Ready for a Rumbo?

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.

Compared to Latino immigrants in cities such as Miami or Los Angeles, most immigrants in Texas come from lower-income families, she says, and prefer to get news from Spanish-language radio and television. "I think it's more about a wishful-thinking market," she says, "than it is about the reality of who we are marketing to and what we think we're marketing."

If mainstream newspapers are any indication, however, Spanish-language media is a good bet. The Houston Chronicle started a weekly Spanish-language entertainment magazine this spring, and it distributes an independent weekly, La Voz. A Chronicle representative wouldn't comment on whether the paper plans to expand its Spanish-language coverage.

Other Spanish-language publications recently have been acquired or started by the major dailies in areas such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.

Schumacher conceived the idea for Rumbo in 2001, when he was the editor of The Wall Street Journal Americas, the paper's Latin America edition. Texas seemed like the perfect place to launch the paper, because there were few Spanish-language competitors and he could establish a regional beachhead among several cities.

A lack of funding stalled the plan until Schumacher flew to Madrid and gained financing from Majorie Scardino, a woman from Texarkana who had become CEO of the London-based Pearson Plc, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. "They wanted to do something," he says, "and I showed up knocking on their door."

Schumacher believes Rumbo has the superior editing and all-color format to enable it to compete with the other Spanish-language papers emerging in its circulation areas.

Even so, UT journalism professor Rosental Alves predicts new competitors will threaten Rumbo. "This industry has a tradition of ruthlessness," he says. "There is no survival in this kind of war."

El Día editor Arévalo is a veteran of a different type of media war. As a television reporter in Peru, he revealed plans laid by the Shining Path guerrilla group to carry out terrorist attacks. In retaliation, he says, the group killed his brother.

"What happened with me happened to a mountain of people in Peru," he says. "We had 70,000 deaths."

Arévalo fled to the United States in 1997 and joined El Día in 2002. At the paper's Sharpstown headquarters, only a short drive from the offices of Rumbo, reporters work in cramped cubicles packed into small rooms with cracked linoleum floors.

Their battle with Rumbo has thrown the paper's quality into harsh relief. Instead of bylined stories, many of El Día's articles are written by unnamed typists who summarize articles from other papers.

Gustavo Rangel, a Rumbo reporter who left El Día in 1999 over an editing dispute with the paper's owners, says, "The people who were in charge there…they had a business, but they just didn't know journalism."

Yet even the young Rumbo has faced controversy. A former reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he quit soon after a Rumbo vice president -- an Anglo -- visited the paper from San Antonio and chastised reporters with English profanities such as "fuck" and "shit." "I really resented that," he says.

Defections of qualified reporters can be especially tough for an ambitious Spanish-language paper, because bilingual journalists are hard to find. Schumacher, who was born in Colombia and has worked as a New York Times correspondent in Madrid and Buenos Aires, explains that they need journalists who are fluent in both speaking and writing for publication. "That's a very limited number," he says.

And the frustration extends beyond staffing challenges. Despite the hype, some Rumbo stories hardly rival those in the Chronicle. And for a paper that projects no profits until 2008, there's not much room for error.

Back in the Rumbo newsroom after his clinic interviews, Castillo puts the final touches on his article. It is supposed to cover the impact of the flu vaccine shortage on Hispanic immigrants. But soon after he files the piece, he's embroiled in a prickly conversation with his editor about the story's purpose. He reluctantly returns to his desk for a rewrite, and wraps up the piece two hours past deadline.

The headline on his computer will appear citywide on the full-color cover. It says: "Vaccines, only for people at high risk." The Chronicle reported the same news a week earlier.

Staring at the screen, waiting for the copy editor to sign off on the story, Castillo admits his irritation. He's tired and tense, but still ready to learn. "It will be a better day tomorrow," he says.

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