San Diego In mid-July, Tijuana's newest newspaper, Frontera, a daily with a circulation of 18,000, was involved in an incident that in many ways symbolizes the three-year-old paper's standing in Tijuana. "We had some problems with distributors in la linea, the border line, both in San Ysidro and Otay," explains Frontera publisher and chief executive officer José Santiago Healy. "For a long time we have wanted to sell our newspapers in this area with our own distributors like we do in other parts of the city. So we got permission from the authorities, finally. Three years ago we tried to get it, but they said we couldn't. I don't know why. But we recently got the permission, and we started to sell in la linea. But these union people, they said, 'Hey, you can't do this because this is our territory.' We said, 'We've got permission.' So we were selling probably for about ten days, and one day they pushed our people and told them to get out of there and threatened to punch them. Fortunately there wasn't any fighting. Our distributors said, 'We don't want any problems,' and they left. The next day we went back, the authorities with us, and we explained that we had been given permission to sell there, and now we're selling there again. We hope they understand that it's not strictly their territory, and we are there legally."
The incident caught the attention of Mayor Jesús González, who warned the distribution union not to provoke him and reminded them that the municipal government alone determines who can sell what and where. Healy characterizes the episode as a vestige of the "old way of doing things" left over in a rapidly changing Tijuana. "They feel like it was their territory because they're a union that was supported by the PRI and the Mafia for years."
According to Healy, combating such old ways has been a mission of the paper since the start. But he begins this story 65 years and several hundred miles away, in Hermosillo, capital city of the Mexican state of Sonora, south of Arizona. "We belong to a newspaper group called the Northwest Publishing Group. The company started 65 years ago in Hermosillo with the newspaper El Imparcial. It was founded in 1937, and my grandfather bought the newspaper in 1942. In 1990, after almost 58 years of working in the newspaper field, we had the opportunity to start a newspaper in Mexicali. So we started La Crónica. And then, after some years, we saw that Tijuana was growing a lot, and our circulation for La Crónica was growing here, so we came to Tijuana to see what was happening and to try to have more penetration with La Crónica. We did some focus groups and some marketing research, and we found that there was room for a new newspaper in Tijuana. We found that more than 50 percent of the people were dissatisfied with those newspapers. So we decided after all of this research to start a new newspaper."
That was in 1997, two years before the first issue of Frontera was printed. Healy, tall, well-dressed, and mustachioed, leans back in his leather chair behind the leather-topped desk in his 20- by-20-foot office. Ornately framed oil paintings hang on the walls and small bronze sculptures sit on the floor-to-ceiling maple display shelves on the wall behind him. Three of the sculptures are of eagles, the trademark of Frontera. "When we started," he recalls, "we decided we wanted a new kind of journalism for this area, more professional, more ethical. Journalism in Mexico, in the past, was very partial and controlled by the government. Newspapers weren't professional. And the focus groups we had done showed that the people felt that newspapers in Tijuana were not independent, that they were tied to the government and official sectors, and to private-sector groups. That's why six months before we launched the newspaper, we hired mostly young people right from the universities, and we put them through a period of training, two or three months. Almost everybody went through a training program here for a month, and then they went to Hermosillo for a month. That was very, very good for us, because we started with a young team, but they were very professional and ethical."
Established journalists were not hired during the paper's inception because, Healy says, "We didn't want them to come here with bad habits. But we wanted the paper to be professional from the very beginning. That's why we did the training. It took a little longer to get our people highly qualified, but it's better than hiring people who may be good investigative reporters but not as ethical as we would like here.
"There is a code of ethics in our company," Healy continues, "and anybody who receives any kind of gift or money [from an interview subject] will be terminated. It's still a common practice among journalists in Mexico. If you do an interview with some leader in the government, they give you a little tip. And it isn't just with government people. Other sectors -- businessmen, for example -- also give money to reporters. But people started noticing us because, from the first day, our people have said, 'No, thank you. I can't accept that.' And that established our reputation for independence."
Among some in Tijuana, Frontera has the reputation of being a Panista newspaper, meaning a supporter of the political party PAN, the party of Mexico's President Vicente Fox. Healy rankles at the suggestion. "Many people say that," he responds, "because before the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, we were one of the newspapers that was very critical of the PRI. So many people say, 'Oh, you are pro-PAN.' No, that's not it. We support democracy, and we support change to create a better country, but we're not for PAN or any party. In Baja California, the governor and the mayors are from PAN. We criticize them very often. For instance, we found that the mayor of Mexicali had bought some patrol cars for the police direct from an agency that belongs to the government. But, by law, when you buy a big item like that, you have to have a bid process. They didn't have that, and we published that news, and it was a very big scandal for the PAN in Baja."
Asked if Frontera has reached a position of influence in Tijuana, Healy nods and offers as evidence, "[The authorities] often follow our lead. A few times we've discovered something wrong, and two or three days after, or even the same day, the authorities do what they need to do. Two weeks ago we discovered a casino working illegally in Rosarito beside the Palenque, where the roosters fight. So we put that on the front page, and four days later the authorities closed the casino."
The building that houses both the Frontera offices and its printing press sits on the Vía Rápida Poniente, Tijuana's chief east-west artery, about three miles east of the San Ysidro border crossing. It's a modern building, though it incorporates elements of colonial Mexican architecture. You enter into a stone-tiled rotunda lit by high windows and halogen spotlights. Busy staff members bustle back and forth across a balcony at one end of the rotunda. Upstairs, the editorial lounge area is furnished with leather couches and mission-style coffee and end tables. The place has a posh air to it. "We decided to invest in a nice building because we wanted people to know that we came here to stay. We want to be permanent, like we are in Hermosillo and Mexicali. When they see this, they say, 'These people are serious.' And in a way, we think that to be a good newspaper, you give your people a very functional building. Our old newspaper in Hermosillo, El Imparcial, it's in an old building, and every year we have to open walls to retrofit the building, and it's very problematical. So we decided to build a functional building so that people would work better."
Like their building, the bulk of Frontera's readership is on the high end. "We are the number one in what we call the ABC market," Healy explains. "The A is the highest class, B is the upper-middle class, and C is the middle class. D is the lower-middle class. We also cover D but not as well as the ABC. E class is the lowest, and unfortunately, they don't read newspapers because it's an expensive product for them. The newspaper costs six pesos, and E class, they don't have the extra money to spend on it."
Healy convinced the paper's board to invest in the paper's design. "My job as publisher and CEO is to push some things like that. I thought we needed to have a very good and very good-looking newspaper from the beginning."
Frontera is visually striking. The first two and last two pages of each section display vivid color in the graphics. And the color photographs are crisp and lack the fuzziness often seen in color newspaper photos. But nice buildings and slick design aren't cheap, and Healy, when asked if the paper is profitable, answers, "Not yet. We are very near to being profitable. We just had a fiesta celebrating three years; now our plan is to be profitable in the fourth year. We're getting there. In fact, the last six months we have been profitable. But if you look at it over all three years, we haven't been profitable. But we're getting closer."