Hecho En Mexico: Thrilling Dailies

By: Mark Fitzgerald This column was originally going to be about the subtle charms of the newspapers of Baja California Sur, a deeply partisan press reporting the parallel universe in which its readers live while also serving inane spring breakers and superannuated norteamericanos in the Disneyfied resorts of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose de Cabo.

But perhaps another day there'll be time for reflections on the sophisticated design and political coverage of Tribune de Los Cabos, the wonderfully suck-up society coverage of El Peninsular, in which every wedding story begins, "The enchanting and beautiful (bride's name here) was wed...", the gleefully "red" coverage of the tabloid La Voz de Los Cabos (typical front-page hed: "Dangerous Criminals!"), the fractured English of Daily News Los Cabos, which under its front-page flag had the date "Thrusday [sic] March 31", and the slacker wise-cracking of the tourist-oriented Gringo Gazette.

Thanks to Delta Airlines stranding me and the family in Mexico City for 24 hours, I had the opportunity to show my kids the only glimpse of real Mexico they would get on their Easter break -- and to witness again the continuing transformation of Mexico City's vibrant dailies.

In the waning days of the Ernesto Zedillo presidency, Mexico City's newspapers began losing the government largesse that kept them afloat: the bribes that supplemented journalists' starvation wages, the state ads that ballooned page count, and the profligate subscriptions for bureaucracies that semi-justified the empty circulation boasts. When Vicente Fox's election ended the PRI's 70 years of one-party rule in 2000, the final subsidies ended, and many newspapers seemed doomed.

Five years later, Mexico City boasts a re-invented press that is at least the equal of any city north of the border -- and includes papers that are simply better than the average U.S. daily when it comes to design, use of color, reader friendliness, and marketing innovation.

Some of the old paper revitalized themselves, and new papers with a modern sensibility opened in the city, among them the Junco family's Reforma and Grupo Milenio's beautiful and serious tabloid Milenio.

The result is exhilarating for any fan of newspapers. The many street hawkers for Reforma -- a paper still unavailable in the kiosks controlled by a union that dislikes its pro-market editorial line -- now also sell a downmarket tabloid called Metro. The 89-year-old El Universal is a beautifully designed broadsheet that on Monday, April 4, ran 204 pages. Its long-time popular tab, El Grafico, has in the last couple of years been redesigned to at last deserve its name.

Perhaps the most innovative paper I encountered was Tribuna. It's a tiny, narrow thing, 13.5 inches tall and just 5.5 inches across -- perfect for Mexico City's sardine-can subway cars and the overcrowded "colectivo" buses.

In 16 pages that Monday, Tribuna devoted 20 very short stories to the two big stories of the day: the preparations for the Pope's funeral and the national controversy over the attempt to keep Mexico City's mayor out of the presidential race next year by indicting him for allegedly disobeying a court order in a minor land dispute.

Tribuna starts sports on its double truck and keeps it going for two more pages. That's followed by a crossword and horoscope page, a full-page ad by CineMark theatres disguised as movie listings, a full-page nude blonde, and finally a couple of pages of entertainment news.

This ultra-compact sells for a single peso, or about 9-cents, in a city where the quality papers sell for 12 pesos and the downmarket tabs are mostly six pesos. Tribuna runs the price -- "a peso" -- repeatedly in red along the top and bottom of the paper. "'A peso' is a very common phrase ... in Mexico," Adrian Alvarez, the Mexican newspaper designer now working on the Rumbo papers in Texas, told me by e-mail. "The street vendors of many products that sell for one peso, like gum or candy, use this phrase a lot: 'a peso, a peso.'"

Tribuna states in its masthead that it's a publication of CIPSA, and that it's in the second year of its "second epoch." It says it sells 47,000 of the 57,000 copies it distributes daily. General Director Alfredo Leal Cortes did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment about the paper.

Another newcomer to Mexico City is R?cord, a bright, oversized tabloid devoted to sports. It's a completely full-color product that looks a lot like the sports dailies of Spain and France that are always taking home an armful of prizes from the Society of News Design.

Mexico City even has a new and gorgeous broadsheet, El Diario DF, now in its second year.

This new generation of publishers is also marketing in innovative ways. When we sat down to eat breakfast at one of the many VIPS restaurants, the waitress laid down placemats with the front page of that day's El Financiero. The promotion was all the more impressive when I realized, after we had already ordered, that the restaurant chain is owned by Wal-Mart.


Unfortunately, the excitement of Mexico City's newspaper war is offset by the horror of the real war against newspapers and journalists that is going on in northern Mexico. In just the last few days, a newspaper owner was murdered, a radio reporter was shot eight times, and a newspaper reporter has disappeared. Here's what's been happening lately to journalists and news organizations around the hemisphere.


Maur?cio Melato Barth, owner and editor of the bimonthly newspaper Info-Bairros, took his family and went into hiding earlier this month following a March 23 attack in which unidentified assailants shot him twice in the legs at his home in the southern city of Itapema, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported. Info-Bairros has stopped publishing, and Barth told CPJ he does not know when he can return to work. He said the attack came after a series of articles denouncing government corruption in the city.


Offices of the national daily La Naci?n were attacked twice by gunmen in March, the anti-corruption journalists group Probidad reported March 30. On March 8, shots were fired at a guardhouse, and on March 23 three men fired eight shots from a passing automobile. "The motive is unknown, but the daily's editors fear the shootings are reprisals for publishing important denunciations against corruption," the group said.


Robenson Laraque, a reporter with the private radio station Tele Contact, died April 4 in a Cuban hospital from wounds received while covering a March 20 confrontation between United Nations troops and disbanded Haitian soldiers in the southwestern city of Petit-Goave. Laraque and other reporters had been watching the confrontation from the balcony of the radio station when he was struck by two shots to the head and neck, according to The Associated Press. A U.N. official in Haiti told CPJ that reports it was UN troops who fired the fatal shots are being investigated.


The accused killer of Radio Echo 2000 host Brignol Lindor was arrested March 30 by citizens in the town of Miragoane, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported. Joubert St-Just is alleged to have been one of several people who hacked Lindor to death with machetes in December 2001 in the city of Petit-Goave. "This arrest of one of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's 'chimeres,' or henchmen, testifies to the Haitian people's desire to put an end to terror, injustice and impunity, and it is now up to the government and judicial authorities to translate this desire into action," RSF said.


Raul Gibb Guerrero, owner of La Opinion newspaper in Poza Rica in the Veracruz state was shot to death April 8 by four gunmen who fired at least a dozen shots at the truck he was driving home. Gibb Guerrero had been driving back from the launch of a new newspaper in the nearby city of Martinez de la Torre, the AP reported in a story by Miguel Angel Hernandez. Veracruz state police said they had not yet determined a motive for the ambush, and are "not ruling out" that it could be related to his work.

On April 5, a radio reporter in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla, survived an attack by a gunmen who shot her eight times in the chest, abdomen, and legs as she showed up for work.

RSF reported April 8 the disappearance of Alfredo Jimenez, a reporter for the daily El Imparcial de Hermosillo who specialized in covering drug smuggling in the northern border state of Sonora. He had not been seen in a week and failed to show up for a scheduled meeting with a colleague, RSF said.


Pablo Fern?ndez, a contributor to the daily Primera Hora in the southern city of San Jose, has been the subject of death threats, RSF reported April 6. Over the past two years, the group said, he has "been the target of steady intimidation ... on account of his investigations of corruption involving local civil servants." Fern?ndez told the RSF he believes an imprisoned civil servant is behind the most recent threats, in which a person visited the newspaper and told him a contract had been put out on his life.


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