Quieter South of the Border

Corporate shifts at Knight-Ridder cost the Merc control of its Mexico City news bureau, the last such source of Mexico news in the Bay...

In Mexico, there are small towns populated almost entirely by women, because the men have gone to California to work the harvests. There are counties in Mexico whose local economies boom and bust with changes in the black-tar heroin and methamphetamine markets in cities like San Francisco. There are drug tycoons so rich their profits flow like a stream through the California banking system.

It's a surreal, magical place, incomprehensibly different from the United States. Yet Mexico's fate is deeply intertwined with California's. Mexico's descendants are heirs to California's political future; corporations from San Francisco and other U.S. cities are poised to shape Mexico's economic future. Political and economic tremors there cause demographic shifts here; the whims of politicians and financiers here provoke economic panic there.

Two places couldn't share a more intimate, distant, contorted relationship.
And as of now, that relationship is no longer covered directly by any major Bay Area media.

Thanks to a just-announced restructuring by its parent, Knight-Ridder Inc., the San Jose Mercury News will no longer directly control the newspaper chain's Mexico City bureau, the last to have been run by a Bay Area newspaper.

The San Francisco Chronicle uses wire-service copy and free-lancers, and occasionally sends a staff reporter to cover big events. The Examiner uses wire services and free-lancers.

“It's kind of a depressing topic,” says Chronicle Foreign Editor Mark Abel. “There's discussion of having a bureau in Mexico City opened. I'm in favor of it, a lot of people are in favor of it. But the very top management has not been persuaded yet. It might happen later this year.”

The distinction between overseas coverage run with an eye to its relevance to the Bay Area vs. overseas coverage run by editors in Washington or New York can seem subtle at times — especially when it comes to widely covered stories.

But in the case of the Mercury News, that regional touch had meant giving Bay Area readers stories that made foreign events seem relevant, interesting, worth trying to understand.

Rather than use staff writers to track every convulsion of ongoing Mexico stories, the Merc would use wire copy for the widely covered news events, reserving its bureau reporter for weeks-long investigative sojourns into Mexican business, immigration, and other issues, says Esther Schrader, who served as the Mercury News/Knight-Ridder correspondent in Mexico City from 1993 to 1996.

“A new correspondent from the New York Times once told me he didn't see why local papers ran bureaus down there. He said, 'Why don't you just subscribe to the New York Times' wire service?' It's obvious: The New York Times wouldn't write about things that affect San Jose,” says Schrader, who now works for the Los Angeles Times. “Rather than say, 'Migrants are going across the border,' we'd track one family from Michoacan to California. When we went to Chile, we found that the California wine couldn't break into the Mexican market because Chilean wineries had a lock on Mexico. We were always looking for things to make it relevant to California.”

As part of a plan to better use the $2 million a year it spends on foreign bureaus, Knight-Ridder intends to wrest control of eight such bureaus from its four largest papers. Instead, foreign bureaus will be run by a single foreign desk in Washington. The Mercury News currently runs Knight-Ridder bureaus in Hanoi, Tokyo, and Mexico City. Under the new scheme, the San Jose paper will keep full control over its Hanoi bureau, and maintain at least partial control of the Tokyo bureau, while relinquishing management of the Mexico City bureau to the Washington desk.

The move will allow better coordination among the chain's papers, says Gary Blonston, who will oversee the new foreign desk as Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau chief.

But some people at the chain fear that improved coordination among the various papers isn't worth the risks posed by the new scheme. They worry that foreign bureaus' coverage could be diluted in the effort to make stories more palatable to a greater number of Knight-Ridder outlets. In addition to large papers in Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit, and San Jose, Knight-Ridder owns papers in many smaller markets, where editors don't believe their readers are interested in long, investigative stories.

The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was quoted in the New York Times last week expressing concern that the reorganization might result in stripped-down coverage.

Francine Kiefer, the Mercury News' foreign and national editor, declined to comment for this story and referred questions to Blonston.

Not everyone believes papers need foreign bureaus in a world where most countries are wired into the Internet, international air travel is cheap and easy, and U.S. satellite dishes suck up more foreign broadcast news every day than could be watched in a lifetime.

But experienced news executives at papers in markets such as Dallas and Houston believe direct coverage is so important that they invest significant sums staffing Mexico bureaus.

The Dallas Morning News has a two-reporter bureau in Mexico City, a reporter in Monterrey, and a U.S.-Mexican border bureau in El Paso. Dudley Althaus, one of the highest-profile reporters at the Houston Chronicle, works out of the paper's Mexico City bureau.

The Bay Area doesn't enjoy the same largess when it comes to Mexico news.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle sends Robert Collier, a sophisticated, knowledgeable reporter, to Mexico several times a year to supplement coverage from free-lancers and the wires. Collier has used his trips to Mexico to write compelling stories about emerging markets, finance, Mexican business, and politics.

But it isn't the kind of off-the-beaten-path coverage a true bureau could provide.

As Foreign Editor Abel wrangles with Chronicle chieftains for his Mexico City bureau, the ensuing months will tell whether the reorganization has hurt the Mercury News' Mexico coverage.

The paper's readers might use last Saturday's paper as a benchmark. The front page features a story by Mexico City correspondent Ricardo Sandoval describing conspiracy theories that have accompanied the reported death of drug king Amado Carillo Fuentes.

The story describes a “complex Mexican persona” flavored with “fatalism mixed with a cynical wit and deep mistrust of the official story.” Carillo's reported death, as Sandoval explains it, is the latest in a bizarre pageant of botched police investigations, bewildering media frenzies, and labyrinthine conspiracy theories that have lately followed the deaths of prominent Mexicans.

Sandoval's story accurately depicts the magical-realism sense of the world that Mexicans bring to the fields of Northern California. It hints at the boisterous fatalism that rings through ranchera songs on San Francisco radio stations, and the black-humor iconography of San Francisco's sureno street gangs.

It's a sense of the world Bay Area residents would do well to understand. Whether they'll find it in the pages of their local dailies for now remains to be seen.

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