The legacy newspapers industry in México is composed of long-standing companies that are near to one hundred years old or more, such as (but not only) national titles El Universal (1916) Excélsior (1917), local titles such as El Informador (1917) in Jalisco, El Siglo de Torreón (1922) in Coahulia, El Diario de Yucatán (1925), El Imparcial (1937), in Sonora or El Norte (1938) in Nuevo León, as well as newspapers and journalistic holdings that were created in second half of the 20th century such as Organización Editorial Mexicana OEM (1976), El Financiero (1981), La Jornada (1984), Grupo Reforma (1993), and Grupo Milenio (2000). This mix between old and new companies sustains a hybrid and diverse system of national newspapers that blends authoritarian and democratic practices as well as traditional and modern forms of producing and managing newspapers.
At a local level, there are many newspapers. Some of them serve to a whole state, others to regions and cities. However, there is not a public and reliable census or directory that lists the characteristics of the local and regional newspapers' and printed industries in Mexico. There are two important trends that can be observed in the local level. First, in the past two decades, local newspapers have experienced concentration and centralisation processes, where media firms and holdings acquire local newspapers and then incorporate them into national groups. For example, by the end of the 20th century, Guadalajara, the second largest city in the country, had a strong local newspaper market composed of ten local companies. However, in the second decade of the 20th century, El Informador was the only traditional newspaper owned by a local family, and the rest of the newspapers were owned by national holdings such as OEM, Grupo Reforma, and Milenio. These patterns can be found in other states of the country.
Secondly, local newspapers, and journalism at large, have experienced serious threats from local governments and criminal organizations. According to Artículo 19’s report, “Democracia simulada, nada que aplaudir” (Simulated Democracy, Nothing to Applaud), Mexico has “silence zones” where newspapers and journalists in general cannot publish critical information about public issues and topics related to the war on drugs because their safety is jeopardized. For example, in 2017, in Chihuahua, Miroslava Breach, a journalist that worked for the newspaper La Jornada, was assassinated after publishing information related to drug cartels. However, Miroslava’s case only exemplifies a reality that pervades many states in Mexico, such Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Oaxaca and Guerrero. In these regions, local politicians and drug dealers have the power of controlling what is published in newspapers.
Historically, Mexican newspapers have had two important characteristics that define the industry's general business model. On the one hand, newspapers have presented a low readership. According to the Padron Nacional de Medios Impresos (National Registry of Printed Media), a registry by the Federal Governments’ Interior Ministry, national legacy newspapers present a readership that is lower than 200,000 copies per day. They tend to generate their income out of advertisement deals rather than readerships, although in the past three years some experts forecasted a slight surge in national readerships. Titles like left-leaning La Jornada reports a circulation of 69,752 (but a much higher print-run), centre-right leaning Reforma has a daily circulation of 132,262 whereas El Universal’s is 130,307 copies. In contrast, mass-oriented Nota Roja tabloids like El Gráfico and La Prensa have nearly twice as much with 285,558 and 287,321 copies, respectively, but still lower than in many other countries with smaller populations. Sports newspapers like Record (circulation 225,800) and Ovaciones (circulation 158,611) also have much larger readerships than elite-oriented newspapers.
These numbers show that in a country of 120 million inhabitants, legacy newspapers do not have a large readership base. Moreover, it shows that legacy newspapers are manly read by a social elite composed of politicians, public servants, investors, scholars, students, and so forth. Minority groups have at times organised to produce content that is relevant for them, however, there are no scholarly available sources that document these cases.
On the other hand, this industry has historically relied on a business model based on selling advertisement spaces to the different levels of government, that is, the federal, state, and municipal governments, as well as federal and local institutions of the legislative and judicial branches, buy advertisements to the press, as well as political parties and public-funded agencies. For example, former president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), spent roughly 38bn pesos in governmental advertisement for newspapers alone. This explains why observers believe that the press was generally supportive and uncritical of his first year in office’s policy reforms on education, labour and energy.
In contrast, during Andrés Manuel López Obrador current presidency (2018-2024), there have been some important changes in terms of austerity. In 2019 and 2020, his government cut 50% off in the budget allocated for advertisements in the media. However, he did these cuts without a clear and transparent public policy. Thus, the discretionarily spending is still in operation.
The economic exchange between national and subnational governmental branches and newspapers lacks transparency and is often discretional and, consequently, has historically perverted the relations between media and public institutions because it enables a system where governments have the possibility of controlling the press by allowing or denying the purchase of advertisements to Mexican media.
Within the vast supply of political and official advertisement formats, the most striking form is hardly acknowledged as paid advertising: the gacetilla. This format consists of a paid insert typically prepared by government press-officers to resemble a genuine newspaper article that aims to positively publicise government achievements. Contracted official advertising can also take place less explicitly through ‘hidden’ sponsored content such as front-paid interviews with patrons or out-of-character coverage of certain activities for the case of broadcast media. The most explicit—and trackable— form of official advertising are the typical paid adverts publicising official events, calls, achievements, announcements, and all sorts of information related to State-funded and State-managed agencies. Unlike the former two, these ads are the only ones clearly identified and presented as such and the most likely to be traced.
Hence, critics of the long-standing media reliance on governmental advertising believe that when a certain media house, either at the national or subnational level, become overtly critical or overtly supportive of a specific governmental figure or political party, this might not always be out of public interest or ideological affinity. Depending on the media’s management strategy, sometimes the tone of front-page coverage can be used as a tactic either to please or court an existing or potential governmental sponsor; or to pressure them into buying advertising space in the paper (or airtime in electronic media). This explains why we could potentially find a newspaper being one day sympathetic to a given political party or elected authority and years later, after a new election, become supportive to the opposite party.
This business model has gradually affected newspapers’ credibility, which are not the most trusted information sources. For instance, in a 2017 survey, Parametría documented that a 79 percent of respondents did not trust newspapers, 19 percent expressed to have moderate trust in the press, and only 2 percent reported to trust these media institutions.
This industry in Mexico has also suffered the symptoms of the financial crisis of many other newspapers' industries around the globe, such as a decline in the readership due to audience migration to other media platforms such as television, cable, and digital news, as well as the impacts of the financial global crises of 1994, 2002, 2008, and 2020, that led many private companies to stop buying advertising in the print versions of newspapers.
At the moment of writing these lines, and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional newspapers reported drops of up to 80% of the advertisement revenue and the forecast is grim for the industry. It is impossible to predict the exact outcome but is expected that many local newspapers will have to shut down operations. So far many newspapers decided to forego their printing editions (keeping only digital operations) and others have experienced severe downsizing and layoffs.
As a result of these economic crises, over the years Mexican newspapers have been in constant change, trying to find different survival means. Leading houses have made consistent efforts to participate in the online market via suscriptions, and some of them have sought to expand into multimedia and convergent journalistic models, such as Grupo Imagen and Milenio, which for more than a decade have expanded into radio, television and digital media. It remains to be seen to what extent are new digital business models being successful for newspapers and multimedia conglomerates being sustainable in the long term, since TV production costs are on the rise and the media market is increasingly pulverized.