Sometime last fall - just a few weeks before the mid-term election - News Corp. quietly launched a site called Fox News Latino. But it didn't take long before things got noisy. The launch provoked a great deal of criticism, skepticism, and - in a more than a few cases - astonishment - from news watchers, Latino and non-Latino alike.
"No Way, Güey!", wrote Antonio Ramirez at Change.org, opening his story with this line: "As if consistently twisting the day's news stories for mainstream audiences wasn't enough, in an attempt to profit from their favorite punching bag, Fox launched FNL last week." "Que Que? …how do you say 'no comprendo' in racist," asked Vivir Latino's Maegen "La Mamita Mala" Ortiz, in an article that ran when news of FNL broke earlier in the year. Gawker, almost predictably, weighed in with the most quotable headline: "Fox News Targets Latinos Unaware that Fox News Hates Latinos."
For anyone from the Latino marketing community, none of these comments should have come as a surprise. Whether deserved or not, Fox has not enjoyed a great brand with many Latinos. Blame it on the nightly rants on its cable TV property - the most popular broadcast franchise today - or blame it on how those rants have influenced the conversation about Latinos in politics today. Whatever the cause, in the eyes of many, Fox has some fence mending to do if it wants to do well with Latinos online.
But the rap on FNL goes a bit deeper than that. Critics are questioning News Corp.'s ulterior motive for courting Latinos today. What does Fox News want from Latinos, a group that practically every media company, brand, and politician wants to engage now that the scope of Latino influence - especially in the digital arena - is so well known? Many are pointing to the big elephant in the room. It's the elephant of the GOP.
Here's where I think the conversation could benefit from a big pause. Whatever one might think about FNL, on some level what it wants from Latinos is no different from what any other media company wants: traffic, revenue, and, yes, influence. The big challenge is how one does this in the digital/social age, where the rules of engagement have evolved to give a greater voice to the consumer. With respect to Latinos, Fox is not the first organization to have wrestled with these rules (more on that in a moment). The time may have come for all mainstream media to look at these rules, reflect on them, and embrace them.
Unity of Distribution
A tactical yet important matter is how a digital news organization with different outlets - with different constituencies - distributes its content. For a property like FNL, which covers a wide range of topics that one wouldn't expect to see on the main Fox News site (e.g., Latino sports, entertainment, and health), unity of distribution might seem like a superfluous task. But if Latino-focused articles with a political angle appear on one site and not on the other, you of course run a big risk. Andrea Nill at Wonk Room took FNL to task for doing just that, citing a politically charged Fox News opinion piece on immigration that never made it to the FNL site. In a more controversial incident, FNL was widely criticized - by both Latino liberals and conservatives - for a story that featured the use of an ethnic slur in its headline. Instead of explaining or apologizing for the story, FNL simply pulled it. In an age where everything is searchable and sharable, it makes little sense to compartmentalize, silo, or hide content that might be damaging. People will notice, and it will harm your brand.
Unity of Content
But this forces a bigger discussion about the content itself, an even greater challenge for today's multi-channel, multi-constituent media company. The trouble starts when one side of the house takes a position that offends a group that another part of the house is trying to embrace. That's the charge being leveled at News Corp., which has some of its cable hosts speaking out of tune with the new FNL. Fox has signaled that a change might come soon - Rupert Murdoch, the chief of News Corp., has spoken up, noting that his views differ from those of his cable hosts, and that he is "totally pro-immigrant." But as I said earlier, Fox is not the first to face this dilemma. CNN, the news organization behind Latino in America, was also home to cable host Lou Dobbs (who is now, uh-huh, at Fox). Throughout his run at CNN, Dobbs drew at least as much fire from Latinos as anyone on the Fox cable lineup today, and it was a challenge to CNN's brand. With two case studies now in public view, any news organization can learn from these experiences.
Quality of Engagement
Latino blogger/entrepreneur Lance Rios recently found himself in the middle of a heated debate after reaching a distribution deal with FNL. On Rios's side were a number of bloggers who saw the deal as genuine recognition for the emerging power of Latino bloggers. On the other side were Latino influencers who couldn't understand why Rios would do business with Fox.
Rios was a star before the Fox deal (the Being Latino blog was already a big hit). But from my perspective - and this is coming from someone far more comfortable watching PBS than Fox - this is a great deal for Rios, Fox, and the general Latino blogger community, because it opens a channel of direct communication. An open channel of communication might help Fox get that distribution and content thing right. Yes, it might help Fox get a lot of things right, even if the cost for Fox is to move a little to the left. But whether it's Fox, CNN, or some other media powerhouse, the rules of engagement will force a conversation that ultimately should be good for Latinos. Let's see which organization gets it right first.
In the meantime, you gotta give Fox credit for trying - if you are a mainstream news company, engaging bloggers is a good idea, whatever your business or political agenda. And Fox is putting serious resources into the FNL initiative, deploying a dedicated crew to cover a wide range of stories across a broad geography. As Julio Varela, a writer and blogger for Being Latino, told me in a phone interview, FNL has already emerged as a top source for Latin American news. It's helped him to overcome his initial skepticism with the entire FNL operation. "If you had told me that someday I would be getting my news from Fox and even contributing to Fox, I would have thought you were crazy," he said.
Hearing that, I was reminded of the old Woody Allen saying: "Eighty percent of success is showing up." As Being Latino's Lance Rios observed, no other mainstream company has yet to make such a serious attempt to engage U.S. Latinos online. The big elephant in the room perhaps is not an elephant at all, but the surprising absence of a donkey. But thanks to Fox, that might change, too.
The author emphasizes that the opinions in this article are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer or any organizations with whom he has a relationship.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
March 19, 2014