Can Mexico City’s ‘Excelsior’ Survive?

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When managers of the Mexico City daily Excelsior suspended more than 60 employees without pay for 180 days last July, the workers reacted with a traditional Mexican tactic: They constructed a tentlike planton permanente in front of the paper, and plastered caricatures of directors and appeals to passersby on its gleaming offices at the “Corner of Information” along elegant Reforma Boulevard.

Excelsior is a cooperative of the employees, and we, the cooperativistas, are the owners — but [directors] have hid everything from us,” one suspended employee, Sports Editor Mauro Flores Ledezma, said in an early-December interview at the planton. “We don’t know what the financial situation is. We don’t know what assets have been taken away. We demand transparency.”

The pressure eventually worked: In November, General Director Patricia Guevara, who had suspended the employees, was herself suspended by the paper for “incompetence.” Two weeks ago, the new general director, Armando Sepulveda, convened a heavily attended meeting of the cooperative — but said he would not discuss the paper’s financial situation until another meeting, scheduled for last Saturday. The day after Christmas, the suspensions were ended, and employees dismantled the planton.

Almost all of the estimated 30 newspapers in Mexico’s capital have been struggling since a cozy system of self-censorship in exchange for generous government subsidies began to fall apart in the 1990s.

But no paper was more rocked by this change than Excelsior, which styles itself as the “Newspaper of National Life.” Once Mexico’s most prestigious paper, it became a mouthpiece for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 25 years ago in a management coup orchestrated by then-President Luis Echeverria that deposed respected Editor Julio Scherer and 200 other employees. Even as other dailies slowly began introducing more balanced news coverage, Excelsior remained staunchly pro-PRI until Vicente Fox’s July 2000 presidential election victory ended 71 years of one-party rule that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously described as the “perfect dictatorship.”

In a counter-coup three months after the election, cooperative members led by Guevara removed the directors installed in 1976. Among other things, the new directors discovered the paper was under investigation for failing to pay taxes since 1994.

The new era at Excelsior quickly soured. Its advertising is obviously down from previous years, and its circulation — which, as at most Mexican papers, is a closely guarded secret — was falling at a rate of “only” 5,000 copies a month, less than the 12,000 lost monthly in 2000, Sepulveda told the magazine Proceso in July.

Rumors of a sale swirl around Excelsior, with the possible buyers including the Spanish telephone company Avantel and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Sepulveda has insisted stoutly that the paper is not for sale. Talking in the now-dismantled planton, Sports Editor Flores was inclined to agree: “It’s impossible to sell it now with all the confusion. For one thing, no one knows how much has been robbed.”

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