Ready for a Rumbo?

News wars return as two Spanish papers go mano a mano

Renato Castillo knows how to get the story fast. He marches into a southwest Houston health clinic, flashes a press card and quickly interviews patients in the dingy waiting room. Little girls wail and a pregnant teenager with twig legs rubs her boyfriend's tattooed neck. By the time a health worker tries to corral Castillo, he's already poised to step out the door.

"The mission here is accomplished, even though they kicked me out," says the journalist. At 35, he has developed a knack for uncovering the violent and tenuous side of life in the barrio. A former crime reporter for the local Spanish-language daily El Día, he climbs into his compact pickup and heads back to the office.

Castillo is one of seven scrappy young writers who form the backbone of Rumbo, an upstart daily that began competing for Houston's Spanish-speaking readers in late August. Like Houston's other Spanish-language papers, Rumbo aims to inform and entertain a diverse population of Latino immigrants. But Rumbo's realm is also global: Backed by the clout of the powerful London-based publisher of the Financial Times, it is part of a $16.5 million bid to dominate Spanish-language media in Texas.

"We're taking Spanish-language journalism to a new level," says Rumbo founder Edward Schumacher Matos, a former editor for The Wall Street Journal. He also has opened Rumbo papers in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley and will soon launch a fourth in Austin. "Our quality of journalism is equal to the English papers, including the Chronicle."

Such tall talk is quickly thrusting Rumbo into an accent-flecked war of words unequaled in Texas since the early 20th century, when the editors of large Spanish dailies such as La Prensa in San Antonio entertained regional and international ambitions. El Día, Rumbo's main Houston rival, is bristling.

"There's a very big difference between them and us," El Día editor Pedro Arévalo says in Spanish. "…Rumbo wants to be the USA Today in Spanish. So they have a ton of dough. But this isn't all it takes to create a business."

The 56-page, family-owned El Día has developed a loyal following. Founded in 1996, Houston's first Spanish-language daily offers longer stories, more celebrity coverage, more comic strips and several locally penned columns such as the "Love Doctor."

Rumbo, in contrast, is billed by its founders as the first major full-color daily newspaper in the nation. Its shorter articles appeal to impatient readers. Yet syndicated columns from luminaries such as poet Mario Vargas Llosa and content from The Wall Street Journal also draw an educated crowd.

El Día and Rumbo both cost a quarter. Arévalo says that, of the approximately one million Hispanics in the area, 11 percent read primarily in Spanish, and most look at El Día once a week.

The stiff competition for those readers is already taking a toll on El Día.

Two of the paper's reporters have defected to Rumbo, where salaries, according to a former reporter, start at $35,000 -- on par with those at the Houston Chronicle. An ex-El Día employee pegs that at about $15,000 more than typical salaries at El Día.

Rumbo's higher pay has attracted skilled journalists such as a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the paper's editor, Carlos Puig, recently a fellow at Harvard University.

The ambitions of Rumbo's founders appealed to Castillo. "They were willing to do stories and journalism that I wanted to do at this point," he says. "…You change and you grow up. And that's really important for us. We believe so much in this project."

Rumbo's importance should be clear to anyone who mourned the collapse of The Houston Post almost a decade ago. While most daily news junkies are stuck with the complacent Chronicle, patrons of bus stops, taquerias and carnicerias are suddenly being entertained with competing headlines and plenty of spicy, dueling coverage.

Puig points out a headline in that day's Chronicle about the distribution of hate music in schools. "We published [that story] as a full page two weeks ago," he says. "We interviewed the people from Minnesota, and the Chronicle interviewed the same guys."

Yet Arévalo claims El Día outcompetes Rumbo. He mentions an article he published two days earlier about a Houston man who was killed near Acapulco. "It was good, in depth, detailed," he says with relish, "and they put it in yesterday."

Despite the tiffs, neither editor is willing to admit he thinks much about the other.

"Rumbo doesn't preoccupy us," Arévalo says, "because we have a good group of professionals and we know what we're doing."

Puig reads El Día every three or four days, he says, and contends the paper isn't a threat. Unlike its Spanish competitor, Rumbo will lure assimilated Hispanics away from reading the Chronicle in English. "For us, those are very important readers."

Yet some media observers say Puig's target readership is unreliable. University of Texas journalism professor Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, an expert on Latino issues, thinks projections for an emerging class of Spanish-speaking newspaper readers in Texas are overblown.

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