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The World

English Paper in Mexico Folds

January 17, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — At first glance, the demise three weeks ago of Mexico City's only English-language newspaper, the News, seems merely the latest instance of a genteel, old-school publication done in by aggressive, high-tech competition and the post-Sept. 11 advertising slump.

But a closer look suggests that the 53-year-old tabloid, which rolled out its final edition Dec. 31, also was the casualty of social and political changes, both inside Mexico and within the cloistered world of multinational businesses and the expatriate communities they spawn.

With a low-paid, high-turnover staff of a couple dozen reporters and editors and a circulation usually hovering between 8,000 and 10,000, the News for decades offered readers a concise (critics would say bare-bones) digest of North American, international, business and sports news.

Its core audience consisted of frequent-flying businesspeople, diplomats, tourists and expats from the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada. Local staff reporting was liberally augmented with dollops of wire-service copy.

Priced at 7 pesos, or about 65 cents, the News cost a pittance in comparison with bigger, far better publications available here such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Along with its 65-year-old Spanish-language sister publication, Novedades, which also folded New Year's Eve, the News was regarded as an ally of the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, the oligarchy that ran Mexico for seven decades.

Owned by the deep-pocketed, politically entrenched O'Farrill family, the News fought off all English-language comers, notably the broadsheet Mexico City Times in the 1990s. But when President Vicente Fox swept away the PRI monopoly in the 2000 elections, some observers say, the O'Farrill dynasty and its publications began to lose clout.

The owners have kept a low public profile since bidding readers adios in a parting message written, somewhat oddly, in Spanish.

"After the PRI got knocked out, they lost a lot of their advertisers," said Matthew Brayman, 32, a former managing editor at the News who left the paper in 2000 and now works for a Mexico City business magazine.

Like other cub reporters whose image of journalism was closer to Graham Greene traipsing through exotic hot spots than Hildy Johnson banging out deadline cops stories, Brayman was drawn to the News by the opportunity it offered for landing an overseas assignment with little or no experience.

"It's no Washington Post, but it gives people a start in international journalism," he said. Among the paper's more illustrious alumni is Pete Hamill, the noted New York journalist who once served as its editor.

Many believe that the increasing availability of satellite and cable-television news programs such as CNN and the BBC's World Service, plus online versions of major U.S. newspapers, had steadily eroded the News' readership.

But Thomas Niles, a former U.S. ambassador and now president of the United States Council for International Business, also points to dramatic changes in the makeup of English-speaking communities in Mexico City and other world capitals.

Until recently, Niles said, the overseas staffs of American multinational corporations tended to be mostly U.S. expatriates. Today, multinationals prefer to recruit local talent whenever possible.

"It's a global phenomenon," Niles said. "It's a function of cultural sensitivity and money. Bottom line, it costs less."

Although some media analysts still are scratching their heads at how a rich, well-connected niche publication could fold so suddenly, rumors that the News and Novedades might be sold had circulated for months.

Cresencio Velazquez seemed unfazed by the development as he hawked magazines and newspapers outside the University Club in the city's center. "Before, 10 years ago, when there were more gringos here, I sold many copies of the News," he said, "but not now."

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