Bucking the trend, 2 newsrooms invest in Spanish-language training

In 2009, The Dallas Morning News cut its budget -- again. After laying off hundreds of employees companywide, A.H. Belo Corporation, the paper's parent organization, reached "for the stuff that could be turned off," said Managing Editor George Rodrigue.

An easy choice: the hour-and-a-half-long Spanish class the News held in the newsroom every Tuesday. But as it turned out, cutting it wasn't so easy. A group of devoted language learners in the newsroom decided that they'd each pay $45 per month out of their own pockets to keep the private instructor coming. In early 2011, A.H. Belo began picking up the tab again.

In the newsrooms of large, Spanish-speaking markets, language classes used to be fairly common. Now they're all but extinct. The Miami Herald used to offer three classes a week, then just one a week, until it cut its program last year. The San Diego Union-Tribune (now called U-T San Diego) cut its classes about five years ago. It's been more than 10 years since The Arizona Republic offered any.

Judging from conversations I had with editors, reporters and human resources employees at America's top 25 most-circulated newspapers, the verdict is in: Language programs are rare.

Unlike most -- if not all -- of the other top-25 papers, there are two that pay to bring Spanish instructors into the newsroom, free of charge to staffers. They're both in Texas -- the Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News -- and they're also fierce competitors for circulation supremacy.

The New York Times offers both Spanish and Mandarin Chinese lessons once a week over lunchtime. That program is open to all employees, and they have to pay for it -- although it’s “heavily subsidized,” said Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Other newspapers offer tuition reimbursement for college classes, and The Wall Street Journal staff enjoys a discount on Rosetta Stone software. Many spokespeople said their papers would be willing to pay for training if needed.

Dave Wilson, senior editor at The Miami Herald, said the Herald suspended its program last year for “a couple reasons. One was for budgetary concerns. And second … well, it was mostly budget.” Most editors use the hiring process to recruit Spanish-speaking reporters instead of training non-speakers after they’re hired.

Several newspapers can reach out to the Hispanic community through their affiliated Spanish-language counterparts -- the Herald has El Nuevo Herald, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times have Hoy, the Houston Chronicle has La Voz de Houston and The Dallas Morning News has Al Dia.

But for those two Texas papers, there’s value in having a reporter who can communicate with members of their cities’ largest minority communities -- even though those conversations might not go on the record.

Claudia Feldman, a features writer and 36-year veteran of the Chronicle, said she started taking classes more than 10 years ago. The Chronicle offers two courses, advanced and beginning, which meet twice a week. Even after moving to the advanced level, Feldman still struggles with the language, but she can use it as a tool in her reporting when necessary.

She recalled one example: While reporting on a story that involved a Mexican man who hardly spoke English, Feldman spoke to him in Spanish. In the process, she made grammatical mistakes. But by making the effort to speak his language, “I let him see that I know how difficult it is,” Feldman said. “I understood what he was going through.” The man’s fully bilingual daughters were around during the interview, and Feldman asked them to confirm that what she understood was accurate.

Speaking to sources for attribution in another language is an issue in and of itself. Second-language acquisition is far more difficult and time-consuming later in life than in younger years, and it raises the question: Who decides when a reporter is ready to conduct an interview in a second language? Quick answer: The reporter.

It’s the reporter’s responsibility to clarify the facts. While interviewing the Spanish-speaking man, Feldman relied on his children for help. She said that if the children weren’t there, or if she didn’t feel comfortable with the situation, she wouldn’t have put the interview on the record.

“As vigilant as we are when we try to ensure accuracy every day, in that situation we have to be even more careful,“ she said. “Instead of overrating our skills, we always underrate.”

Steve Blow is a columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and began taking classes there in the summer of 1996. “I call [Spanish] my pasatiempo, but my wife calls it my obsesión,” he said. Despite 16 years of classes and various immersion experiences in Mexico and Guatemala, Blow said he still doesn’t conduct interviews in Spanish.

“It’s tricky enough in English,” he said. But he breaks the ice with it and carries on conversations.

Blow is, on an informal basis, the leader of the class. He sets up lessons with the private instructor and sends out emails to the newsroom. So after funding to the course was cut and the reporters weighed whether they wanted to continue paying for it, Blow lobbied management to bring the funding back. “And to our pleasant surprise, they did.”

The Dallas Morning News can’t commit to the class forever, Rodrigue said, “but it seemed like giving people a year or two years extra would be worthwhile.” Despite the classes, management isn’t planning to hire monolingual reporters and train them later; it's looking to skip the learning curve altogether.

“If we can hire one of two people,” Rodrigue said, “we’ll hire the one that’s fluent in Spanish.”

  • Robert Downs

    Robert Downs (robertdownsfreelance@gmail.com) is a freelance reporter and photographer who works in both radio and print. His work has appeared in Global Post, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, Detroit Free Press, and several others.


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