Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A reader and MGRR trade thoughts on a free press, independent journalism and who's NOT paying the tab

Opinion -

Mérida, Yucatán --
On May 31 I published this article: A "free press" in Mexico - but who's really paying the tab?. It only got about 100 reads, a very small number for MGRR. That's a shame, because it was and is a worthwhile piece . . . in my unbiased opinion.

Today an anonymous reader left a comment in response to that article which greatly moved me - perhaps "agitated" would be a more descriptive and accurate word. So I replied to his/her comment.

One of the nice things about having you own rag is that you can publish what you want. Nobody can fire you, cut your pay or demote you to traffic accident stories or the local police court docket. Nobody, even here in Mexico, can arrest you for writing. What you lack in a regular paycheck you gain in that which is priceless - freedom of expression.

The following is my exchange with the reader. And don't miss the Comments following this post, two of which were written by professionals with years of experience in journalism and publishing. One describes the state of the industry in Mexico - both Spanish and English journalism - as "pathetic."


June 27, 2012 12:02 PM

Too true, Mexico´s supposed "free press" just plain does not exist. The few that I´ve seen pop up here and there get shot down (sometimes literally) by the big guys. Sadly, the general community does not seem to even be aware of the situation. But, as seen by the YoSoy 132 movement, students are noticing and trying to do something about it.

Worsening the problem, local business men vie for ad space in the bigger papers, rather than supporting the community free press providers, helping in quickly putting the smaller papers out of business.

Mexico based "free press" in English unfortunately falls in the same bracket, either they paint glossy, happy stories to attract baby-boomers and advertisers hoping to do the same, or they tell the truth and die off. One can easily see the truth of this by checking out gringo papers in any of the major tourist locations or retirement hot-spots. Soft news is the name of the game, try reporting (like you Ed) with guts and truth and watch advertisers turn and run from your publication.

Generally, expats want the news, they want to know what´s going on in the community they have chosen to spend the rest of their life in. The sad truth though is that they are apparently not willing to support them financially and loyally. News for both expats and locals is not going to change until the community recognizes this and stops supporting and padding the pockets of the big guys.

Edward V. Byrne
June 27, 2012 1:50 PM

How I agree with you, my friend. Truly, you are preaching to the choir.

Here in Mérida, for example, if one writes a book review about a trivial self-published work not worth five minutes of anybody's attention, or a restaurant review describing some new Yucatecan dish, or a review of schools where you can study Spanish for the 50th time in your life, one may eventually pick up some commercial advertisers. And if one skillfully targets U.S. and Canadian expats with glowing real estate reviews and "life style change" enticements to this "wonderful, forever safe, City of Peace," he/she will likely reel in even more paid sponsors.

There are a few local advertising blogs and "news sites," as they call themselves, which make a nifty buck or two - almost exclusively off their fellow expats - by pursuing just such strategies. Because they got in on the ground floor years ago, they'll probably continue to enjoy a permanent monopoly on commercial advertising. And yet the "news" they peddle is not just "soft," as you put it so well. It's no news at all, measured by any legitimate definition of the term.

But yet something very interesting happens. Although I've been writing MGRR for less than 10 months and have no commercial sponsorship whatever, my readership - continuously reported for anyone to verify at the bottom of this page, and beyond my control to manipulate - is much larger than many news (or other) blogs of my size. Of course, most sites like mine refuse to disclose their traffic stats.

I write every story myself, based upon local and national Spanish sources. I don't steal others' stories and paste them into my own page, as do hundreds of "news" blogs in this country and elsewhere. (I could identify one particularly notorious offender which reports on Mexico's drug war using nothing but stolen content, including hundreds of legally copyrighted articles - but I don't want to give them free advertising here. A well known Mérida commercial blog recently recommended that website of cyber thieves to its expat customers, calling it a "great source" for Mexico-related hard news in English!)

My stats prove demonstrate that MGRR is where readers from all over the world increasingly come to get uniquely insightful news about Mexico, not available anywhere else. The U.S. is my #1 country of readership, followed by Mexico, Canada and Europe. Some MGRR readers in Mexico are non-English speakers who use Google Translator (in fact, I can see that in real time). But most are native English speakers. They're expats, in other words, who want to know what's really happening down here, rather than read someone's sugary spin of often very ugly events. Of course, they don't want to pay for it.

I'll continue to write, even though nobody gives me a dime to do so. People have a right to know and they deserve to know, because the news belongs to everybody. Meanwhile, those who wouldn't tell you the truth if you held a loaded gun to their heads will probably continue to reap the advertising revenues, simply because they moved into town first (and because they're willing to peddle fairly-tale stories to any and all takers, of which there will always be many).

I can't really blame them, though. A smart businessman/woman will realize that people invariably seek out hard, accurate, interesting news, wherever and however they can get it. That's where the advertising dollar ultimately is best invested.

Aug. 30 - A sign of the times, as another U.S. newspaper proves it can read the writing on the wall


  1. I admire your spunk and your courage, Edward.

    I could not agree more with the pathetic state of 'journalism' here in Mexico, in both the Spanish and English media. But especially in English, advertisers expect and even demand that all content reflect nothing but blue skies.

    How absurd! This is not a perfect world, and Mexico is definitely no exception. But what disturbs me the most is that, in general, tourists, snowbirds, and even many long-time foreign residents simply do not want to know the facts. They prefer to believe that having discovered "paradise" they are somehow special, and come hell or high water, no evidence to the contrary will sway them.

    I love Mexico, and have worked as a journalist/writer/editor here for 22 years. But how I long to get my teeth into topics that matter! Subjects that affect us all and are not simply superficial, like bizarrely effusive restaurant reviews, etc.

    But in truth, I fear government retribution if I am deemed to have crossed the line and talked about anything that might be construed as negative. More to the point though, peer pressure (those with vested interests like a home or business here) is my biggest inhibitor to free speech. The general collective assumption being that if we really love Mexico and our lives here we will continue to collude in the nothing-but-blue-skies fantasy.

    As journalist, I feel ashamed.

  2. Thank much for writing.

    I have utterly NO fear of "government retribution." I know the law and I obey the law -- Mexican law -- and I believe the law will in turn protect me. If it turns out that the law means nothing here -- which I emphatically do NOT believe -- then I'll be writing articles for the rest of my life which the Mexican government would prefer not to read. Nothing, and no one, in the Republic of Mexico intimidates me in the least, because there is no force on the face of the earth more powerful than the printed word.

    And of course, if the WORST thing which ever happens to me in life is that my U.S. passport gets stamped DEPORTED FROM MEXICO, I've had a pretty easy time of it, haven't I?

    As for those expats, especially Americans and Canadians, who think it's all heaven in Mexico, I have some simple advice.

    The medieval Italian author Dante wrote the famous "Divine Comedy," which included three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Make sure you read all three parts.

  3. Here's a comment from a reader which got "misposted" under the May 31 story (linked above).

    June 27, 2012 3:29 PM

    Ed, I´m a silent reader, and I apologize for maintaining my anonymity, thanks for giving me the option. I would like you to know that I have read nearly every single one of your articles, from day one, including the wonderfully fun comments. But, I have never felt the compulsion to comment as I did today while reading about free press in Mexico.

    This topic is a sore spot for me, coming from a family of publishers in the US and knowing the work that goes into journalism, I sincerely applaud you. If there´s anyone who knows how much time goes into preparing even a single article, I do. I´m not a great writer and I don´t pretend to be, my work with publishing was primarily focused on selling to local advertisers. My poor writing is probably why I´ve never commented, I´m terrified of getting into a battle of words with you... But, I rarely disagree with the information you provide.

    Also, congratulations on your readership! From a marketing stand-point I can tell you advertisers have no idea what they are missing out on. They think they know where everyone goes, like that sad and horribly mis-informed blog/magazine that you mentioned, I´m pretty sure anyone who´s spent time in Yucatan knows who we´re talking about (and no I don´t believe it´s that short-lived English newspaper you once wrote for.) But, you´re right, if one writes about making the perfect taco/panucho vs. the murder of a gay man or the gloves-off politics in Yucatan.... well like you said, I´m preaching to the choir.

    It´s a shame the local expat businesses don´t know the kind of impact a true "free-press" publication has and the incredible amount of readership they receive. But, not only readership, but your intense readers as well, readers that comment and express their opinions (sometimes to the enjoyment of the rest of us). If they did I think that "soft-news" online blog would be out of business in no time, local expat business owners might realize that their advertising dollars have so far been terribly wasted... Eeeck!

    Well, between you, your readers, and I, I can tell you this much, I´d much rather read your articles about whatever strikes your fancy than about tiled floors... oh and poorly disguised advertising "articles".

    Best of luck to you friend! And may some day people wake up and begin to support their local community news sources rather than the crooks.

  4. I'm not a journalist and have no desire to be one. However, I am a customer of journalism, if you will. Every day I consume what journalists produce. I would like to believe that the news I read in newspapers and on the Internet is the unbiased truth written as openly, honestly, accurately, and completely as the journalist has the ability to provide. However, I am not so naive as to believe such is always the case.

    I realize this sounds jaded and cynical, but why should the field of journalism be any different from anything else? Whether we're talking about government, education, medicine, science, religion, or any other field, the bottom line is usually money. A double whammy with journalism, because journalists report on all of the other fields. For most (but not all) journalists, it's the pressure from above in the form of employers, sponsors, politicians, etc. that determines what and how they write.

    If I were a foreign journalist living in Mexico, I think I'd be concerned about writing anything that could get me killed or deported or anything between those two extremes. I would only be concerned about those happy-news-only expats so far as they might report me to immigration for breaking the law by getting involved in Mexican politics.

  5. There is no doubt - none whatever - that journalism as a business enterprise, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is heavily about money. And sometimes nothing but money, which of course is the ultimate bottom line for any business.

    It's likewise clear from the discussion above that the profit motive often governs even the smallest publications, such as private blogs and independent news sites (which, by the way, are growing by leaps and bounds, really threatening traditional media sources -- just ask any recently terminated reporter).

    But the question is, is that the way it SHOULD be? Is that the way readers really WANT it to be? If local English readers here in Merida, for instance, primarily want to read the latest restaurant review, or want to read a purported "news article" about a private residence for sale which is nothing more than a poorly disguised real estate promotional brochure which someone has paid the website for, they shouldn't visit this page. That's not the content MGRR presents, or will ever present.

    But I think people really do want to know what's happening in the country and community where they have chosen to live. I think they want hard news first (and yes indeed, the "light" stuff as well, but as a side dish, not as the main course). They just don't expect to pay anyone for delivering hard news to them each day. That was the whole point of my comments above, as well as the comments left by three other people, two of whom have professional backgrounds in journalism and/or publishing.

    Respectfully, your last sentence -- "I would only be concerned about those happy-news-only expats so far as they might report me to immigration for breaking the law by getting involved in Mexican politics" -- shows that you don't have the vaguest notion of the law in this country. In fact, your statement strikes me as very similar to the nonsense a few local "expat leaders" use regularly to intimate their fellow expats.

    You really should get the facts on the last issue. This is Mexico, 2012, not the Third Reich, 1939.

  6. Sorry, a case of semantics or poor writing on my part. My concern would be about being reported to immigration by happy-news-only expats or anyone else for any infraction real or perceived on the part of the reporting party.

    Having immigration officials in uniform show up at a person's front door at a weird hour, clip board full of papers in hand, wanting to see a visa and a passport, asking permission to look inside the house, stating that someone had reported a visa violation . . . it can be a bit unnerving.

    1. This writer has followed up with yet a THIRD message, stating the following:

      "It did happen to me. It was not a random spot check by immigration officials. Someone falsely reported that I had a business (language school) in my house. My visa limited the kind of work I could legally do, which was to teach at one particular school. It did not take the immigration officials long to see that I did not have a school in my house. They were very polite and professional, and they apologized for the inconvenience.

      By the way, I know for a fact that immigration has done spot checks at language schools to make sure all the foreign teachers had work visas. I don't know if they still do, but it used to be standard practice at a school where I worked."

      My response: These additional facts put a VERY different spin on the entire issue than your second comment just above suggested. There is all the difference in the world between a work compliance check (FM-2 and/or FM-3 visa), on the one hand, and a "weird hour" visit because of ALLEGED MEDDLING IN POLITICS (which is EXACTLY what your FIRST comment above mentioned), by those who engage in journalism -- a trade expressly protected by Article 7 of the Mexican Constitution -- on the other hand.

      You're really all over the lot here, Reader. The underlying issue was, and remains, free press, independent journalism, etc. Not compliance checks on work visas. So the points I made in my Reply to you just below are accurate. One can express oneself fully in Mexico without fear that government agents will come in the night to haul one away. You should have never put that issue on the table in the first place if all you had in mind was a simple work visa experience which, it seems, was very fairly conducted and quite quickly resolved in your favor.

  7. Not to get too far afield from the main issue of the original post, BUT –

    I am unaware of anyone in this city ever having had the experience which your second comment might suggest. Perhaps you were speaking purely hypothetically, which is fine. But if those events actually happened to you, you had enormously bad luck. In fact, you may be in a club of just ONE.

    I have been told by multiple “voices of authority” which I trust – including regional INM personnel – that no one in officialdom here ever goes out doing what your comment implies, and that is my only purpose in addressing the subject now. There are no “raids” or spot checks of foreigners’ passports or visas, or anything remotely of the sort, based upon every source of information I have. No one shows up at anyone’s door “at a weird hour, clip board full of papers in hand, wanting to see a visa and a passport, asking permission to look inside the house.” That’s utter nonsense, in my opinion, and exactly the type of false (typically expat) rumor that I don’t want to go unanswered on the MGRR page. That kind of crap – pardon my poor Spanish – has been spread around in this city for far too long, by a handful of people whose primary interest is in misleading and manipulating other expats.

    A member of Mérida ‘s foreign community (I’ll leave it at that), who is given to writing on all sorts of topics about which he/she is woefully misinformed, spread a story far and wide last year (using a web site) about a person to whom the exact thing you describe supposedly happened. As the story went, the other person was in imminent danger of being deported for alleged “political activism.”

    I called the person. I spoke to the person, for about 20 minutes, some nine months ago. The person told me the entire story. The account rendered by the rumor-generator was totally false. In fact, local police – not immigration authorities – did pay a visit to the person, because someone had made the allegation that a tall, green, leafy plant was being grow on the sun terrace of the person’s home. The police politely asked for permission to look around the home, which the person granted, because he/she had nothing to hide. The police conducted a brief inspection of the home, apologized for the inconvenience, and left. Case closed, end of story.

    Here’s a saying for you to chew on: “A lie is half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on.”

    Note: The discussion of this collateral topic is now CLOSED, although I will continue to receive comments on the principal issue of the post (journalism).

  8. What happened to Armando Montano? The very last article he wrote was about the drug related shooting last week at the airport. Rumor here in the US is that they found him at the bottom of an elevator shaft a few days ago. There has been nothing from him since last week. No articles. No Facebook posts. No Twitter.