Latino media mogul seeks balance, independence

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The Hispanic atmosphere is perceived from far away. Right across Mercado Central, surrounded by the construction machines working on Lake Street, on the second floor of the Plaza Verde building, Alberto Monserrate works in his office. Traditional Mexican music, wall posters, and the latest issues of Vida y Sabor create a special environment.

“I am learning all I can about Mexican music, I have immersed myself in it and now I can say I almost like it” says Monserrate, 39, CEO of Latino Communications Network (LCN) Media, a company offering media and marketing services in some of the most popular independent Latin publications in the Twin Cities.

And with the Latin community gaining a stronger political force both at national and state levels, Moserrate is finding himself and his company in the center of a storm. “I like to represent a great variety of points of views. When I get accusations of being communist and fascist over the same article, then I know I’ve reached my goal. We have been questioned about our lack of consistency, I basically call that independence,” says Monserrate.

Learning to fight crimeMonserrate came to the States in 1984. Crime was the main reason for him to leave Puerto Rico and accept an invitation from his aunt to settle in Minnesota. “There were a lot of gangs in the neighborhood where I lived. I heard gun shots every night, one could not feel safe on the streets anymore. Some of my friends died as crime victims. I could not take it anymore, I needed a quiet place,” he explains.

“I thought that my coming here was temporary, but I found a more comfortable way of life, and a place where I could develop myself in better ways,” he says. He eventually graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in sociology. Not surprisingly, his minor was Criminology.

Originally, his plans included three years of law school, but the difficult job search, an internship in Hennepin County, and his ability with numbers made Monserrate question his vocation to become a criminal lawyer. In 1987, Monserrate began studying fnance and took an accounting position as an auditor for the Radisson Hotel at the U of M.

He later worked a year in the State Senate, before landing a position in the Investment Department of American Express. Six years later, he left the company to become a personal investments advisor, a career that lasted only four years before he “got bored” and decided to try something new.

A mind for business
It was 1998, and Monserrate identified a business opportunity. One of his clients was a consultant and told him that some advertisers did not know how to reach the Latino community effectively. They formed a partnership and conducted a market study, which revealed a major growth of the community in Minnesota. At the same time, 40 percent of Monserrate’s costumers were Latino, mostly “Mexicans with a low level of formal education that had succeeded with a restaurant or store and did not know what to do with their money,” he recalls.

Wanting to use his knowledge to help the community, Monserrate became part of LCN with the idea of “bringing the best media under one house, one business.” This way, there would be a sharing of costs, which would result in increased quality of the publications. “I wanted to do it, but I wanted to do it the right way,” he says.

Unfortunately, things changed. The investor was a victim of the dot-com bust, and the partner withdrew from the business when it became more risky. Without a partner or an investor, Monserrate decided to invest his own money and to ask his acquaintances to invest as well. He needed a lot of capital to make a difference from the already existent Latino media. Things got tough, “I invested all my savings, I had reached the limit on my credit card and I did not have a salary,” he says.

His personal life was not any better. “If you work 100 hours a week, you do not see your wife or kids, you do not have a salary, and you are about to go on bankruptcy,” he recalls. “Well, it is not the best ambiance for a marriage to work.” He and his wife divorced. “But we are still good friends, and we share the kids—12 years old Carlos and an eight year old Alycia,” he adds.

Monserrate was forced to fire all of his employees. Rose Lindsay was the only one who chose to stay. Working unpaid, she became Monserrate’s chief assistant. In return, she got to produce Vida y Sabor, a Spanish Alternative weekly publication. She was also awarded with a sharing of the business, becoming a partner.

“I spent 80 percent of my time begging investors to choose LCN,” recalls Monserrate. His enterprise was considered too risky; no one wanted to invest on it. After a year and a half, and when he was about to declare himself in bankruptcy, Monserrate convinced Milestone Growth Fund Inc. to invest. To accomplish that, he had to talk to Juan Carlos Alanis, the owner of a weekly Spanish-language newspaper called Gente de Minnesota. He first recovered the 40 percent share of Vida y Sabor that he had given to Alanis, and then had to make a greater effort to convince Alanis to sell him the newspaper. But the trouble was worth it. LCN became a stronger corporation; ithas been profitable since 2002.

For all of this, Monserrate thanks his mentor, John Erickson, who he says “knows a lot about business and advised me on those hard times.” Erickson currently works as a consultant for LCN.

At this point, LCN owned three publications: Vida y Sabor, Gente de Minnesota and an annual Minnesota-Iowa Hispanic Yellow Pages Directory, “our product with less sales but more profit,” says Monserrate. The employees worked for all the media, so there was more money to bring professionals into the business. LCN hired two experienced journalists and editors: Rafael Varela from Uruguay and Marcos Fernandez from Guatemala. They brought original content, local coverage, and commentary into the publications, which formerly were composed of articles from Latin American newspapers and news agencies.

A changing market
“All the profit has been invested in improving the quality of the publications or on growing more as a company,” says Monserrate. None of the eight owners has taken any profit from the business other than their salaries. It is hard to cover the expenses, which will reach $2 million dollars this year, but they still seem to be doing well. Monserrate travels six to eight weeks every year. At first he would mostly visit his mom in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He would try to go there at least once a year. Lately, he has been trying to get to know more of Latin America. He backpacks, “because that is the way I like to travel,” he says.

The publications are distributed for free, which Monserrate sees as appropriate for today’s trends for Spanish publications in the U.S. He thinks that eventually all the newspapers will have to go in the same direction and says he is glad “LCN is small enough to adapt to this changing world.” He still thinks that printed media can have a good reception on the young public “if it is free, weekly rather than daily, and includes content they care about.” As an example, he cites City Pages, cherished by most college students. That was the pattern LCN kept in mind when they designed Vida y Sabor.

At the same time, Monserrate says he is convinced “that the content is the most important.” For this reason, he tries to have a good team of journalists and editors working for him. “We need people that can produce content; who cares where that content goes?” He knows technologies change fast, and he sees the future mostly on the Internet. As for content, he thinks that local news is the most important, “Latins in the U.S. are very interested in what’s going on in their countries, but they are much more interested in what is happening on their block.”

LCN generates revenue from advertisers and events. In Monserrate’s opinion, it is harder to sell advertising nowadays. “There has to be audience studies and lots of events, which constitute about 60 percent of their profit,” he says.

Monserrate confesses that his interests are on the business. “There is nothing without money,” he says. At the same time, he points out he used to make more money as an investments advisor, but he still wanted to change because “it is also about what we do, about having an impact,” he adds.

But it’s getting more competitive. “The market has changed. It used to be that any advertised Latin event would sell out; but now there is more competition and a more sophisticated audience, which requires us to double our efforts to reach people.” Immigrants used to come to Minnesota mostly from the Mexican countryside or small towns, but now they come from Mexico DF, or from other big cities in the U.S, as Los Angeles, Chicago, or Texas, where both the media and the advertising are more complex and refined. At the same time, there are a lot of Latin TV networks, which makes competition even harder. Advertisements have to be well done in order to be effective.

To deal with this, Monserrate has hired a lot of technicians. Particularly when working for medium- or small-sized customers, LCN is forced to work as an advertising agency. “We do it well, but it is not our specialty. It is just that there are not many advertising agencies specialized in this market, or they are too expensive and only the big customers can pay for them,” he explains.

Growing fast
In January, LCN bought La Prensa de Minnesota from Mario Duarte. The acquisition, along with the earlier purchase of the Spanish-language radio station La Invasora (AM 1400), expanded the company to include five properties. The La Prensa acquisition, Monserrate says, helped both LCN and Duarte, who “was finding it very hard to work independently and liked the idea of joining LCN.” The agreement included hiring Duarte and his daughter, Lorena, an associate editor. As part of the team, Duarte got a chance to work on public relations, the part he liked the most.

“It works well when it is all together,” says Monserrate. None of the media would work as well independently; but since everyone in LCN works for all the media, expenses are shared. Besides, all media are used to advertise events; they complement each other, resulting in a higher quality and larger distribution.

Monserrate knows that gathering the most popular media under one business makes it easier for advertisers to decide where to go. But despite his success, he remains humble. “I tell our sellers to treat your clients as if they could go anywhere else, because that could happen anytime, especially nowadays with all the technology changes that are occurring,” he says. He does not see his company as a monopoly, the attitude that he fears the most. He is aware of the other small publications in the Twin Cities, and he also knows that there are Spanish radios that have been here for a long time before La Invasora was created. “I read the Star Tribune on my Palm every night, because if something happens I have to react immediately on the next morning,” he says.

“This is the first time that LCN has a media with the potential to reach everybody,” says Monserrate when asked about La Prensa. For this, the publication experienced some changes. “We did not want to have two newspapers, so we changed its look. Now it’s more like a weekly magazine, and all articles are in both Spanish and English” he explains. The target audience includes bilingual immigrants from both Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, as well as people from the U.S. LCN is working to better reach the American audience by improving its distribution, starting in Uptown.

Monserrate wants to work on this for as long as he cans; retirement is not in his plans. “I was not born to play golf or sunbathe,” he says. In the future, LCN plans to continue growing. “Minnesota is a start; we are also considering states as Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Iowa, all with small but fast-growing Latin communities.” They want to continue growing while they can. “I like challenges, and I get bored when I am not challenged; but I also have to be realistic. As we grow, it will be harder to be independent, and we should keep that in mind.” Adapting to change is the key to this process.

Finding a place that makes sense
Broadening the audience becomes especially relevant at these times, when the relationship between the Latin community and the U.S. government has been in the headlines. With all the controversy around the immigration laws, the marches, boycotts, and other protests, Americans are now interested in what the Latin Community has to say. “We have a lot of people entering the Web site of Gente through Google Translation,” says Monserrate.

Twenty-nine of the 30 LCN employees are Latin Americans. “Being Latins, we can talk about immigration or education from a Latin point of view, and I can see our readers are becoming interested on that; no one here in Minnesota used to pay attention to Latins in a serious way,” explains Monserrate. This could be challenging for a Latin media, forcing it to make statements on every action taken by members of the Latin community.

LCN media remained neutral in regard to the recent Latin boycott. They were concerned about the effect it could have on Latin businesses, and afraid that the rally could be perceived negatively by the nonimmigrant community. “For me, the bottom line is that the Congress should increase legal immigrations, and if there is anything that distracts from that, I am not interested,” says Monserrate. “We are focused and disciplined about this pro-immigrant movement. We closed our offices that day, and told our advertisers that they could broadcast or print an advertisement that day but, as marketing consultants, we would advice them not to do so because it could be perceived negatively. We functioned commercial-free that day, but at least 10 people of our team showed up as volunteers to go to the streets and report from their cell phones about what was going on,” he adds.

They did not give free advertisement for the boycott—although they did that for the march on April 9—but they let the community express their feelings on the radio station. “This was a way to serve our listeners but maintain our position at the same time,” says Monserrate.

Times are changing; the Latin community has increased its political power. “Now candidates realize that they cannot win without Latin support. Two million people marched against the immigration laws, and that is hard to ignore,” says Monserrate. He explains that 15 of the 43 million Latin immigrants in the U.S. can now vote in elections. From those, 7 millions voted in the last election. Monserrate says young people should be encouraged to raise their voice.

Being objective is one of Monserrate’s greatest concerns. “I do not like to follow anybody else’s line of thought; I like being seen as independent and try to reflect it on our newspaper. I think this gives us more credibility, it is more honest. Our editorial position is strong but fair. To read a newspaper that is all left or right is the most boring thing in the world. We are not right or left, we have endorsed Republican, Democrat, and Green candidates. The editorial line is pro-immigrant and with an emphasis on education,” he says.

Education is, in Monserrate’s opinion, the greater concern immigrants have. “Here in Minneapolis, 60 percent of immigrants do not finish high school, and the average child from an immigrant family is two years behind on reading and math,” he says. Monserrate thinks the efforts should be focused on changing this by gaining more representation in the state legislature and in Congress and making the appropriate alliances with other minority groups when required.

“I always wanted to be a journalist but never had the time for it. I am too practical; I am good with numbers and business,” he says. He wrote a column for a while, and now writes often on the Internet. “Sometimes I am called a journalist, but I do not consider myself a journalist; that would be too arrogant, I have never taken a journalism class. I consider myself a business man that has strong opinions and likes to writes about them,” he says.

One for you, one for me and one for all
“We work for an audience that is 70 percent Mexican working class. But we live off the Mexican community, and I respect that a lot,” says Monserrate. The Latin Americans that work on LCN are highly educated. Some of them are Mexican and help the others learn about the audience for which they produce their work. “We have to leave our elitism on a side and see the world from their perspective. I have tried to learn about them as much as I can, to give them something their like,” he explains.

It is especially relevant with the radio. “My personal interests in music and culture overall are probably not the same as theirs. The problem of Mexican regional music is that it is very popular within the Mexican working class, but there is no crossover. Professional class Mexicans do not like it, nor do the rest of the Latin Americans or North Americans,” says Monserrate. But they are trying to vary, introducing rock, reggaeton, hip hop and tecno on weekend evenings and nights, as well as some salsa and bachata during the day. This targets a different audience, the other 30 percent of immigrants, and maybe some North Americans as well. “In the future, if we have a second radio station, we can divide music styles more appropriately,” says Monserrate.

“It is very important to know well your audience; one has to let personal preferences on a side,” he says, adding that there is a class problem in the Latin marches. “The immigrant movement is working class, but the leaders are scholars. This is not the sixties; a lot of people go to the marches because Mexican radio stations that have already connected with them and have credibility make them go. When their favorite singers—Cui Cui, Piolin and El Pistolero—tell them to march, they will go and march, they will not listen to some leader they do not know,” says Monserrate.

“My aim used to be to reach most of the Mexicans, but now I want to reach all the Latins, and with La Prensa I know I can. For the first time I have a product that I could also consume. It works well as a part of a whole, but if I only had La Prensa, I would starve.” The new challenge is to reach the Latin immigrant that lives in the suburbs and has no contact with the community. In order to achieve that, LCN is working on partnerships with Wal-Mart, Target, and Blockbuster, as well as free distribution mailing lists—something they already do with Gente de Minnesota, in association with the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Although they have more than 300 distribution places, the hot spot is Mercado Central. “I can never put enough issues there. I put some and they take them all, I put more, and they also take them. Especially with Vida y sabor, sometimes they are standing there, waiting for it to come,” says Monserrate.

After leaving his office, I cross the street and go to Mercado Central. In effect, there are a lot of publications there, but I cannot find one issue of any of the LCN products. This is surprising because it is Monday, distribution day. I ask in a store and, translating from Spanish, I am too late, “it’s all gone.”