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— What finally crimped the custom was not a rush of morality, but President Salinas's selling off many government industries to private companies and the crash of the peso. "The government was bankrupt, so it couldn't spend so extravagantly," says Lawson. "But the practice persisted. Just at a lower volume."

Tijuana's chayote rates may have been lower than Mexico City, Lawson says, but not much: in Guadalajara the rates were roughly comparable with the capital's.

And then there was the PAN effect. "Traditionally, PAN engages much less in this sort of activity. And for that reason they've had quite negative press coverage from a print media [deprived of its unofficial payments]."

This by no means meant all journalists in Tijuana were on the take. But Dora Elena Cortés, Tijuana correspondent of Mexico City-based El Universal, says papers force their journalists into compromising their principles because they pay them so little. "The newspapers are literally sending them out to find money in some other ways. In my case, in order to maintain [my independence in] what I do and how I do it, I always have three jobs, all related to journalism. You have to keep looking for work to make ends meet. Personally, the media still does not put a real value to the job of a reporter. And then they kind of force the reporters to do what they do."

Daniel Hallin, who teaches a course in Latin American media at UCSD, says the end result of accepting government payments and government control is "passive journalism."

"The photojournalism in El Mexicano is very much focused on official images, as their journalism in general is," says the communications professor. "Photographs of everyday life and ordinary people that dominate [U.S.] photojournalism are a lot less prominent. They have pictures of...officials at meetings. Traditionally that's what Mexican journalism has been for and about: officials. Other kinds of social elites too, but especially officials."

But especially in Tijuana, says Hallin, rebel papers keep popping up. "Tijuana has always been diverse. Some are officially oriented, very close to the ruling party, not very independent, and then there are other newspapers in Tijuana that are much bolder and have been part of the process of change -- and that means, above all Zeta, the weekly.

"You've got to remember: Newspapers in Mexico have tiny circulations. They have very few readers. In a certain way they're not extremely important institutions as far as the mass public is concerned. Most Tijuanans are going to get their news from electronic media. So most of these Tijuana newspapers are very, very marginal enterprises.

"When you look at the content of El Mexicano, you can see that it is a traditional, officially oriented paper. The journalists do not do much gathering of information on their own. They mostly just go to press conferences and generally summarize what the officials have said. And they also do very little analysis or interpretation. It's really very dull. These newspapers have never really tried to build mass readership. So they're quite vulnerable once a more lively independent and also commercially active paper comes into town, one that really wants to build readership."

Which makes the coming months potentially fascinating for Hallin and Lawson and other Tijuana-watchers. It is said that publisher José Santiago Healy Loera has ridden into town with $8 million to invest in a newspaper. He has hired over 200 business and editorial staff and given them a new headquarters on the Vía Rápida Oriente in southeast Tijuana. "We will start with a print run of 20,000," he says on the phone from Hermosillo, "and hope to rise to 40,000."

"That reflects the kind of vacuum [that exists] in Tijuana," says Hallin. "In a certain way it's anomalous that Tijuana should not already have a strong independent daily newspaper. Because Tijuana is one of the more advanced cities in Mexico, socially and politically. The first city where the PRI lost its monopoly. I think this company rightly sees there's room for a competing paper."

Healy, the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant to Mexico, says his journalists will be sufficiently trained and paid enough to assure their independence. "We have more than 60 years in journalism in Sonora [with the respected El Imparcial] and for the last ten years in Baja California [with the Mexicali-based La Crónica]. The family company was founded by my grandfather. We don't belong to any political parties or groups. Our job is journalism and to tell the truth."

He's clearly banking on Tijuana's better-educated, upwardly mobile generation. He says his target reader is "anybody who earns more than three times minimum wage," which in Tijuana is 900 pesos a month ($90). "The lower and upper-middle classes." This city, he says, the fifth-largest market in Mexico, is "incredibly dynamic."

"El Mexicano is either going to have to become more independent or go down," Zeta's editor, Jésus Blancornelas, said recently.

Lawson's biggest fear is what he calls the William Randolph Hearst factor: that news-manipulating media barons will just replace today's news-manipulating government officials

"My difficulty," says Lawson, "will be gauging the extent to which editorial control is separated from ownership within the paper. You always have this problem whenever an owner [such as Healy] is also the editor in chief or is also very heavily involved in the editorial side. That's always a potential source of tension and conflict, exacerbated by the absence of a highly developed culture of professionalism within much of the news media in Mexico. In the United States you would have somebody who would push back against a publisher. That's hard to do in Mexico."

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