Death of a Newspaper

When I began the process of launching the first pan-Latin American media research survey in 1994, I collected newspapers from all over the region.  In a city like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires, there are usually about half a dozen newspapers.  Mexico City has more than 30, none of which had a circulation of more than 100,000.  

As the saying goes, something is rotten in Mexico City because there is no way that a daily newspaper with a circulation of 10,000 can stay in business.  When I got to Mexico City, I spent some time watching people at the newsstand outside the Zapata metro station (note: I took the photo below).  Very few people were buying newspapers, which is even worse because those printed copies were not being read.

Eventually I read about the practice that is known as gacetillas.  For a consideration of a sum of money, a newspaper is willing to place a political story on the front page.  For example, you would think that the front page would carry an item such as the United States invading Panama; instead, it was the governor of Guerrero State addressing a bunch of agricultural students in his state.  For a politician in a small state with national aspirations, this is probably the only way to build any name recognition in the capital city.  This is paid advertising disguised as editorial material.

The following story is about yet another small local newspaper in Mexico City getting embroiled in an ongoing scandal.  This is not to say that all newspapers in Mexico City are rotten.  I can think of at least one exception, and unsurprisingly its name is Reforma ("reform" in English).


When the entire editorial staff of one Mexico's best newspapers quit a couple of weeks ago, hardly anyone was surprised.

The editors and reporters of El Independiente had spent weeks enduring the jeers and snickers of fellow reporters and former readers after a national TV anchorman dressed as a clown showed a video of the paper's owner bribing a politician. The proprietor, Carlos Ahumada, fled the country soon after. Piling on the misery, federal authorities subsequently raided the newspaper's offices as part of what they said was a money-laundering investigation.

El Independiente was launched 10 months ago, under the motto "Journalism the Country Needs," accompanied by a nationwide publicity blitz and employing some of the country's best and most well-known journalists. It was a serious daily newspaper with national distribution and an investigative bent. Ahumada, a construction magnate who owns a couple of soccer teams and dabbles in the poultry business, invested millions of dollars and promised to keep his hands off the paper's content. In the beginning, the formula worked.

"Within three months, we published an investigation about illegal building permits that caused the removal of the secretary and the sub-secretary of the environment," the paper's former editor Raymundo Rivapalacio told me. "Within seven months, 28 functionaries were being investigated."

Counting how many heads you've taken is a fine, if slightly ghoulish, objective measure of success in investigative journalism. Subjectively, too, the paper was good: well-designed, enjoyable to read, and, with its tabloid format, easy to deal with on Mexico's crowded public transportation.

But an odor of corruption leaked out under the owner's door from the start. In the month the paper launched, Carlos Ahumada found himself involved in a scandal over his purchase of a soccer team. Rivapalacio says he lobbied Ahumada to sell the paper immediately, but without success.

Then, at the beginning of March, the grainy black-and-white video of Ahumada was all over television. The videotape that sent Ahumada into flight was actually the third in a series of secretly recorded tapes shown on Mexican television. On March 3, the Mexico City mayor's closest political ally, Rene Bejarano, went on a morning news program to decry the shady behavior and outright bribery seen on the first couple of videos. Filming in the neighboring studio was the country's keenest news analyst, Brozo, who happens to dress up like a clown, complete with green hair and a bright red nose. As Bejarano launched into his lecture, a conservative politician handed Brozo a videocassette. Brozo put the cassette in a VCR and suggested that he and Bejarano watch it together.

On the video, Bejarano watched himself accepting what appeared to be a $45,000 bribe from Ahumada and talking about what he was going to deliver in exchange. The money didn't fit in the suitcase, and after a comic battle with the zipper, he resorted to stuffing wads of American dollars into various pockets in his suit. Bejarano departed Brozo's studio looking suicidal; later that day he quit the party after linking a number of other prominent politicians to the money. Soon after, Ahumada absconded to the Cuban resort of Varadero, from whence the Mexican government has been trying to get him extradited.

Many in Mexico believe the series of videotapes—there have been more, all seeming to involve Ahumada—was meant to discredit Mexico City's mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The mayor, a populist with a reputation for personal austerity and honesty, appeared to be the first leftist in years with a real shot at the presidency.

But President Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party, which at the very least managed the distribution of the corruption tapes, found an instrument to put the brakes on Lopez Obrador in the person of Federico Döring, the congressman who gave the recording to Brozo.

Lopez Obrador says Ahumada entrapped city officials and made the recordings out of revenge—the mayor had been trying to push Ahumada out of the city contracting business because of alleged irregularities and rip-offs in the builder's multimillion-dollar construction contracts. But half a dozen of the mayor's prominent associates have been linked to the scandals, and his popularity has plummeted.

In a few weeks, Ahumada morphed from a slightly shady businessman into the most hated man in Mexico, "the lord of the bribes," as commentators called him. But just days before he fled the country, he still resisted the staff's attempts to convince him to sell the paper, apparently seeing it as the only public platform from which he could defend himself.

Eventually, Rivapalacio and the rest of the paper's staff saw that they weren't going to be able to save El Independiente, so they announced their mass resignation on the front page, leaving the paper to Ahumada's brother-in-law and a skeleton crew he brought in from another daily.

If it survives, El Independiente seems likely to follow the path of Uno Más Uno, a once respectable daily recently bought by a businessman eager for political connections. Newspaper analysts now describe it as "a servile friend of the governor of the state of Mexico." Such servile journalism, in which running a newspaper or other media outlet is just a way to support other businesses, was long the model in Mexico. And with some exceptions, it still is. In a magazine interview last year, Ahumada said he wasn't interested in media issues: El Independiente was just another business.

The lesson, it seems, is that it's dangerous to have a man like Carlos Ahumada, a businessman who depended on the public treasury, traded political favors throughout the country, and had little interest in the media itself, in the field. Writers here have told me that journalists interested in starting a magazine try to find a small-time businessman with a relatively narrow ambit to be the proprietor; that way, they're less likely to run up against his commercial interests in their reporting.

Meanwhile, Rivapalacio has moved on. When I met him, he was in the midst of nailing down a job with one of the country's best newspapers, one run by a family whose primary business is the media business.