When two weeks ago, The New York Times closed its Spanish operation, journalists and readers alike tweeted their outrage. The New York Times en Español did not prove financially successful, said the paper, hence it had to be closed. With a small newsroom in Mexico City entering a market full of established Spanish-speaking papers, the NYT en Español could hardly complete its task in three years. But, with The Gray Lady pursuing a subscription model, an ad-based paper for Spanish speakers stopped making sense. It seems as if the Times didn’t really know why they wanted to exist in Spanish.
The New York Times en Español started operations in 2016, translating 10 to 15 Times articles a day into Spanish and publishing some original reporting. A few years later, the paper had launched its Chinese site, and in 2015 it started releasing some pieces in Spanish. At the time, and from a brand perspective, the strategy was clear. The New York Times wanted to expand its international presence and, after English, Chinese and Spanish were the most relevant languages in the world.
But the Times forgot two things. On the one hand, NYT’s en Español entered a new market for the paper—the already crowded Spanish-language media market. The site had to differentiate itself from the available outlets, have unique content, and find a target audience. The NYT en Español was designed for readers interested in the work of the paper but could not access its content because of a language barrier. This strategy, however, posed a problem. In general, foreign Times’ readers come from educated backgrounds and can read in English. They are the cultural elites. They travel, read national papers, and some even speak languages. This audience could already read the English version of the Times. In Spanish, they would read local papers—El Tiempo in Colombia, La Nación in Argentina o Reforma in Mexico—and, maybe, the Spanish newspaper El País. The Times had to compete—or collaborate, as they did with Grupo Reforma—with all of them. The question remains—is there an audience for NYT in Español? If so, who are they?
On the other hand, the Spanish-speaking audience differs from the Anglo-Saxon one in terms of consumption and payments. A few numbers from the Reuters Digital News Report 2019: in Chile, only 7% of Internet users pay for news, in Argentina, 8%, in Spain, 10%, and, in Mexico, 16% (read The news subscription model has reached Spain.) Compared with other countries like Norway, where 34% of Internet users pay for news or the United States, where 16% of readers are paying customers, Spanish-speaking countries do not fare well in terms of paying for news (but let’s keep in mind that in many European countries the percentages are also very low as free online information abounds.) Plus, in Spanish, there are countless quality papers online for free, like El País, so there’s no immediate reason for someone to pay a subscription. The Times understood this and left its Spanish content outside of the paywall. The paper’s goal was to reach people, increase brand awareness, and strengthen its international presence—not to immediately make money,—so the strategy made sense.
On a side note, if the goal was to make money, maybe the paper should have increased its mobile ads. As Pew Research says, Hispanics consume much more content through smartphones, over-indexing in mobile usage.
During the past three years, the NYT en Español produced original reporting, worked with freelancers from other Spanish-speaking countries, and received support from New York with the new site El Espace, where the paper published content for US Hispanics. But three years are not enough for any paper to create a loyal customer base and enough revenue through ads to prove financially profitable.
If the Times wanted to exist in Spanish to increase its international presence and brand awareness, then the strategy with the NYT en Español worked. A few more people read the Times, there were more Latin American stories in the paper, and readers had easier access to it. With time, the site may have also proved profitable. But it needed something that the Gray Lady has not given it: time.
However, if the paper was looking for immediate revenue, then the strategy was not the best, and the current situation was unavoidable. Subscriptions would not work in the Spanish-speaking market as well as with the English-speaking audience; and for an ad-based model, the paper needed a lot of content and a lot of traffic. This meant more financial investment and, especially, more time to compete with established outlets.
We all know the result—the Times decided it was not worth the paper’s effort and shut down the newsroom. It’s no secret that a newspaper is like any other company with financial goals. What’s surprising, and somewhat sad, is that the NYT seems not to have tried to understand the Spanish-speaking market, its audience, and its possibilities. Their goals for the NYT en Español were not clear (did they want to make money or increase awareness?) and that has proven to be detrimental for the newsroom.
New quality outlets in Spanish will come, look at Radio Ambulante, but they require a lot of time, a target audience, and solid financial investment—things that do not come easily in the news industry. For the moment, let’s read some of the three-year old paper’s best stories.