El Heraldo, El Mexicano, El Sol de Tijuana El Cambio

Shaking the trees in Tijuana

— There's a new paper coming to town. Not to San Diego, Tijuana. And Tijuana already has four regular dailies. Four times what its rich sister-city to the north can boast.

As newspaper editors south of the border brace themselves for a major launch -- a daily with big-money backing that sources say will be called El Fronterizo or La Frontera -- observers are taking stock of the shock wave this will generate in Tijuana's newspaper industry.

The difference with this paper is that it comes from a Sonora publishing dynasty known for something strange in the traditional Mexican newspaper world: independence.

"It will be an enormous step forward for Mexican journalism in the Tijuana area," says Chappell Lawson, an assistant professor of political science at MIT and visiting scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UCSD. He says this is Tijuana belatedly joining a trend toward independent newspapers such as have been springing up all over the rest of Mexico. "El Financiero, La Jornada, La Reforma (in Mexico City), El Norte (in Monterrey), new papers in Guadalajara..."

An "enormous step" forward because, he says, the present array of dailies is mostly wedded to the old "officialist" way of doing business. In a country that has been a one-party state for most of the century, the press has become little more than a government mouthpiece.

Take the four main papers published daily in Tijuana.

El Heraldo, the oldest paper in Baja California, founded in 1941, sticks closely to PRI opinions and values. And it's owned by Agua Caliente racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon, who bought the paper after the murder of Zeta co-editor and columnist Héctor "Gato" Félix Miranda. Hank has always been a strong supporter of the country's 70-year ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The paper's present director, Francisco Ramírez Guerrero, claims a circulation of 22,000.

El Mexicano, the largest-selling paper in Tijuana, has as its general director Eligio Valencia Roque, who also happens to be head of Baja's branch of the Mexican Workers' Confederation (CTM), a PRI creation. Its staff of ten reporters holds to the PRI line -- though the editorial pages have opened up to other points of view -- especially as PAN (the more business-oriented National Action Party) has come into power in Tijuana and the state. They're doing something right: El Mexicano claims a circulation of 50,000 statewide, with 35,000 selling in Tijuana and the rest in Mexicali, Tecate, and Ensenada. But most agree it is El Mexicano's lock on Tijuana classifieds that gives it much of its selling power and income.

El Sol de Tijuana (The Sun of Tijuana), in town eight years, is part of a chain owned by furniture-store millionaire Mario Vásquez Raña. Raña, known for his views that newspapers should be run like furniture stores -- to make money -- has built up a chain of politically innocuous "Suns" under the umbrella of OEM, (Organisación Editorial Mexicana). So far, the formula works. According to a local United States Information Service report, it is the "largest and strongest organization of newspapers in Latin America." General director Arturo González claims a circulation of 13,000.

The owner of Playboy's Mexican edition, Francisco Javier Sánchez Campuzano, also owns El Cambio, the town's youngest daily, with a claimed regional circulation of 25,000, 8000 in Tijuana. The paper had beginnings as an idealist reaction to the traditionalist papers that dominate the town. A bunch of El Mexicano journalists set up a cooperative, got the paper running, then, after four years, ran out of money. A group of businessmen who called themselves Grupo 7 bought them out and turned the paper back to mainstream acceptability. General director is Victor Manuel Hernández López.

The four papers' combined claimed circulation sits at around 80,000 daily papers sold in Tijuana, a city of 1.25 to 1.5 million. But sources close to the street newspaper sellers say El Mexicano sells perhaps 12,000 on weekdays, El Heraldo 1000, and El Cambio 400.

"Circulations of virtually all Mexican newspapers are traditionally wildly exaggerated," says Lawson. But it's the editorial side of Mexican papers that worries him. He says they have too many habits left over from the days when PRI patronage and control involved everything from silencing reporters to maintaining a monopoly on the supply of newsprint.

But most often, government officials would resort to forms of bribery to ensure that the papers portrayed them favorably. First, says Lawson, who studies Mexican media, there's the gacetillas, "little announcements." "The typical gacetilla is disguised. It is [a report] written by some government ministry, by a political operator, and then inserted into the newspaper as if it were a legitimate article. For a fee. If the journalist puts his byline to the story, the fee is higher. They will also pay for 'news' photos of officials. Most of the newspapers in Mexico have traditionally counted on that for the majority of their revenues. At the national level, for a long time, the gacetilla was one of the main vehicles for corrupting the news media. It still goes on."

For journalists, says Lawson, one source of income was the fee they got for helping government departments place public- service ads in their paper. "Another source of income [we studied] was the chayote, also called embute. These were monthly payments to journalists made directly by the sources that they were supposed to cover. In general the commissions from the advertisements and the chayotes substantially exceeded their regular salary. The journalists who were most cooperative and the ones who represented the most prominent newspapers received more money. It could vary between $75 and $1500 a month. But normally it would total a few hundred dollars. The same as the average reporter's salary."

Lawson is drawing his figures from "the bad old days" of the early '90s. "If you traveled on presidential campaigns, you would get even more chayote," he says. "Those gifts were expected to generate extremely positive coverage. The typical cost [to the government] of a gacetilla was about $2000 for a quarter page [story] in the political section of a medium-sized capital city newspaper. A front-page spot might be four times that much: $8000."

What finally crimped the custom was not a rush of morality, but President Salinas's selling off many government industries to private companies and the crash of the peso. "The government was bankrupt, so it couldn't spend so extravagantly," says Lawson. "But the practice persisted. Just at a lower volume."

Tijuana's chayote rates may have been lower than Mexico City, Lawson says, but not much: in Guadalajara the rates were roughly comparable with the capital's.

And then there was the PAN effect. "Traditionally, PAN engages much less in this sort of activity. And for that reason they've had quite negative press coverage from a print media [deprived of its unofficial payments]."

This by no means meant all journalists in Tijuana were on the take. But Dora Elena Cortés, Tijuana correspondent of Mexico City-based El Universal, says papers force their journalists into compromising their principles because they pay them so little. "The newspapers are literally sending them out to find money in some other ways. In my case, in order to maintain [my independence in] what I do and how I do it, I always have three jobs, all related to journalism. You have to keep looking for work to make ends meet. Personally, the media still does not put a real value to the job of a reporter. And then they kind of force the reporters to do what they do."

Daniel Hallin, who teaches a course in Latin American media at UCSD, says the end result of accepting government payments and government control is "passive journalism."

"The photojournalism in El Mexicano is very much focused on official images, as their journalism in general is," says the communications professor. "Photographs of everyday life and ordinary people that dominate [U.S.] photojournalism are a lot less prominent. They have pictures of...officials at meetings. Traditionally that's what Mexican journalism has been for and about: officials. Other kinds of social elites too, but especially officials."

But especially in Tijuana, says Hallin, rebel papers keep popping up. "Tijuana has always been diverse. Some are officially oriented, very close to the ruling party, not very independent, and then there are other newspapers in Tijuana that are much bolder and have been part of the process of change -- and that means, above all Zeta, the weekly.

"You've got to remember: Newspapers in Mexico have tiny circulations. They have very few readers. In a certain way they're not extremely important institutions as far as the mass public is concerned. Most Tijuanans are going to get their news from electronic media. So most of these Tijuana newspapers are very, very marginal enterprises.

"When you look at the content of El Mexicano, you can see that it is a traditional, officially oriented paper. The journalists do not do much gathering of information on their own. They mostly just go to press conferences and generally summarize what the officials have said. And they also do very little analysis or interpretation. It's really very dull. These newspapers have never really tried to build mass readership. So they're quite vulnerable once a more lively independent and also commercially active paper comes into town, one that really wants to build readership."

Which makes the coming months potentially fascinating for Hallin and Lawson and other Tijuana-watchers. It is said that publisher José Santiago Healy Loera has ridden into town with $8 million to invest in a newspaper. He has hired over 200 business and editorial staff and given them a new headquarters on the Vía Rápida Oriente in southeast Tijuana. "We will start with a print run of 20,000," he says on the phone from Hermosillo, "and hope to rise to 40,000."

"That reflects the kind of vacuum [that exists] in Tijuana," says Hallin. "In a certain way it's anomalous that Tijuana should not already have a strong independent daily newspaper. Because Tijuana is one of the more advanced cities in Mexico, socially and politically. The first city where the PRI lost its monopoly. I think this company rightly sees there's room for a competing paper."

Healy, the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant to Mexico, says his journalists will be sufficiently trained and paid enough to assure their independence. "We have more than 60 years in journalism in Sonora [with the respected El Imparcial] and for the last ten years in Baja California [with the Mexicali-based La Crónica]. The family company was founded by my grandfather. We don't belong to any political parties or groups. Our job is journalism and to tell the truth."

He's clearly banking on Tijuana's better-educated, upwardly mobile generation. He says his target reader is "anybody who earns more than three times minimum wage," which in Tijuana is 900 pesos a month ($90). "The lower and upper-middle classes." This city, he says, the fifth-largest market in Mexico, is "incredibly dynamic."

"El Mexicano is either going to have to become more independent or go down," Zeta's editor, Jésus Blancornelas, said recently.

Lawson's biggest fear is what he calls the William Randolph Hearst factor: that news-manipulating media barons will just replace today's news-manipulating government officials

"My difficulty," says Lawson, "will be gauging the extent to which editorial control is separated from ownership within the paper. You always have this problem whenever an owner [such as Healy] is also the editor in chief or is also very heavily involved in the editorial side. That's always a potential source of tension and conflict, exacerbated by the absence of a highly developed culture of professionalism within much of the news media in Mexico. In the United States you would have somebody who would push back against a publisher. That's hard to do in Mexico."

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