07 May 2007

Siglo 21: Guadalajara's original muckrakers


The 15th anniversary of the 22 de abril de 1992 sewer explosion in Guadalajara passed recently so it seemed apt to recount the role of Siglo 21, an upstart newspaper that both predicted the imminent danger and provided thorough coverage of the explosion - unlike its derelict competitors, who were pushing the same old government line. The explosion changed journalism in Western Mexico; here's the story from the Miami Herald Mexico Edition:

National tragedy breathed new life into press

By David Agren/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Martes 01 de mayo de 2007

In the days leading up to April 22, 1992, residents in Guadalajara´s Sector Reforma neighborhood complained of an unpleasant gasoline odor coming from the sewer. Firefighters investigated, but their superiors reported at an April 21 press conference everything would be fine .

Alejandra Xanic, an intrepid reporter from the upstart newspaper, Siglo 21 (21st Century) took their comments skeptically, however. She stuck around and later encountered firefighters emerging from the sewers, who were openly worrying about a ticking time bomb under the streets. Xanic later filed a story on the imminent danger and based on her reporting, a map was drawn, showing the areas at greatest risk.

The front-page map proved prophetic. Shortly before 10 a.m. the next day, an explosion ripped up an eight-kilometer stretch of roadways, claiming more than 200 lives and leaving some 20,000 homeless. The competition, meanwhile, simply published unscrutinized accounts from the officials at the press conference.

The April 22, 1992 explosion ushered in vast social and political changes in the nation´s second-largest city. It also launched five-month-old Siglo 21 to prominence at a time when restrictions on the press were gradually loosening. Although it was only published for less than a decade, the independent newspaper radically transformed the news business in the region by practicing civic journalism, instead of feting the political classes. According to its original editor, Jorge Zepeda Patterson, the newspaper largely achieved its objective of playing a role in fomenting an open and more democratic society.


Somewhat ironically, Siglo 21 was founded by Alfonso Dau, the cousin of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor of Guadalajara. In the early 1990s, few independent newspapers existed, although La Jornada in Mexico City, El Imparcial in Hermosillo and El Diario de Yucatán were increasingly going against the standard pro-establishment line.

To help bring the concept to Guadalajara, Dau recruited Zepeda, an academic from the Colegio de Michoacán, who had planned on pursuing a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne in Paris, as his editor. And rather than simply copy a U.S.-style newspaper or one of the more independent Mexican publications, the pair drew the inspiration for Siglo 21 from El Pais, a Spanish newspaper founded after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

"I liked the role that El Pais had played in the Spanish transition," Zepeda explained in an interview last year, adding that they saw parallels in the Spanish and Mexican experiences."Our hope was ... that Siglo 21 fulfill a role similar to what El Pais had in its country."

After Zepeda had spent time learning the ropes at El Pais, the pair started Siglo 21 in November 1991.

The paper debuted at a time when vices were still rife in Mexican journalism. Many reporters sold advertising and augmented their incomes by penning favorable articles for their political clients. A government newsprint monopoly had previously denied paper to newspapers going against the PRI. Investigative journalism was uncommon.

In Guadalajara, Siglo 21 went up against two strong competitors, El Occidental and El Informador, which were both solidly behind the local establishment. Neither engaged in much in-depth reporting, but both were commercially strong - especially El Informador.

"(El Informador) was an institutional newspaper," Zepeda recalled. (Somewhat ironically, Zepeda now edits Mexico City magazine Día Siete, which is distributed in Guadalajara by El Informador.)

"It was a newspaper that didn´t present conflicts ... it curried favor with the political classes."
By contrast, Siglo 21 almost exclusively hired young reporters with no journalism experience. The newspaper paid better salaries. Reporters would generally write only one story a day and tackled tough subjects the competition wouldn´t.

Despite its maverick approach, the newspaper struggled for the first six months. Circulation stagnated at 4,000 copies a day.

Then the explosions came.

Gasoline from a Pemex pipeline had leaked into the sewer system. Theories abound as to what caused the leak and subsequent explosions - gasoline theft from clandestine pipeline connections, the accumulation of chemicals and solvents discarded by auto repair shops in the zone, and the construction of a subway line have all been mentioned - but the impact devastated a working-class zone southeast of the city center.


Having been the only newspaper to report on the imminent danger, Siglo 21 naturally led its peers in covering the disaster - and the inept government response. Its reporters lived with the homeless and blew the whistle on the rampant pilfering of relief supplies.

The paper also mercilessly skewered the government response and sought out the responsible parties. The state governor and mayor of Guadalajara - the cousin of Siglo 21´s owner - eventually left their posts. And while Siglo 21 dedicated 80 percent of its pages to coverage of the tragedy, the competition kept running the official government explanations - and bizarrely, non-urgent stories.

For the competition, "It was just another story," recalled Luis Miguel González, editorial director of the Público newspaper in Guadalajara, who covered the explosion for Siglo 21.
According to Zepeda, El Occidental ran a front-page story about "hunger in Russia" on the day following the explosion.

"I´m pretty sure that in Russia the explosion in Guadalajara was the most important story," he said.

In the days following the explosion, Siglo 21´s circulation soared to 40,000 copies, which made the newspaper "untouchable," although Zepeda said the federal government asked Siglo 21 to back off for "reasons of national security" as it was feared making Pemex look inept would diminish Mexico´s stature in NAFTA negotiations.

After the explosion coverage quieted down, Siglo 21 kept up its muckraking ways - and demonstrating its non-partisan approach. The paper reported on misdeeds that led to the ousting of the National Action Party (PAN) mayor of Zapopan. But frictions between Dau and Zepeda were becoming untenable. The new PAN administration in Guadalajara uncovered documents suggesting the PRI had paid Siglo 21 inflated advertising rates.

The end finally came after Zepeda received unsettling news from former President Ernesto Zedillo. During a trip to Guadalajara, Zedillo met with Zepeda and recounted how Dau offered Siglo 21´s support for the 1994 PRI presidential campaign in exchange for five million pesos.

The president reputedly told Zepeda in 1996, "In my 16 years of politics, I had never encountered such extortion."

After a terse confrontation with Dau, Zepeda quit. The former editor Zepeda later founded Público and in a fatal blow to Siglo 21, more than 90 percent of the newspaper´s staff went over to the new publication. Siglo 21 eventually folded after Dau reportedly failed to pay his employees.

Público was sold to the Milenio chain shortly after Zepeda founded the newspaper in 1997. A well-financed competitor was coming to Guadalajara with a US$18 million war chest. Zepeda feared he couldn´t compete on a commercial level.

Despite Siglo 21´s demise, Luis Miguel González said the newspaper accomplished its objectives. And Zepeda agreed.


Dave Miller said...

great post david.

AC Uribe said...

Funny think, collective thought... I worked for Siglo 21 and Publico and I was going through some documents for a presentation in my PhD and found this. The great part is that - from all that I've read until now - your article is the most "non biased" I've seen. Greetings and enjoy the city!

Anonymous said...

I represented Siglo 21 from 1993 until August 6th of 1997 when they went down. Your story is almost dead on. Their demise came for 3 factors 1. The company owed a lot of money to the Seguro Social. 2. The company owed Hacienda a considerable amount of back taxes and 3. The company borrowed a large amount of money from Bancomer in the early 90's which was in dollars not in pesos, then the peso started its devaluation process in 1994 and ending about 1997 which double Siglo 21 financial debt.

But you are right 90% or better of the bulk of the employees left overnight. I remember the day after this happened the amount of pages from the publication droped from an avarage of about 60 or so to 6.

I always thought it was a great paper but very poorly administrated.

Ramses Frangie