Letter from El Salvador: Lafitte Fernandez in Transition

Lafitte Fernandez is regarded as one of the top journalists in Central America.

by Rick Rockwell

Change is underway in the Salvadoran media system on many levels, but this brief note is about one significant transition that needs recording.  Although this author only really has half the story, it’s an important half to tell, as it comes from one of the most respected journalists in Central America.

Lafitte Fernandez is the man who remade the newspaper El Diario de Hoy, and with that change he inspired further transformation of this country’s media system.  Well, this month, Fernandez finally left El Diario de Hoy.  And that departure marks the end of an important chapter in the country’s media history.  Although it was Fernandez’ decision to leave the paper he had reshaped, it was not on the best of terms, by his own admission.

And that’s the side of the story that’s missing here.  Although requests were made to speak to the Altamirano family, the owners of the newspaper, those requests never  were acknowledged.  So before reading onward, decide if that missing piece makes this note too one-sided.

To start somewhere near the beginning, the Altamirano family brought in Fernandez from Costa Rica in the post-war years of the 1990s to redesign their paper; they were starting to lose ground to the other major national paper La Prensa Grafica in the battle for circulation dominance.  Fernandez, who is now a dual citizen of both El Salvador and Costa Rica, went about changing everything about El Diario de Hoy from the paper’s graphics to the culture and ethics of the publication.  His story frames the chapter about El Salvador in this author’s book about the media system in Central America.

What Fernandez imported to El Salvador was a new consciousness about newspaper journalism that was more a mix of the models found in Costa Rica and the United States.  He changed El Diario de Hoy from a right-wing propaganda sheet to a respected newspaper that still had its conservative voice but carried objective news stories and investigations that rocked the Salvadoran establishment.  For years, the Altamiranos were criticized and pressured for bringing “a Communist” (the description of various other Salvadoran journalists and Salvadoran academics of what Fernandez was called) into their newspaper. But the Altamiranos understood that Fernandez and his style of journalism sold newspapers and soon El Diario de Hoy was leading the way in the Salvadoran system like it had never done previously.

Arguably, those changes that Fernandez wrought set the stage for the next generation of change that is underway today with the online publication El Faro setting the tempo as the chic publication that everyone wants to copy, not just in El Salvador but elsewhere on the isthmus and beyond.

Well, eventually Fernandez wore out his welcome.  Currently, he’s taken up a new consulting job with La Prensa Grafica.  (This is somewhat like the top editor from The Wall Street Journal jumping to The New York Times.) He wants to write more books.  (His book, “Crimen de Estado (State Crime),” is well-respected in journalism circles.)   He has various multimedia projects in the works for unveiling later and he wants to improve the television program he already helps produce about Salvadoran politics on cable television.

One might think that Enrique Altamirano, the ultra-conservative owner of El Diario de Hoy had finally had enough of Fernandez, but Fernandez says that was not the case.  Fernandez says the eldest Altamirano welcomed the creative friction that Fernandez introduced to the paper’s editorial process.  Under the old system during the war years, Enrique Altamirano would dictate a political and editorial decision and the paper’s editors would nod in agreement and fall in line.  Fernandez not only bucked Enrique Altamirano, but he won most of the editorial battles.  Fernandez recounted this in an interview with El Faro, where he attempted to deconstruct the myths of Enrique Altamirano’s control.

But over the years such interviews were apparently like grains of sand in the shoes of Fabricio Altamirano, Enrique’s son who is in the position of day-to-day publisher of El Diario de Hoy.  (The elder Altamirano mainly writes a column and weighs in on major editorial discussions when he feels the need.)  And because Fernandez became a leading journalistic voice in the country, those grains of sand multiplied quickly.  “Fabricio was jealous,” Fernandez says.  “When politicians or the president wanted to talk to someone at El Diario de Hoy, they called me, they didn’t call him.”  Fernandez’ name and face had become the image of the paper, not the image of Fabricio Altamirano.  In the end, Fernandez’ fame and his credits for changing El Diario de Hoy and catalyzing further change in El Salvador’s media system came with an internal political price at the newspaper.  His working relationship with Fabricio Altamirano in tatters, a relationship that had run its course during more than 14 years, Fernandez has set sail for new journalistic destinations.

And that is a major change that truly ends an era for Salvadoran newspapers.

(For more on this series of posts from Latin America, please see:  “Letter from Honduras:  The Villatoro Case.”)

(The photo of Lafitte Fernandez is from his Facebook page and is used here following fair use and fair comment guidelines.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
This entry was posted in "El Diario de Hoy", "El Faro", "La Prensa Grafica", El Salvador, Journalism, Newspapers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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