 1996 the online world was in its infancy, which is to say the Sentinel had little competition.

Today, about 52 percent of Hispanics are online, according to emarketer. That number likely will grow rapidly as the population expands. Hispanics are very big into social networking sites and also in visiting sites that report news of their homelands, none of which is reflected in the Sentinel.

I'd say Hispanics don't care about the Orlando Sentinel, but the Sentinel has to care about Hispanics because it is the fastest-growing segment of the population. When you read about the expanding population of Central Florida, it's the Hispancs who are doing nearly all the expanding.

If the Sentinel doesn't re-engage this population, the future, in terms of circulation and revenue, looks dim. The Sentinel may hang on to its traditional readers - the educated, white suburbanites -- but don't expect much help from Hispanics. That train has left the station.

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